Story by Nicole Keck
Vacay.ca Family Travel Columnist
CHATHAM, ONTARIO — Dan Warrener stood smiling in his blue jeans, leaning casually against the dark wood of the antique banister inside the Kent Club, his eyes alive with excitement. “Have you seen that mall downtown? I just bought it. Pretty soon it won’t look like a big brick prison anymore because we’re totally renovating it to match the surrounding architecture.” So began my conversation with one of Chatham’s most influentia
l and enthusiastic investors. He is the co-founder of an important local industry that has done business with celebrities such as Jay Leno and Nicolas Cage. As I learned, Warrener had lots to be enthusiastic about.
About 300 kilometres southwest of Toronto, the municipality of Chatham-Kent is an unassuming region focused on agriculture that just so happens to have a big secret beginning to get out. The city of Chatham is in the midst of a period of revitalization, and as the months pass, so does its scenery. New businesses are opening, theatres are being restored, and people like Warrener are buying up beautiful old buildings, modernizing them and reviving them to their original splendour. The result is a downtown with a vibe that is vintage and nostalgic, as well as hip and up-and-coming.
The area’s retro fascination is largely due to RM Auto Restoration Ltd., the second-largest automotive restoration company in the world, and its auction house, RM Auctions Inc., the industry leader for quality collector cars and motorcycles. That is the reason car buffs like Leno and Cage know about this small southern Ontario town.
“RM” refers to Rob Myers, the company’s founder. What started as a passion for restoring cars in a garage in 1976 is now, more than three decades later, a world-class company that stayed in the area in which it was born.
In 1988, Warrener and fellow collector-car expert Mike Fairbairn became partners with Myers and the three continue to forge ahead with worldwide success, while retaining their small-town ties. (You can read the RM story here.) These three serious collectors are using their warehouse full of great vintage finds from all over the world to beautify Chatham.
RM has offices in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany, and it produces a diverse calendar of annual auction events in North America and Europe, with the next being held in Monaco in May. Of all the cars RM has sold, 145 have gone for prices exceeding $1 million; with the largest amount coming in at just under $12 million.
YOU’LL LEAVE AS A CLASSIC CAR LOVER
While in Chatham you can tour RM’s indoor exhibit featuring 37,000 square feet of cars and memorabilia. It’s a tremendous value at just $8.50 for adults and $6.50 for seniors and students, children 12 and under are free. Just stepping through the doors into a room full of shiny, exquisite automobiles is a thrill. As you proceed through the tour, you begin to realize how rare it is to see so many cars of that calibre in one spot, to see all the gleaming, mirror-like chrome. The deep richness of the custom paint stands out, the result of up to 10 coats that undergo multiple sandings to produce an unparalleled shine.
The tour is a treat for your other senses as well. For instance, even the smell of the car’s interiors and the feel of their well-worn leather seats are indulgent. (If you go, look for the car whose seats are made, not of leather, but of the hide of a wild animal; hint: the animal is large and grey — something that thankfully would never happen today, but interesting to see up close.) I couldn’t help but imagine the men that raced these cars, the couples that “parked” in them, or the small children who tumbled around unrestrained in the back seats — who are now grandparents themselves probably.
I did not arrive in Chatham as a classic-car lover, but I sure left as one. To see these cars periodically on the road is one thing, but I revelled in the opportunity to get up close to them, and compare the differences in style that each era brought.
Next door to RM is Duke’s Harley-Davidson, which features a gorgeous showroom full of bikes, both new and vintage. Talk to the staff about what it means to not just own a bike, but to buy into the lifestyle.
RM’s success, coupled with its owners’ keen interest in architecture and commitment to helping Chatham realize its enormous potential, has already spun off other businesses. Arguably the most notable is Retro Suites, a 34-suite boutique hotel (with four additional long-term apartments), in which every room is individually appointed. Each suite features a bed that was been made at RM’s facilities. It feels just as much like a museum as a hotel, and from the moment you step into the lobby you will get that nostalgic feeling as you notice the seemingly endless treasures within. Myers and his wife, Cathy VanRaays Myers, own the hotel and their daughter, Jessica Myers, manages it. The artwork of VanRaays Myers is spread around the hotel like icing. It is a feast for the eyes to walk the maze-like halls of this gem of a historic building, which has always been a hotel. The gorgeous original 1890 tin ceiling still remains, along with the lobby’s terrazzo tile, wooden banister, hardware, fans and a skylight. Couple that with an extensive, ever-changing vintage décor and furniture, and you have yourself one amazing place.
Prices at Retro Suites range from $129-$249, and there is also an enormous presidential suite available if over-the-top luxury is what you’re looking for. Each suite comes with free access to the neighbouring gym as well as a free round of golf at a local course with hotel stay. The on-site restaurant, The Chilled Cork, has a “retro meets modern” feel, complete with a fun table aptly nicknamed “the Ferrari table” that has been refinished in authentic, unmistakable Ferrari red paint.
Last year, The Chilled Cork welcomed executive chef Dylan McLay. Having cooked in castles in England and Scotland, and most recently in Toronto and at the Epicurean in Niagara-on-the-Lake, McLay recognized the opportunity in Chatham and runs the restaurant with a focus on seasonal and local food. Open seven days a week for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the menu changes seasonally, and offers Kobe beef, and a spectacular rib-eye steak from a local farm that is aged 55 days. Dinner prices range from $18-$45 (market price on the Kobe beef). For breakfast, the Mexican Eggs Benny ($12) is just as much a piece of art as a culinary triumph.
Retro Suites figures to be the place of choice for attendees of Retro Fest, a three-day, feel-good family event that is Chatham’s kickoff to summer. The hotel is right in the middle of the action, and because the streets will be blocked off, it will be easy to just step out of it and into the fun. The fest, which runs May 25-26, celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2012. Last year, it drew an estimated 25,000 people, and brought in approximately $500,000 into the area each of the two days. Lorie Gore, the executive director of Chatham’s Business Improvement Association, said, “Because it’s the 10th anniversary, we’re going all out and doing everything possible to make it the best Retro Fest yet. We have even hired a motorcycle show promoter from the Toronto area to make Saturday an extra special event for motorcycle enthusiasts.”
As you may have guessed, classic cars and motorcycles take centre stage for the weekend, which includes a Friday cruise, and a competition in which car owners receive awards on Saturday afternoon for their prized beauties. Applications to be a vendor or to register cars are still being accepted (find the forms here). And, of course, there will be plenty of opportunity for visitors to get up close to these works of art. The owners, some of whom have done all of the restorations themselves, are always happy to show off their “baby” and spend time talking to passersby.
Besides the cars, Retro Fest features artisans, a variety of food vendors (for those with an adventurous appetite, chocolate-covered bacon will be sold this year; you judge whether this is genius or madness) and retro-themed items for sale. There will be lots of activities for the kids too, including some rides, face painting and the like, along with live music Saturday evening for visitors to “Rock The Park.”
This year, the festival will pay homage to Bruce Springsteen on Friday (“Glory Days”) and The Beatles on Saturday (“The Fab Four”) by presenting tribute shows at its recently renovated Capital Theatre. Tickets range from $39-$59 for each performance. Saturday evening will also feature a free movie after sundown in the downtown park alongside the Thames River; it will have an automobile or retro theme, but as of now the final decision has not been made as to which film will be shown.
As for the mall that Warrener purchased, it is currently known as the Downtown Chatham Centre, a name that he says, “Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.” Plans include restoring the mall’s main entrance to the original facade of the Greek-style market square building, complete with pillars, that originally stood in that location in the 1850s. The mall’s new name, therefore, would be Market Square. Retailers will enjoy a facelift with 10-foot windows and newly created entrances onto King Street. Already in the works is the relocation of more than 200 Union Gas IT employees into a specially designed space for them within the mall. That will create a lot more daily foot traffic downtown, and will likely necessitate the opening of restaurants and other businesses, giving the city a feel of Retro Fest on more than one weekend a year.
George East, an employee at Retro Suites and a recent transplant to Chatham, says one thing he really likes about the area is its refreshing change from big-city life in Toronto. “Here in Chatham there is a lot going on, and you can enjoy it without any pressure to fit into one scene or another. Here in Chatham it’s more relaxed and it’s easy to just be who you are.”
MORE ABOUT RETRO FEST AND RETRO SUITES
Retro Suites (2 King Street West; 519-351-5885) still has availability for Retro Fest weekend, including the Easy Rider suite that features a New Hudson motorcycle, circa 1900, hanging from the ceiling. If the hotel is full by the time you call, the staff will be happy to direct you to other available accommodations.
Retro Fest details can be found at the event’s website.
If it’s motorcycles that get your engine running, check out the Friday the 13th events in July, September and December. This year, those will be the 54th, 55th and 56th occasions for this long-running tradition. You can find all the information you need to enjoy your bike in southern Ontario, including fun biker lingo, waterproof maps and lists of which hotels and restaurants in each county make it easy for riders to keep an eye on their bikes at cruisethecoast.ca.
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