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El Mocambo’s neon palm returns as owner shows off huge, ambitious changes

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There is, once again, light at the end of the tunnel — or above the front doors, at least — for Toronto live-music lovers eagerly awaiting the rebirth of El Mocambo.

A brand-spankin’-new replica of the El Mo’s iconic “neon palm” sign will be lit on Thursday evening amidst as much pomp and circumstance as rock ’n’ roll will allow, in its familiar perch since 1948 over 464 Spadina Ave. Most of the marquee and the art-deco entryway beneath it are finally restored to their former glory, too. A private party to celebrate the venue’s 70th anniversary will follow.

Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble—Live At The El Mocambo 1983 is a high-powered performance from SRV’s early days, featuring Testify, Texas Flood, Pride and Joy and a fiery interpretation of Jimi Hendrix’s Voodoo Chile (Slight Return).

It’s not the grand reopening of the beloved nightclub that owner Michael Wekerle — the Bay Street financier and former Dragons’ Den star who bought the dilapidated property in 2014 to rescue it from being turned into a computer store — would have preferred. But that’s coming. This time it’s really coming. Just don’t ask him for a date.

Read more:

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“This is where everything’s starting to transform,” said Wekerle Monday, as the 2,300-kg El Mocambo sign — painstakingly recreated in every detail by Cambridge’s Pride Signs, save a few modern-day technical upgrades — was being hoisted into place outside the El Mo construction office. “It’s been very stressful, to say the least, for the last four-and-a-half years. It’s about four times the cost and about three times the time that we should have taken to do it. But you know what? At the end of the day, it was not to be taken lightly because we wanted to bring back the El Mocambo.”

El Mocambo rivals the 71-year-old Horseshoe Tavern and its comparably grotty Spadina Ave. neighbour to the north — the currently demolished Silver Dollar Room (required under City of Toronto law to return) — as Toronto’s most beloved rock ’n’ roll destination.

It could be the city’s best-known venue internationally, in fact, as it was the site of some of the recordings found on the Rolling Stones’ 1977 album Love You Live — not to mention a rumoured dalliance between Mick Jagger and Margaret Trudeau, then the wife of then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau. Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy graced its stage when it was predominantly a blues club during the 1970s but, by the time the New Wave era came around, the El Mo would play host to the likes of Blondie, the Ramones and Elvis Costello. U2 was paid $500 to play its first gig in North America there in December 1980.

The club has escaped extinction a number of times. It was declared dead in 1989 and 1991, and bounced back during the late 1990s as a choice underground punk-rock spot under the stewardship of promoter Dan Burke, who actually hosted a Neon Palm Festival in 1999 to relight the original El Mocambo sign.

El Mocambo owner Michael Wekerle is seen riding the sign Monday as it is first lifted off the truck. The famed music venue on Spadina installed the updated iconic sign and will light it up on Thursday — one more step toward reopening.
El Mocambo owner Michael Wekerle is seen riding the sign Monday as it is first lifted off the truck. The famed music venue on Spadina installed the updated iconic sign and will light it up on Thursday — one more step toward reopening.  (Richard Lautens / Toronto Star)

It was sold again in 2001, got a major renovation that stripped off some grime and it was never quite the same again — the upstairs room briefly became a dance studio — despite still luring Queens of the Stone Age for a memorable gig in 2008. Cadillac Lounge owner Sam Grosso bought the building in 2012, pledging to restore El Mocambo to its “former glory” but the bookings never happened.

Billy Idol at the El Mocambo in the 1980s.
Billy Idol at the El Mocambo in the 1980s.  (Toronto Star file photo)

It’s actually rather fitting that a replica of the old neon palm will adorn the new El Mocambo because, much like the original sign, the original El Mo was in such rough shape when Wekerle bought it off Grosso for $3.6 million that he essentially had to oversee the construction of an entirely new “building within a building.” It’s more or less a replica of the old El Mocambo itself and, while the space is still pretty raw, you can see it taking shape — especially if you’re lucky enough to sneak a peek at the top-secret renderings for the final product — and the broad outlines are comfortingly respectful of the old layout.

There’s still a smaller room in the 400-capacity range with a stage on the west side of the ground floor, while upstairs a long, wide room in the 600-700-cap range will maintain the stage — which will be flanked by the original El Mo sign, “butterflied” into two halves — in its familiar position in the middle of the north wall, albeit now with a third-floor VIP balcony where the low ceilings used to be. There’s now a freight elevator backstage to spare bands hauling their bass amps up three flights of stairs, too. Oh, and there’s a recording studio overseen by legendary producer/engineer Eddie Kramer and John Storyk, the chap who designed famed New York studio Electric Ladyland, tucked in the corner behind the balcony.

That’s the 21st-century angle on the new El Mocambo: when finished, the entire thing will be “a recording studio that happens to be a nightclub,” as Andy Curran, the one-time Coney Hatch frontman who now heads the nascent El Mocambo Records and El Mocambo Entertainment operations, puts it. Even the third-floor dressing room is wired into the control room on the top floor. It will be a cinch to record, stream or broadcast top-quality audio and video from pretty much anywhere in the building.

Mick Jagger leads the Rolling Stones at the El Mo on Mar. 4, 1977.
Mick Jagger leads the Rolling Stones at the El Mo on Mar. 4, 1977.  (Ken Regan photo)

“In reality, (Wekerle) has actually built a recording studio,” says Curran. “The whole thing is wired. Each floor is soundproofed. The amount of work that went into soundproofing is, as our production manager says, so crazy that you could potentially have the Dropkick Murphys on the ground floor and Diana Krall playing a jazz set upstairs and you would not hear anything.”

All the technology going into the new venue is thinking ahead of the curve, too. Obsolescence will not be a problem.

“There will be no issues for the next 15 to 20 years” besides any cosmetic updates, says Wekerle, who’s cutting deals that he hopes will make “Live from the El Mocambo” content as familiar as the Austin City Limits or Live From Abbey Road brands.

“This is being built for the next 50 years. We have probably overspent in the short term, but we’re probably saving in the long term.”

Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age performs at the El Mocambo on Friday May 9, 2008.
Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age performs at the El Mocambo on Friday May 9, 2008.  (Carlos Osorio/Toronto star file photo)

He’s coy about how much this project has actually cost him, but he’ll freely admit it’s a lot.

“Oh, man. You couldn’t even guess. The over/under is $20 million. But it’s over. It’s over. I’m eating every Thursday and Saturday, but it’s OK,” says a laughing Wekerle, conceding that there have been moments when he worried that he was in way over his head. “I don’t think a day has gone by when I haven’t been stressed out about what’s the next issue here? ‘Oh, we hit a pipe? OK, we gotta do this differently.’ ‘Oh, this permit hasn’t come due? Well, we’ll have to hold off on the drywallers.’ It’s just been issue after issue. Maybe I would have changed my mind if I’d known how big a job it was at first.

“But it’s great for the city. I really believe in it. And thank you to anyone in the city who’s come up to me and said, ‘Thank you for bringing the El Mo back.’ It’s not me, it’s a whole team of people, but it really means a lot to me that people have reached out to say I’m doing something right. Yes, we could have done it cheaper. Yes, we could have opened it earlier. But it would have been lacklustre if we’d opened it earlier with just a touched-up facade, and it wouldn’t have had the kind of impact I think we’ll have.”

So when is the new El Mocambo going to open?

“I’ve been reluctant to say,” he sighs. “I keep saying ‘spring 2019.’ I’d like to have it open to do something during Canadian Music Week in May, but the date I’ve been giving is April 2. Maybe I should say April 1 because it gives me an out.”

Ben Rayner is the Star’s music critic and based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @ihateBenRayner

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‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Anglais

Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Anglais

Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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