When Brian Sharwood isn’t busy at his day job, running a little start-up called HomeStars.com, which is a Trip Advisor-type site focussed on the Home Improvement business, he is busy filing stories to his hyperlocal news site Ossington Village.

He moved to the Toronto neighbourhood four years ago, but only started the hyperlocal news site after a local meeting with a city councillor stirred up some controversy.

Sharwood tells his own story about what it is like to start up a hyperlocal news site in a major urban centre.






By Brian Sharwood

Every small blog is, to some extent, hyperlocal. Many represent
simply the personal diary of one individual writing the blog which, I suppose,
is as hyperlocal as you can get. The Ossington Village blog, which I write, is a
bit bigger than that, but not much. It’s the ongoing story, from the
perspective myself and my partner, Melinda, of a small strip of a Toronto
street undergoing a big change. The area we write about is about 6 blocks long,
starting at the base of the street where the Centre for Addition and Mental
Heath (CAMH) resides, up to just beyond Dundas around the new basement-hip
country bar The
Dakota Tavern
. We stray a block or so to the west or east at times,
but mostly write about what happens in that little part of Toronto.

We moved into the area, about a block away from this particular
strip of Ossington, about 4 years ago. It was a different place back then. We
renovated an old rooming house, converting it to a single family home, all the
while blogging
about the experience
. for the benefit of friends and family. The
neighbourhood was different back then. Looking for a place to find dinner after
an evening of renovation was challenging. Ossington was still filled with shady
Karaoke bars that would make even the most adventurous city explorer nervous.

We could see things were changing. There was one small bistro on
the strip we used to frequent called The Sparrow, partially owned by the owner
of one of the two bars on the strip – or, to be clear, bars worth visiting.
Soon after we moved in things started changing rapidly. Foxley Bistro, a
thai-fusion restaurant, and Reposado Bar, a specialty tequila bar, opened. A
dilapidated space became our local cafe – I Deal Coffee. And much more happened
soon after with places like Levack Block, Pizzeria Libretto and Union opening
in rapid succession.

The neighbourhood was getting write-ups in the National Post and
even the New York Times as “the place to go” in Toronto. Bars, galleries,
restaurants brought a vibrancy and excitement to the area, and unlike the area
we’d moved into a couple short years before, we were excited to try every new
place as it opened. We were also delighted to feel very safe walking home, with
the only danger being a little noise from some rowdy nineteen year olds out for
a night on the town.

The change interested us, and one day we received notification
that our city councilor, Joe Pantalone, who is currently running for mayor of
Toronto, wanted to have a meeting with local residents to discuss the
situation. A good thing – I thought.

However, we arrived to the meeting to find that a new by-law had
been enacted putting a moratorium on new local restaurants, bakeries and food
establishments. It was a packed meeting with many passionate local residents.
From my perspective, the local restaurants were the vital force changing the
neighbourhood; and the people who now came to the street after dark were a
force for good, exciting change. Mr. Pantalone was determined to have his way,
and I thought it was worth writing about it. I felt the need to make sure he
had a counterpoint to his authoritative methods.

That night I registered OssingtonVillage.com, set up a WordPress
blog and posted my first post – The Meeting and the Surprise. A few weeks
later, thinking about what more to write, I thought that there was no point in
having a blog simply about a small political issue, but there was lots of
positive things going on on Ossington, and we should point them out, if only to
demonstrate to others in the area that the new business in the area was a good
thing. I started writing posts about my local cafe, Portuguese festivities,
restaurant openings, and press from larger publications.

After my posting slowed down a couple months later – as is pretty
common in blogging – Melinda started adding posts about local events also. We
started a series of business profiles asking local enterpreneurs eight
questions about why they were on Ossington and what they loved about the
neighbourhood, as well as a few other regular features.

Both Melinda and I have full time jobs, and I know we are missing
much of the day-time activities of this little street. I am in the web business,
running a start-up called HomeStars.com, which is a directory with
ratings and reviews, focussed on home improvement (plumbers, roofers,
contactors etc.). Melinda works in sales for a large media company in Toronto –
and has many younger colleagues whose evening activities often include a visit
to Levack Block or The Ossington, two of the more crowded ‘club’ type
establishments on the strip.

The blog has grown quickly. We have about two thousand visitors a
month right now, which I still find somewhat amazing, after only a year of
writing and 90 posts. We recently started a twitter account, which we try and
update regularly, and have decided we need an official logo, which we’ve asked
a friend to create for us. Maybe we’ll look a little fancier soon, and juice up
the design.

Like most start-up ventures, I have no idea where it will go.
Right now there are no plans to monetize the site at all – although I am
interested in some local technology to help in this area – and that may be just
my pure interest in new technology for business – I’m still quite reluctant to
try it. It’s a fun activity and if it became a business, I suspect it wouldn’t
be quite as fun. While my business instincts tell me to ‘be focussed’ and ‘do one
thing well’, the market for information for this little area is very small; and
those who would pay to reach readers in this area, similarly small.

But the neighbourhood remains vibrant, and I love being part of
it. It’s a great activity to walk the street on a Saturday afternoon, looking
for changes and trying to find a story in among the storefronts. That’s what
it’s about right now, and there’s no point in changing what’s working so far.

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