Look down Mill Street in Almonte and you will see Stephen Brathwaite’s handiwork. An entrepreneur and an artist, owner of several central Almonte properties, Stephen, who moved to this area as a young man in 1973, is responsible for the preservation and enhancement of many Heritage buildings in the town.
Stephen is one of an artistically talented trio of siblings. He bought land in 1973 in Pakenham township at the urging of his brother, cabinet maker John Brathwaite, who lived in the area. He was also influenced by his mother, who thought a man should own land to center his being, and as Stephen states, “she was right” and he is grateful. Stephen’s sister is the talented Noreen Young, puppeteer, television producer and artistic director of the popular Puppets Up! International Puppet Festival that takes place yearly on Mill Street.
In 1981 Stephen left Pakenham for Toronto to attend York University. He stayed there for 10 years and nearly sold his Pakenham property. Stephen intended to become an arts bureaucrat, but also delved into fine arts. The 1970’s was the era of the craft and back to the land movements and Stephen, a child of the era, began to develop the artistic side of his personality. He gave a loom to his brother and sister-in-law as a wedding present and realizing that they had no interest in weaving, they gave it back to him as a birthday present, so Stephen began weaving. He later found glass exciting and is well known as a glass artist. In the end, the material became less important to Stephen than juxtaposing quality materials and he was governed by the site and the project. As a result of his education he was good a writing proposals and he took advantage of the percentage for art policy developed at various levels of government, to receive artistic commissions.
In Toronto, he earned most of his living expenses as a puppeteer, notably for TV shows Under the Umbrella Tree and Groundling Marsh. At Groundling Marsh he met his partner, talented puppeteer and puppet maker Vicki Veenstra. Vicki was trained in interior design and musical theatre, but took to puppetry and is now recognized as a significant puppet artist.
Stephen has become an important entrepreneur in Mississippi Mills. In the early 1980’s he renovated a stone building across from the Five Span Bridge in Pakenham. His love of old buildings led him to purchase and renovate heritage buildings on Mill Street in Almonte. He always works with partners whose investment is motivated by the desire to provide something of value to the community. With partner Greg Smith, he purchased the Victoria Woolen Mill in 1993 and they have renovated it into commercial space and condos. He has carried out similar plans in the Thoburn Mill and the building housing Palms. Baker Bob’s building also belongs to Stephen’s group and he plans to convert the apartments above it to condos.
In the medium term, Stephen hopes to develop condos in the space behind The ice cream stand Water Fall Delights. He envisions commercial space on the street level with condos above. With the huge demographic of aging baby boomers who may be downsizing and wanting to move to a small community, he thinks there will be a significant group of buyers. In turn, they will animate Mill Street, shop in the stores and dine in the restaurants.
Stephen regards his strength as the ability to put together good and capable people to provide value for the community. Almonte is a town of slow growth so people are not going to be able to make a quick flip on their investments. Stephen believes that his partners are also motivated by the desire to improve the quality of life in Almonte. He credits his partners Greg Smith, Joe Hill, Dick Veenstra and John Patterson for being willing to take the risk to develop Almonte where bank loans are difficult to get and private investment is a must if progress is to be made.
Stephen has made a significant difference to the living experience in Almonte. Many Ontario communities have done away with their heritage buildings, believing their development to be inefficient. Thanks to Stephen and his colleagues, Almonte has retained many of hers and his developments respect the heritage value while adding a modern artistic aesthetic.
Reposted from March 2012