There was a time when wanting to have fun in Ridgeway, Ontario, meant getting in your car and leaving town. These days, however, there’s a “sanctuary” drawing people back to Ridgeway that could make this tiny hamlet one of the most happening live event hubs in Niagara.

The location in question is aptly named The Sanctuary, a community based art gallery and intimate boutique event centre now inhabiting the old church at 209 Ridge Road North. The reclaimed building also houses such perfectly aligned enterprises as the Brimstone Brewing Company and a farm to table restaurant.  It’s the brainchild of owner Jason Pizzicarola, an architectural practice owner and passionate advocate for building sustainable communities and commercially viable downtown business areas.

“I like downtown cores,” admits the Fort Erie-born Pizzicarola. “These old cores have struggled and died out – and it’s nice to now hear that some big box stores are having their own troubles. But if there’s a great old building in a downtown core, I’m kind of interested.”

What got him interested in the building The Sanctuary now calls home was both a desire to put Ridgeway on the map and a chance to snap up a prime downtown real estate property.

“Really my interests all come from the planning side of community development,” Pizzicarola explains. “How do you create an interesting community? The opportunity came up to buy the church and at that time Ridgeway needed something, because no one knows where Ridgeway is. It needed an anchor of some sort.”

That anchor was firmly planted in the downtown core five years ago this July with a mission to establish The Sanctuary complex as a hub for arts, entertainment and community activities. The main part of the church was turned into a concert venue with a maximum capacity of 250, allowing The Sanctuary to book such mid-level touring acts as Stereokid, USS and Monster Truck to help establish the room with booking agents. Since then, the venue has featured an eclectic programming mix that has welcomed everyone from Fred Eaglesmith and Ron Hawkins to such perennial Niagara favourites as The Trews, 54.40 and The Watchmen. It’s all part of a strategy to attract a diverse demographic to the facility.

“We do a lot of different things at The Sanctuary,” explains Pizzicarola. “Like this past weekend we had Dear Rouge on Thursday, a stag and doe on Friday, a kids theatre performance on Saturday and Sunday. It was tough the first few years. But it’s definitely becoming a community hub. It’s taken a while to grow and build our market, and now there’s people who can count on us at all times for great music. We try to offer a wide range of music to appeal to different demographics and styles.”

With the recent proliferation of big-money entertainment venues in Niagara, including the casino and Scotia Bank Centre in Niagara Falls and the Meridian Centre and soon-to-be-completed performing arts centre in St. Catharines, the competition for entertainment in the area is at a level not seen since the late 90s; then it was primarily independent clubs like The Hideaway and Front 54 hosting full schedules of major recording acts. Pizzicarola says the uniqueness of The Sanctuary is what sets it apart from the other major venues across Niagara.

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“I think this area is jam-packed with great music, especially in the summer. It’s why we tone it down a little bit because there’s so many places offering live music. But we’ve got a different situation here. We’re a small, intimate boutique venue. When artists perform here the people are connected. Performers tend to love it because of the response of the people, and the people love it because the performers are so engaged with them. It’s so different that what you would experience at a bigger venue.”

Unlike a stand-alone nightclub operation, The Sanctuary also have a variety of complimentary revenue streams to help offset the cost – and the risk – of booking live music.

“What helps with all this is the brewery which opened two years ago,” suggests Pizzicarola. “Having Brimstone in the basement certainly helps. We take bookings for weddings and private parties. We do off-sales from the brewery. There’s the Rabbit Hole Theatre Company, the Fort Erie Arts Council, the restaurant. There’s a mixed bag of creative entities. So it’s all those different components that can help make it survive. If you just have a venue and put on shows I think it would be really tough.”

Pizzicarola and his team are working hard to maintain that eclectic mix of entertainment at The Sanctuary by not over-programming any particular genre of music; while rock, folk and pop acts have represented the bulk of the shows staged thus far, The Sanctuary is looking to bring in country artists like Lindi Ortega in the future to appease patrons who’ve been asking for it.

In the meantime, Pizzicarola is busy trying to breathe similar life into another recently acquired church property, the newly named Bell Tower Sanctuary at 575 Central Avenue in the Bridgeburg Station area of Fort Erie, where indie rockers Hollerado can be seen May 23. There’s rarely a moment of peace for a man spending most of his nights at a “sanctuary,” but he does manage to find rewards in the job.

“Just seeing it all coming together when it’s a nice, busy sold out show, and the brewery’s hopping and there’s people on the patio, and the place is packed. Everyone comes up to you and says what a great time they’re having. It’s all about people having a great time.”