Doris Lucas isn’t one to seek the limelight.
Sometimes it can’t be escaped, however. On Monday, the Ontario Business Improvement Area Association (OBIAA) recognized the longtime Napanee businesswoman with the Alex Ling Lifetime Achievement Award in honour of her continuous work to beautify and promote the downtown.
Operating businesses in town since the age of 18, the community has been in Lucas’ blood and she’s made it her mission to make it the best place to live and work.
“I will never retire. Never! Get used to this person because I will always be on the street. As long as I’m healthy, I’m going to be in those stores and helping out downtown,” she said. “I love my town. When you’ve been here all your life, except for a few years — I was in Toronto taking courses and going to school — you work for your town.”
Lucas, whose first trade was hairdressing, pioneered in the operation of the Napanee Carpet Warehouse, which has been open since 1956, as one of the first women in her field. While she it was rough at times and people tested her, she persevered and thrived while working alongside her children Shaune, Robert, and Kandee.
Just past the turn of the century, Lucas recalls walking around the downtown and seeing more than 40 empty storefronts. While some saw despair, she saw opportunity. Lucas, who said she’d always taken a keen interest in fashion and interior decorating, decided to open up a store that focused on both. April’s Image landed on Dundas Street in 2004 with bright, beautiful signage and high-end dress fashions. With its success, Lucas decided she’d like to open another store focusing on sport clothes.
In short order, her family added October’s Clothing.
Seeing further opportunity, Lucas then added a discount shop, Dress For Less, that would take end-of-season inventory from the two main street shops to add another destination.
“I didn’t want to stop,” she said.
The stores kick-started a renaissance for Napanee’s downtown. Lucas, who had been active in the Napanee BIA since its inception in 1978, worked with friends to place artwork in vacant storefronts to dress up the main street. She also continued her hands-on work to beautify the town through horticultural efforts.
“I love gardening,” she said. “I wanted the town to look nice and I enjoyed it. You get carried away doing something like that.”
Lucas recalls starting her work years earlier with a little watering can, then moving up to an old truck with a water cannon, then developing a water wagon she remembered clanging down the streets at 6 a.m.
As her family’s new businesses and her beautification efforts took off, things started to change for the better downtown. Storefronts filled and a young couple elected to invest in Napanee to create their own dream of a jewelry and fashion store that became Starlet.
“Cat and Jefta (Monster) came along and they have made such a big difference in Napanee, those two kids,” Lucas said. “It was just one store after another. Everyone was interested.”
Now, following the Diggin’ Downtown construction, Lucas said she regularly gets visitors telling her how beautiful the town is. She also said the business district has been transformed.
“It is now a fashion destination town. We have people that come in and they can spend a whole day between shopping in the stores and going out for a lunch or dinner. That’s the way we want to keep it and we are going to have to work together to hold it there.”
Reflecting on the award, Lucas said she prefers to stay humble and share credit, adding she “does things for the love of doing them.” She points to fellow business people, town staff and volunteers for their efforts to keep downtown vibrant.
“There have been a lot of people involved who made the town what it is today, believe me.”
Even in her own business endeavours, Lucas said she wouldn’t be where she is today without her children who work alongside her.
The award was named after Alex Ling, one of the founders of the world’s first Business Improvement Area in Toronto’s Bloor West Village. After chairing that association, Ling also was instrumental in creating the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas in 1990. He passed away last September. The OBIAA’s lifetime achievement award was dedicated in his honour in 2015 to be given annually to a person who has made major lifelong contributions to BIAs.
Downtown Greater Napanee BIA office manager Tiffany Lloyd attended Monday’s presentation with Doris and Shaune Lucas. In a news release, she indicated Lucas’ contributions go beyond those that can be quantified simply.
“She has mentored entrepreneurs and given back to her community, but due to her modesty and humility we may never know the full extent of what she has done.”