Roger Eckoldt immigrated to Canada from Germany in 1963 with five dollars in his pocket.  He was 22 at the time.  Eckoldt had recently graduated from business school and was seeking a better life than the one he knew as a boy, moving from place to place with his family as they struggled to rebuild their lives after World War II.  Eckoldt had applied for an overseas placement program and took the only opening available at the time: an office job at National Grain in Winnipeg. 

“I had to hitchhike to that job from New York City, where I first landed on a subsidized flight from Germany. I got a piece of cardboard and wrote “exchange student to Winnipeg” on it.  Miraculously, I got there two days later,” says Eckoldt.

Eckoldt worked for National Grain for three years.  During that time, he also got married and had children.  Eckoldt says he felt rooted for the first time in his life - until he received an urgent call from family back in Germany. 

“My grandfather died, and they were looking for someone to run the family business. I flew back to work for a textile company that specialized in knitwear.  I could only handle it for two years.”

Eckoldt returned to Canada when he landed a sales management position with Eatons Department Stores in Montreal.   The Eatons job required a fair bit of travel, and it was a work trip to Atlantic Canada that brought him to Dartmouth for the first time.

“I came for the opening of the fashion department at Mic Mac Mall.  Little did I know that two years later I’d be moving here!”

In 1976, Eckoldt recalls receiving yet another unexpected phone call.  This time, it was an old friend offering him an opportunity to move to Nova Scotia.  He says he was reluctant at first, but eventually decided to take a chance on building a 300-house subdivision called Manor Park.

“People thought we were crazy.  But we built beautiful homes and sold them all.  The only problem with subdivision projects is that eventually you run out of land, and you have to stop.”

When the Manor Park project was over, Eckoldt decided to invest his earnings into the purchase of a building at 67 Portland Street in downtown Dartmouth, where he could rent out the first floor and live upstairs.  It’s currently the site of Portland Street Creperie.

“I made an offer on the building, which was occupied to a small department store called Solomon’s.  The day I closed in Halifax, I took the ferry over to my property and was greeted with a furnace room filled with three feet of water.”

Despite the rough start, Eckoldt grew to enjoy living in downtown Dartmouth.  He made friends with his neighbours and formed an especially close bond with an elderly woman next door, “Mama” Heyman, who ran a convenience store where Janet’s Flowers is now located.  One day, in the mid-1980s when the community was experiencing a decline, Heyman admitted to Eckoldt that she was ready to move on to greener pastures.

“She asked me to buy her building from her for a down payment of $100.  She said to pay me the rest when I had the money. Then, every six months another person would come to me and ask me to buy their properties from them.”

Eventually, Eckoldt owned enough buildings in downtown Dartmouth that it was necessary to create his own company.  He named it Urchin Holdings Limited, to nod to its maritime location and to honour his children.

“One day I spelled out my three kids’s names, UR for Ursula, CH for Christiana and IN for Ingo and came up with URCHIN.  Everybody said you can’t call a company Urchin and I said, yeah you can.”

Urchin Holdings Limited now owns several commercial and residential properties in downtown Dartmouth including the Brightside and the Upside.  Eckoldt says his goal is to build several small-scale apartment buildings with street-level storefronts so that downtown Dartmouth retains its authenticity and character. 

“I refuse to rent to any franchise.  Every one of my tenants are local people and it has proven to be a good recipe.”

Like his first apartment on Portland Street, Eckholt still lives above one of his storefronts, only now he enjoys panoramic harbour views and a rooftop balcony.  At age 80, he says he has no plans to retire in the immediate future, and no plans to move.

“Downtown Dartmouth is my home.  I feel that any developer should have to live where they are working.  It will result in a better quality of life for everyone in the community.”

Portrait by:  James Arthur MacLean Photography

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