Tom Kisiloski's face broke into a wide grin when he spotted a reporter waiting for him at the bottom of the big spiral staircase that runs up the middle of Main Streets's new Neechi Commons complex.
The 84-year-old former structural engineer has been a regular visitor since the Neechi Commons Community Business Complex quietly opened its doors on Feb. 9. And he was more than happy to tell the reporter what he thinks about this new North End jewel.
Kisiloski explained that he drives by the two-storey brick complex at the corner of Main Street and Euclid Avenue nearly every day on his way from his West Kildonan home to a rooming house he owns on nearby Austin Street. And he often stops in on his way home to pick up a few groceries in the main-floor supermarket and fruit-and-vegetable courtyard.
Although the supermarket shelves aren't fully stocked yet -- the official grand opening isn't until March 19 -- Kisiloski said the prices on most of the items he's seen are in line with what he pays at his neighbourhood Extra Foods store.
"They're very close, as far as I can see. And they may even be a little cheaper for some things."
But groceries weren't why he was there Wednesday. It was the opening day for the second-floor Come 'n Eat restaurant, and he was there for a coffee and some bannock.
"I paid $1 for the coffee and 50 cents for my bannock bun," he proudly stated. "Where else are you going to get that for that price?"
And it wasn't just the price and quality of the bannock and coffee that impressed him.
"It's a nice, clean place with a very nice view," he said, motioning towards the big bank of second-floor windows that give a bird's-eye view of the street below. "Everything is nice here, and I hope it will be very successful."
Talk like that is music to the ears of Neechi Foods Co-op Ltd. president Louise Champagne and general manager Russ Rothney. They've been the driving forces behind the $8-million conversion of two century-old buildings at the corner of Main and Euclid into what they hope will be a thriving North End business centre, community gathering place and one-stop shop for everything that's North End and aboriginal.
But even Rothney admits the centre's long-term success is by no means guaranteed at this point, due to a series of unexpected structural problems and construction delays which added more than $1.5 million to the original cost of the project, and delayed the completion by more than a year.
"We are carrying a large debt load," Rothney said in an interview, although he wouldn't reveal the exact figure. "So we need to raise another $2 million within the next year to ensure its long-term viability."
The co-op hopes to raise at least half of that through a series of share offerings -- it has sold about $365,000 worth of shares so far, with another offering due to be launched within the next two to four weeks. And the other $1 million hopefully will come from a series of capital grants and donations from the city, through its tax-increment-financing program, and a variety of outside foundations, organizations and individuals.
That will be added to the $5.5 million the co-op has already raised, including $2.3 million from the province, $1.3 million from the federal government, and $400,000 from co-op members.
Rothney admits raising another $2 million will be a challenge. But the naysayers said they'd never even get this far.
"It's been far more challenging than we expected. But as you know, we don't give up easily," he said.
When it's fully operational, hopefully by early this summer, Neechi Commons will include a supermarket, a bakery, a fruit and vegetable courtyard, a specialty foods store, a fish market, a small general store, the 80-seat restaurant, an arts store, a catering/wholesale-foods operation, a seasonal farmer's market, a second-floor meeting room, and some second-floor office space.
The supermarket, fruit and vegetable courtyard, bakery, restaurant and catering/wholesale operation are already open. And the art store, specialty foods store and fish market should be open in time for the grand opening.
The farmer's market, which will operate from late June to mid- to late September, will open this summer. An opening date for the general store hasn't been determined.
Neechi Foods Co-op Ltd. hopes its new Neechi Commons Business Complex will attract shoppers from all over the city with its offering of standard grocery fare, locally-produced food products, North End favourites, and aboriginal-themed foods, clothing, and art. Here are some of the things shoppers will find when they visit the complex:
-- A main-floor supermarket offering a variety of brand-name and Co-op brand grocery items, including cereals, canned goods and household products.
-- A meats department offering regular meat products -- chicken, beef, pork, etc. -- and eventually some specialty meats such as bison, elk and venison.
-- A fruit-and-vegetable courtyard featuring imported and locally-grown products, including wild blueberries.
-- A fish market carrying fresh, frozen and smoked fish products purchased from local fishers, including pickerel, whitefish and tullibee.
-- A specialty foods store featuring popular aboriginal and ethnic foods, either made on-site or purchased from local producers. That includes things such as wild rice, homemade jams and syrups, and popular aboriginal, Ukrainian, East Indian, African, aboriginal and Eastern European dishes.
-- A bakery and take-out-foods section featuring traditional baked goods as well as specialty items such as bannock bread, buns and tea biscuits, bannock pizza, fried bread, wild-rice bread, hamburger soup, and three sisters soup (corn, bean and squash).
-- An art store featuring aboriginal-themed art, crafts, and clothing.
-- A general store carrying a variety of high-demand hardware and household products.