May 27, 2015

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It's time to discuss the Bay

It should be clear to everyone in Winnipeg by now that the downtown Hudson Bay store could be shuttered within the next few years, if not sooner, unless a redevelopment plan emerges quickly.

The Bay itself has been patient through decades of declining sales in the once-proud and mighty department store, but there are limits to its loyalty to the province where the Company of Adventurers got its start 342 years ago.



The province and CentreVenture Development Corp., the city's downtown development agency, claim to have a strategy to remake the 87-year-old landmark, but they're not sharing the information.

The redevelopment report is being kept secret because the province says it's too early to begin a discussion about what it's prepared to do to keep the lights burning. Actually, it's not too early at all and the sooner the facts are put on the table, the sooner the taxpayer can become engaged in the challenge ahead.

Obviously, government subsidies will be needed to help the building reach its full potential, but how much cash and in what form will depend on the development possibilities.

With 560,000 square feet over six floors, the building is too massive for a single use in Winnipeg's market, but even a mixed-use strategy that included a variety of projects, such as a hotel, condos, offices and restaurants, is a tall order.

Ideally, the Bay would also retain a presence in the building if it was redeveloped, but there are no guarantees.

It's also possible the building would have to be gutted to reduce the size of the floorplate and create an interior courtyard. Another possibility would be to erect a new tower within the building, leaving only the exterior shell as a reminder of the golden era of retail in downtown Winnipeg and of the Bay's seminal role in the province's history.

The only problem is Winnipeg has a surplus of office and commercial space, and many tenants just aren't prepared to pay market rates for high-quality space.

The province should avoid the temptation of adopting a piecemeal approach, such as moving the new merged lotteries and liquor control corporations into the building, since that could leave the building just as forlorn if the Bay were to close its three remaining operational floors.

The Bay will never suffer the same fate as Eaton's Portage Avenue building, but finding new uses for the retail icon is likely to be a very long and costly endeavour. The sooner a full and frank discussion begins, the better.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 6, 2013 A10

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