Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Downtown BIZ creating opportunities for entrepreneurs

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A local business group wants to breathe new life into a vacant downtown storefront and provide some exposure for budding entrepreneurs who hope to one day become downtown merchants.

The Downtown Entrepreneurship Incubator/Pop-up Shop is an initiative of the Downtown Winnipeg Business Improvement Zone (BIZ). It's one of a number of initiatives included in a "refreshed" three-year strategic plan unveiled Wednesday at the BIZ's annual general meeting.

"We're starting to see more and more creative young people who want to be downtown and be part of this (the revitalization of the downtown)," Stefano Grande, executive director of the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, said in an interview.

He said BIZ officials have met many of them through its Youth Entrepreneurship Forum. Some already have a product or service they've developed. Now they need to gain some exposure, build up a customer base, or perhaps acquire some seed funding to help them launch their business. And a downtown incubator/pop-up shop could help them do that.

'We're starting to see more and more creative young people who want to be downtown'

"We want to give them an opportunity to showcase what they're doing," he said, adding up to six or eight entrepreneurs conceivably could share the space, networking and sharing ideas, wooing customers and hopefully developing contacts with business people who could become customers, mentors, or even financial backers of their business.

He said there are a number of vacant storefronts in high-profile locations such as Portage Avenue and Portage Place Shopping Centre that would be suitable. It's just a matter of working out a deal with the landlord of a property.

He said they'll also likely approach some local organizations such as the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce for funding or other types of support.

Grande said recent surveys have shown existing downtown businesses also want to see more young entrepreneurs and small business owners setting up shop in the downtown, especially if they're "destination" retailers not found anywhere else in the city.

Grande said that's one of keys to attracting more shoppers and residents to the downtown.

The refreshed strategic plan also calls for the BIZ to create addition events to help bring more people downtown on weeknights and weekends.

Grande said the group plans to launch three new winter events over the next three years, including one event that will be unveiled within the next couple of weeks involving the arts community. He wouldn't elaborate further, saying some of the details are still being finalized.

However, another initiative he was willing to talk about is a plan to hire up to six more full-time social workers over the next three years for the group's new Community Homeless Assist Team (CHAT).

The two-member team was launched last year to help downtown homeless people get off the streets. Grande said the workers have helped seven people find homes so far, and have identified 43 others who are in need of help.

He said downtown businesses have chipped in $100,000 worth of funding, and the BIZ is in the process of raising another $200,000 from other sources.

"We're pretty optimistic we'll get it...," he said, adding they hope to hire at least four of the new workers within the next year or two.

Grande told the annual meeting ongoing efforts to make the downtown cleaner, safer and more vibrant are working. He cited a recent survey that found 90 per cent of the people surveyed said they feel safe being downtown during the daytime. That's a 33 per cent improvement from 2007, he added.

murray.mcneill@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 28, 2013 B9

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Updated on Thursday, November 28, 2013 at 6:11 AM CST: Replaces photo, changes headline

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