Managers of a new development in one of Winnipeg's oldest neighbourhoods say modernizing heritage buildings is what revitalizing the city is about.
"Winnipeg is an old city and a very traditional type of city. I think people just started looking and went, 'Wait a sec, if we want our city to survive, we have to make it happen ourselves. We can't wait for someone to come in and fix it,' " said Winnipeg native Marion McKenzie, general manager of the ultra-modern, 67-room Mere Hotel, which opened for business in the Exchange District on Friday.
Mere and the Cibo Waterfront Café, also now up and running in a separate building behind the hotel, were developed through a partnership led by Sunstone Resorts, the development company responsible for more than 140 condos that have sprouted up across the street along Waterfront Drive. Mere is managed by Sparrow Hotels, which owns and operates the Inn at The Forks and the Norwood Hotel, and Cibo is managed by Eatz Enterprise, which owns Moxie's and Shark Club.
"I think we'll help move the east Exchange forward," said Stephen Pawulski, general manager of Cibo. Pawulski, like McKenzie, is also a Winnipeg native.
"Five, six years ago, would someone be comfortable with the idea of coming here to eat a nice dinner? I don't know. I don't think so," he said.
Stephanie Scherbain, marketing co-ordinator with the Exchange District Business Improvement Zone, agreed the Exchange District, home to more than 70 per cent of Winnipeg's heritage buildings, hasn't always been as trendy as it is today.
While any development to improve the area is welcome, Scherbain said those with the capacity to both capitalize on existing architecture and bring in new features are especially important.
"I think it's really important for the community to celebrate their heritage... I also think it's important to move on," Scherbain said.
"I think the Exchange is a very challenging area because of its historical designation and because of the fact we have to preserve our buildings."
While Mere is a brand-new three-storey building, Cibo, a full-service restaurant 10 steps away on the same $11-million property in the middle of Stephen Juba Park, is the old pumphouse intake facility from the early 1900s.
Mere stands out architecturally, especially in the winter snow. With a series of closely positioned neon green, yellow and orange vertical bars running the height of building around the perimeter, it's loud to the eye.
"When you first look at them, they're kind of crazy," McKenzie admitted. "But then when the park is in full bloom, it really is supposed to look like it's just situated in here so nicely."
Cibo, with its aged-yellow brickwork and industrial design, is visually much different. It looks as if it's been around, if not forever, at least for quite some time.
"It's a landmark to Winnipeg and it's part of our history of how Winnipeg came to be and how it was developed," McKenzie said.
Pawulski said there's some confusion over when the building, perhaps best known for its second use as the old harbourmaster headquarters, was constructed. While some apparently believe it was built after the Second World War, it actually dates back to 1904, he said.
"It goes down three storeys," Pawulski said. "There are garage doors in the river where the water used to come in. There were massive pipes that pumped in the river water for fire-fighting irrigation."
Mere -- "merely a hotel" -- isn't out to pamper guests. It doesn't offer room service or have a spa or in-house restaurant. Its rates are correspondingly low for swankily furbished rooms with king-size beds at between $139 and $199 per night.
By contrast, Cibo is much more than merely a restaurant. It's open from 7 a.m. until midnight Sunday through Thursday and until 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday. Cibo offers breakfast, lunch and dinner, an extensive appetizer menu (there are more than 10 different types of bruschetta) and full-service bar. It also has takeout and delivers to hotel guests. The only item on the menu over $20 is the rib-eye steak.
Both McKenzie and Pawulski said they hope area residents dine at the restaurant as well.
"I always want to keep walk-in business for people around here. I think it would just be fantastic for them to be able to come in and causally grab a bite on a whim," Pawulski said.
McKenzie said Cibo provides a unique opportunity for out-of-towners to mingle with Winnipeggers.
"That's how hotels start buzzing about what the city is. That's how they learn what the city has to offer," McKenzie said.
When the MTS Centre -- the home of the former AHL Manitoba Moose and current home of the NHL Winnipeg Jets -- opened in 2004, it brought life into the city's historic core. The opening of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights next year is expected to generate an even greater interest in the area.
"It got people more excited about being here," McKenzie said.
"It kind of created a different buzz in the city and kind of made us funky again."