The city and province plan to spend $285,000 to spruce up downtown business facades and temporarily fill empty storefronts -- in advance of an even larger package of downtown-development incentives.
On Tuesday, downtown development agency CentreVenture announced a one-year, $65,000 pilot project aimed at allowing businesses to fill vacant downtown storefronts on a short-term basis. Dubbed PUSH, the program will provide rent-free space to young entrepreneurs who otherwise would not be able to afford retail space.
CentreVenture also announced $220,000 worth of grants to allow existing businesses to beautify their exteriors by designing and purchasing new signs.
"We want to clean up some of the storefronts -- new signage, new windows, new doors -- and make it attractive, so these places will be leased out," CentreVenture president and CEO Ross McGowan said at the Burton Cummings Theatre following his agency's annual general meeting.
"The PUSH program is really an incubator for young entrepreneurs to try out new businesses," he added. "Hopefully, some of those businesses then will materialize into more viable businesses and take up storefronts at market rates."
The city and province are splitting the tab for the two programs. Mayor Sam Katz said governments should recoup the investments in the form of higher property taxes for fully occupied, more attractive buildings.
The first storefront in the PUSH in the pilot project will open Thursday in McDermot Avenue's Silpit Building, where a new business called the Exchange Uporium will offer retail space for 40 Winnipeg fashion designers, artists and vintage-clothing curators.
"We're trying to give people who are mostly online retailers an opportunity to try this in a true retail setting," said Eve Wowchuk, who will run the Exchange Uporium with business partner Patti Henderson until Sept. 20.
The storefront improvement grants, meanwhile, are open to businesses located near downtown's sports, hospitality and entertainment district, an 11-block area that includes the MTS Centre, the RBC Convention Centre and the Burton Cummings Theatre. Preference will be given to retailers in and around the Graham Avenue retail strip, McGowan said.
Up to $5,000 in matching money will be offered for signage design, while up to $25,000 in matching funds will be available for sign, door and window purchases, depending on whether the business is located on a high-traffic street corner or in the middle of a street. Business owners will be expected to cover half the cost of the work.
During CentreVenture's annual general meeting, the downtown development agency announced a nearly balanced operating budget for 2013, but noted its long-term debt tripled to $12.4 million from $4.1 million in 2012.
The increased debt is due to CentreVenture's acquisition of the Carlton Inn and St. Regis Hotel. McGowan said he's confident his agency will recoup the investments on both properties. The Carlton is being demolished to make way for a new hotel serving the expanded convention centre, while the St. Regis is expected to be sold and demolished.
McGowan also announced the launch of a plan to revitalize an under-used stretch of Main Street south of Portage Avenue, home to a significant number of surface lots and empty buildings.
The development of surface lots should be part of a new residential-development plan for downtown Winnipeg, McGowan added.
During the 2010 mayoral race, Katz pledged to create a package of incentives to develop empty downtown parking lots.
On Tuesday, Katz said the long-delayed plan will emerge before he announces whether he will seek re-election this year.
"I can assure that prior to the next election, that promise will be fulfilled," he said.