Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

To Bay or not to Bay? Not yet

Despite reports, no decision made on where to put provincial body

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The downtown Bay store is not about to become the headquarters of the merged provincial liquor and lotteries corporations.

Despite reports Monday the province was looking at turning the Hudson's Bay Co. store into the future home of the newly amalgamated Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries Corp., there is still a cloud of uncertainty surrounding the future of the iconic store.

The province announced last April it was merging the Manitoba Liquor Control Commission (MLCC) and Manitoba Lotteries Corp. to save the province money on administrative costs. It plans to table legislation next year to combine the two Crown corporations.

However, a provincial spokesman said Monday no decisions have been made with respect to head-office space for the new combined entity, and a number of options are under consideration.

Talk of the lotteries corporation moving into the HBC store is nothing new. HBC and other groups have been trying for more than a decade to find new uses for the six-storey building at the corner of Portage Avenue and Memorial Boulevard. And as far back as 2003, the lotteries corporation was one of the prospective tenants being courted.

At roughly 80,000 square feet per floor -- about 560,000 square feet in total -- the building is too big for HBC's current needs. The retail chain is only using 31/2 floors -- 21/2 for its Bay store and the basement for a Zellers store -- and the Zellers outlet will be closing at the end of next March.

But the 86-year-old landmark is also too magnificent and too important to the city's history and to downtown revitalization efforts to see it demolished or sitting vacant for any length of time.

HBC has said in the past it wants to turn the building over to someone else and lease back the first two floors. The problem is finding someone to take it and redevelop it.

Retrofitting a building of that size to modern standards would cost a small fortune -- one past estimate was at least $8 million per floor.

And no developer is likely to take that on without significant government help.

The president and CEO of the city's downtown economic development agency -- CentreVenture Development Corp. -- said Monday there's nothing new to report about the building. Ross McGowan confirmed the province is considering it as a possible site for the new lotteries/liquor headquarters, but he, too, said no decision has been made. He also refused to say what other plans there might be for the building.

An HBC spokesman also refused to say Monday what the retail chain intends to do with the building once the Zellers store closes.

The University of Winnipeg has been touted over the years as a possible tenant. And it confirmed earlier this year HBC had offered it the building for what was believed to be a nominal cost.

U of W president Lloyd Axworthy said at the time he'd like to establish a national aboriginal arts and culture centre in the building, and the idea had elicited interest from some private developers. But he also said government help would be needed to make it work.

A U of W spokesman declined Monday to say if the university is still interested in the building, or if there have been any new developments on that front.

Stefano Grande, executive director of the Downtown Winnipeg Business Improvement Zone, said after nearly a decade, it's time to find a solution.

"We don't want to see a vacant building, obviously. We want to see a reinvigorated building," Grande said. "It's an iconic building... that served a purpose in its time. But this is a different time, and it needs a new purpose."

The move to combine the province's lotteries and liquor operations sent shock waves through both Crown corporations, as many of the 3,100 employees only learned of it from a memo written by Winston Hodgins, president and CEO of Manitoba Lotteries, who is overseeing the merger.

Under the plan, the regulatory oversight for liquor control currently managed by MLCC would be merged with an expanded Manitoba Gaming Control Commission.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 23, 2012 B4

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