In January, Scott-Bathgate, Ltd., purveyor of Nutty Club and Food Club products, moved most of its production and distribution business to the former T. Eaton Company warehouse between Alexander and Galt avenues. Sunflower seed production moved there from the Lombard building, where the company still makes food colouring and pancake syrup. And the nut department went to Alexander Avenue from Pioneer, leaving only a head office, the Winnipeg-area distribution centre, and the machinery for making pink and caramel popcorn.
"We moved so much through here -- this used to be chock-a-block full of product," says Scott-Bathgate president James Burt as he hosts a tour around the now-spacious Scott-Bathgate building on Pioneer Avenue.
Pointing to a small loading dock door, he explains how the building outlasted its original use. "Years ago, a 40-foot truck was a big truck, but for 2007 it's not good space for production and distribution," he says. "We had to turn away orders because we had no space. It was madness."
Up on the third floor, past a disused nut roaster and pallets of flattened cardboard boxes, they still pop and coat corn, with kettles sitting ready, full of caramel and pink syrup. There's a continuous coater for butter and salt application, too, and hundreds of boxes of sweets destined for stores in Winnipeg. The mix of confections smells like root beer.
Long-term plans call for those operations to also move to the Alexander Avenue location. Burt imagines the building one day being empty, but avoids saying what will happen to it then.
"Look at this low ceiling," he says. "And there are too many pillars to suit a condominium well. Maybe Toronto has a high enough population density to merit a lot of warehouse-to-residential conversion, but not Winnipeg.
"And the CN line should have gone north, around the city centre," he adds, gesturing out the window and looking annoyed as a train passes by on tracks one street away. "This is sad. You don't need a railway in the centre of a city anymore."
Burt has watched the trains go by since 1959, when then-president J.K. May offered him work at Scott-Bathgate to replace an earlier career flying planes for Trans Canada Airlines.
"Mr. May had a daughter whom I met, and we decided to get married. But Mr. May didn't want his daughter living away," he explains.
Characterizing Winnipeg as a place of slow and steady growth, he lists the biggest changes he's seen in 48 years near the building on Pioneer: the removal of the railway yards to make way for the Forks, the construction of the ball park and the creation of condominiums on Waterfront Drive.
"I always said nothing would happen until the 1990s, and definitely not until the rail yards were gone," he says.
"I'm ambivalent about historical buildings," he says. "Nobody's going to invest until they think they're going to make money. We sold our Hamilton Street location in Vancouver to a developer who had to sink millions of dollars into it, converting it to residential use."
At best, he imagines the building being reduced to a shell and then fronting new construction behind it. Red River College built its downtown campus that way, and in December a developer offered up a similar (but now stalled) plan for the St. Charles Hotel.
"People go to Putnam Square in London to look at the beautiful old buildings," says Burt, "but those are just façades with brand new buildings behind them."
Scott-Bathgate also owns the land adjacent to the Pioneer building, where Impark manages a parking lot. It used to hold a two-storey parking garage, complete with a gas station, before salt eroded the concrete structure and they took it down for surface parking.
As he goes from floor to floor in the five-storey Pioneer Avenue building, Burt's voice echoes as he talks about the changing nature of business and the need to face those changes with a practical business approach.
"Business costs used to be with production, not labour," he says on the fourth floor, surrounded by dismantled sections of a roller conveyor once used to whisk hand-packed boxes down to the main floor.
"There's history here, but not much romance," he says. "Buildings have an economic life, and the value of this building now is in its footprint."
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Scott-Bathgate bought the T. Eaton Company Warehouse building in 1970. It sits long and low at 95 and 115 Alexander Ave. (it's listed in the city's historical building inventory as 130 Galt). In January, the company moved various operations to this 1927 building, from its other location on Lombard and Pioneer.
A.E. Scott and J.L. Bathgate built 149 Pioneer Ave. in 1905 and added to it in 1907 to support the growing import and confectionery-distribution business they started in 1903. Currently, it's listed on the city's historical building inventory. Any major proposed changes to it would trigger a review by the historical buildings committee of its status to determine whether protection is warranted.
Scott-Bathgate bought the Thomas Black Building at 80 Lombard in 1945. Originally constructed for the Union Shoe and Leather Company, the building comprises three sections built in 1896, 1898 and 1907. The city also lists this address on the historical buildings inventory.