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Another downtown icon falls?

Times Change(d) club may fold pending sale of Fortune Block

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First, the Shanghai Restaurant closed on King Street, where the 139-year-old Coronation Block awaits a wrecking ball.

Then, the Wagon Wheel Lunch learned its days on Hargrave Street were numbered by a plan to replace the Norlyn Building with a parkade.

And now, gentrification is about to claim another iconic downtown Winnipeg business. The pending sale of the 140-year-old Fortune Block at the southwest corner of Main Street and St. Mary Avenue has placed the future of Times Change(d) High & Lonesome Club in doubt, said proprietor John Scoles, the self-proclaimed "president/janitor" of the 25-year-old roots-music venue.

The owner of the Fortune Block has accepted a purchase offer, said Scoles, who fears the building -- which sits on the city's historical buildings inventory but does not enjoy heritage protection -- will be demolished to make way for residential development on the west side of Main Street.

That would mean the end of Times Change(d), a street-level venue considered one of the Winnipeg music scene's most important live stages, despite its maximum occupancy limit of 85 people. The small club has served as a career incubator for two generations of Winnipeg musicians, including blues guitarist Big Dave McLean, Juno-winning folk-pop group Nathan and singer-songwriter Romi Mayes.

"It's a little bit unfathomable. I've had lots of challenges with the size of the club over the years and many conversations with people about why I'm not in a bigger place. But I'm already in a fantastic location in an amazing old building," Scoles said this week.

"If I had to move out, I can't imagine recreating what we have and moving all this stuff out of here. I've often said, 'As the building goes, so go I.' "

Scoles said he has resisted renovating his space over the years, knowing the building could be sold and demolished. He said his landlord informed him a purchase offer has been made and accepted, although the building has yet to be sold.

"If I were in the landlord's position and had the opportunity to make $1 million off a building I inherited, maybe I would do that. Maybe we all would," Scoles said. "This building was never going to be developed. That's the nature of many old buildings in downtown Winnipeg."

The Fortune Block was completed in 1882 by Mark Fortune, who later died on the Titanic. The mixed-use structure is part of a short row of historical structures that also includes the neighbouring MacDonald Block, built in 1883, and the Winnipeg Hotel, which dates back to 1873, the year the City of Winnipeg was incorporated.

Purchase offers have also been made for the Winnipeg Hotel and the MacDonald Block, said Wayne Towns, who owns both of the structures. But he said he is not ready to sell, as he expects property values in downtown Winnipeg will continue to rise.

The prospect of all three buildings -- as well as the empty lot that once housed the Blue Note Cafe -- winding up in the hands of a single residential developer would create a difficult decision for city council.

While Winnipeg is in desperate need of more multi-family housing and downtown density, the Fortune Block, MacDonald Block and Winnipeg Hotel constitute one of the last remaining islands of pre-20th-century buildings in the city. Demolition requests would trigger heritage reviews, said Fort Rouge Coun. Jenny Gerbasi, whose ward includes this stretch of Main Street.

"All three buildings are on the historic inventory and my opinion is they are valuable buildings that would be designated heritage if a review process was completed," Gerbasi said.

"Obviously, from a heritage point of view, it's a big concern to take out a whole block of heritage buildings. We should be looking at surface-parking lots and underutilized sites instead of taking out existing buildings."

For now, demolition requests remain speculation. But Scoles is not confident Times Change(d) will survive the gentrification of downtown.

Ironically, the club owner was trying to help Wagon Wheel Lunch owner Frannie Gomez find a new location for her diner -- one of the last of its kind in Western Canada -- before the Norlyn Building gets demolished.

"Here you have two businesses that are the classic, little funky independent joints that add character to the downtown," said Scoles, who's also making a documentary about the Wagon Wheel. "Funny how that happens."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 7, 2012 A3

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