With its second- and third-floor windows open to air out the smell of smoke Sunday, neighbours who were looking forward to the redevelopment of the Merchants Hotel breathed a sigh of relief that fires set inside it Friday night didn’t destroy the project.
"Anything new being built on Selkirk (Avenue) and the North End is welcome," Steven Reinheimer said Sunday after stopping at the pharmacy across the street from Merchants Corner, where a passerby noticed smoke and flames Friday at 9:30 p.m. and called 911.
"I think we’ve been lucky in that the firefighters were on the scene quickly and did their jobs well," said Jim Silver, chairman of the Department of Urban and Inner-City Studies at the University of Winnipeg, one of three groups that will share the space when it opens in January.
"There’s minimal damage from the fires and there should be no construction delay," said Silver. "That’s based on the construction company’s tour of the building after the fire inspectors had left late Friday night/early Saturday morning."
A Winnipeg police spokesman said they’re still investigating the fire that threatened the $15-million construction project, which incorporates the notorious hotel that shut down in 2012 and has since been gutted.
"It was bloodbath-and-crime central," said Reinheimer, who bid good riddance to "the Merch" five years ago.
"It wasn’t a good place," said his partner, Rhona Bruce, who is looking forward to its reincarnation as Merchants Corner, a community learning hub and social enterprise café. The couple and two women passing by Sunday said the gutted hotel had been a target for vandals and squatters. Reinheimer said he was surprised that — after an old main-floor entrance was replaced recently with a steel security door — intruders were still able to get inside the building.
"Small fires were set on the second floor and third floor," said Silver, who guessed that kids might have set them.
"We have always been aware of the need for security to prevent this kind of thing," said Silver. Friday night’s blaze heightened that awareness, he said.
"There will be discussions about beefing up security," he said.
For now, the completion of Merchants Corner is on schedule, said Silver.
"We’re still looking at being in the building and teaching to start the winter term in January 2018."
The U of W will run university-level courses during the day. The Community Education Development Association’s Pathways to Education — a North End high school support program — will use the same classroom space in the evenings for after-school tutoring and mentoring programs. Students in the culinary arts program at nearby R.B. Russell high school will run the community café as a social enterprise to get practical experience and help them land jobs after graduation. The project includes turning adjoining city lots into 30 units of fully subsidized student housing.
"This continues to be a particularly innovative project, one that is unique in Canada and will have a significant impact in Winnipeg’s North End," Silver said. The community has raised $2.3 million, and 100 per cent of the capital funding is in place, he said. Fundraising efforts continue for Merchants Corner, said Silver.
"The plan is to raise another $200,000 to buy some equipment for the kitchen" and to operate some of the community programs, he said.
There are plans for cultural and educational programs, including Oji-Cree language classes for preschoolers, their parents and grandparents. Merchants Corner will serve as a safe indoor meeting place for neighbourhood groups such as Meet Me at the Bell Tower — Stop the Violence.
"The fundraising has gone very well," Silver said.