The Merchants Hotel, once a hive of drunken street crime on Selkirk Avenue, is finally getting a fix-up, part of a slow renaissance now underway in one of the city's poorest neighbourhoods.
After more than two years of planning, the province announced $11 million in cash and loans Tuesday to help turn the old hotel, known locally as the Merch, into classrooms and 30 apartments for students and their families.
It's a big improvement in the William Whyte neighbourhood, where many small improvements have been quietly underway for several years.
The local residents association has never been more active. Neighbourhood cleanup blitzes draw more than 100 volunteers. A house-by-house crackdown by city bylaw inspectors has made a marked improvement in garbage, weed and run-down building violations.
The number of derelict properties has dropped by a third. The area's most notorious Manitoba Housing complex, Lord Selkirk Park, has been revamped and now has a daycare and an adult learning centre that are much-praised models. Pritchard Park is about to get a new play structure.
Several William Whyte residents in line for stew and bannock following the Merchants Hotel news conference Tuesday afternoon said the neighbourhood is cleaner and quieter than it had been.
"I think it's finally showing, now," said Chris Speidel who lives with his wife a few blocks away. "There's a huge difference."
The Merchants Hotel redevelopment has been slow going, in the works for three years following repeated pleas from the neighbourhood to do something about the corner, where drunken fights and worse often erupted outside the beer vendor. When the hotel was bought and closed down by the province in 2012, about a dozen people still lived in its small rooms above the bar. Two years of consultations followed, along with a futile search for a retailer willing to open on the main floor. Instead, the province, the North End Community Renewal Corp. and other partners opted for a mix of housing and education.
The old brick building is structurally sound but will be gutted over the summer.
The main floor and part of the second will be classroom and educational space for the University of Winnipeg and the Pathways to Education program that helps high-school dropouts get back on track.
The Merch will also house about a dozen apartments for student-led families. Another batch of apartments will be built on the hotel's back parking lot. In total, 30 units of affordable housing will be created.
The Merch is expected to open in 2016 in time for fall classes.
Selkirk Avenue is still desperately short of businesses, with many storefronts taken up by social-service agencies. Recent census data show William Whyte remains one of the poorest neighbourhoods in the city, with high rates of unemployment and single-parent families. More than half of all adults don't graduate high school and only about a quarter are homeowners.
Last summer, with some input from local residents, city bylaw inspectors tried something new, doing five sweeps of William Whyte and surrounding neighbourhoods looking for violations of the neighbourhood livability bylaw. They asked property owners to get rid of weeds and yard garbage and then moved on to building exteriors such as missing siding and eavestroughs, broken fences and other unsightly nuisances.
In one 21-block area, city staff found a non-compliance rate of nearly 30 per cent. They plan to go back over the same area this fall to see if there's an improvement, but Champion-Taylor says it's clear things are looking better.
"Very often, we felt things were kind of running wild," she said. "Now, even people who don't have a lot are doing what they can. It's snowballed."
This spring's cleanup saw 150 residents fan out over 100 blocks in William Whyte and Dufferin, picking up a winter's worth of litter and eyeballing problem properties.
Next, said Champion-Taylor, the residents association is hoping to get house numbers installed in back lanes to help guide emergency vehicles and aid in the identification of litter or arson problems.
Champion-Taylor is hoping 1,000 homeowners will put numbers up on their back fences or garages over the summer.