Young North End activists hailed it as the latest example of "North End rising." That was the response when Premier Greg Selinger announced recently the provincial government will invest more than $9 million in the redevelopment of the old Merchants Hotel and six adjoining lots on Selkirk and Pritchard avenues. At the heart of what will be called Merchants Corner is an innovative educational strategy, prompting Minister of Children and Youth Opportunities, Kevin Chief, to use the phrase "beer bottles to books." Whatever slogan is used, this is an exciting initiative.
The Merchants Hotel, for years a magnet for criminal activity and a symbol of what was negative in the North End, was shut down in April 2012. People in the neighbourhood are still talking about how peaceful the area is now. With the premier's announcement, there is much more to come.
Merchants Corner will include 30 units of rent-geared-to-income housing for students with children. This alone is enormously important given the severe shortage of decent, affordable housing in the inner city.
On the main floor of Merchants Corner, the University of Winnipeg's Department of Urban and Inner-city Studies will share space with the North End high school support program, CEDA-Pathways to Education.
For North End high school students, this means the idea of attending university will increasingly become "normalized." This is not the case today. In some North End neighbourhoods, only 25 per cent of young people are graduating high school, and university is seen by many as not being for "people like us."
Merchants Corner will also include a community space where, among other activities, literacy programming for neighbourhood preschool children will be offered by Frontier College.
Urban and Inner-City Studies will continue with our successful community outreach campaign, directed at the wide variety of community-based organizations and high schools and, in future, junior high schools in the inner city.
Merchants Corner, while significant in its own right, will also be part of an emerging North End Community Campus, which includes the University of Manitoba's Inner-City Social Work Program, the outstanding aboriginal adult education program, Urban Circle Training Centre (which works in collaboration with Red River College), and the recently constructed Makoonsag Intergenerational Childcare Centre, which offers first preference to children whose parents are attending one of these educational institutions. All of these institutions are situated in a one-block area on Selkirk Avenue. The student housing and child-care initiatives respond to two major barriers to higher education. The educational methods used differ from those in mainstream educational institutions and have proved to work well. This means graduation rates are higher and lives are being changed.
The redevelopment of the old Merchants Hotel into Merchants Corner is a good example of what works well in the inner city. The beauty of the initiative is provincial investment will be paid back in full -- and then some -- thanks to higher taxes paid by those who benefit from improved education and reduced expenditures on social assistance and criminal-justice costs, as ever more people graduate from high school, pursue higher education and move into the labour force.
Merchants Corner is a genuine partnership between a community determined to work hard to improve the opportunities available to its members, and a provincial government far-sighted enough to see that investment now will produce returns far into the future. The redevelopment of the old Merchants Hotel makes good sense and is good news for all of us.
Jim Silver is chairman of the University of Winnipeg's Department of Urban and Inner-City Studies, and a member of the Merchants Corner steering committee and executive committee.