Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/3/2016 (388 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Winnipeg has the makings of becoming a great city. Significant developments have taken place recently, and others are about to begin.
Great cities have one thing in common. They have a vibrant shopping area at or near the heart of the city.
I do not disparage the small businesses that dot the streets of downtown Winnipeg, but optical stores, bridal shops, dental clinics, fast-food locations, pharmacies and places to buy hockey sweaters,do not measure up, even on a cumulative basis.
In spite of cold weather during the winter season, Winnipeg has the possibility of becoming a tourist destination. There is a wealth of entertainment, ranging from the classical to the Winnipeg Folk Festival and Folklorama. The museums and art galleries are a draw. The Winnipeg Jets have rejuvenated the downtown from October to April. Interesting restaurants are found in every region of the city. There are good reasons to visit the heart of the continent, but outstanding shopping opportunities are to be found only on Kenaston Street or Regent Avenue. We are building luxury hotels in the city centre to house the guests who attend our new convention facilities, but there is no handy place for them to indulge in a shopping spree.
The obvious answer would be a revival of the Hudson’s Bay department store, but management has shown no interest in attempting a revival at Portage and Memorial.
A recent article in the Free Press by Dan Lett lamented the fact only a small portion of the building is now used, and that small portion has limited stock and few employees. The controlling management has apparently decided a downtown department store is an economic loser, to be sold or shuttered as soon as possible. There have been reports an institutional tenant might be interested in taking part of the space. It has been suggested the University of Winnipeg might use a floor or two. But there will be no tenants unless the building is modified in significant ways. If major modifications are needed, the changes may as well be alterations to accommodate retail shopping.
A year or two ago, I visited Prague in the Czech Republic. I stayed in a hotel adjacent to a major inner-city square. Across from the hotel was a four-storey building that looked very much like a very large department store, but it was an urban mall called the Palladium. It had been constructed and opened in 2007, but the foundation was associated with a 12th-century structure, which has been integrated into the architecture. It did not contain a single retail merchant, but rather 200 different shops and 30 restaurants and cafés.
The Palladium was busy, at least at the times I paid visits. But if the Bay store was transformed into something akin to the Palladium, so would Winnipeg’s downtown shopping mall. Portage Place, which at one time was the pedestrian link between the Bay and Eaton’s department stores, has now become a failure, at least as a retail centre. It is too small, the traffic too light, and the high-end stores have disappeared. The shops that used to exist in the pedestrian walkway between the Bay and Portage Place are almost bereft of retail tenants. But new energy in the Bay premises might even create a revival in the passage to Portage Place.
What would it take to achieve a transformation of the Bay? It would be vital to retain the Bay as a substantial occupant. It might well be necessary to replace the parking structure with a new and larger facility that would offer free parking for the first two hours. An extension of the skywalk system to link with buildings on St. Mary Avenue would mean the Bay destination would not be the end of the line.
The major trick would be in persuading retail competitors to join in making the entire project a true urban mall. The Bay finds itself competing with Sears and numerous other retailers in the Polo Park mall and surrounding area. Is there any good reason the same sort of competition could not take place at Portage and Memorial? If a Holt Renfrew and a Harry Rosen were induced to participate, Winnipeg would have the ingredients for a tourist haven under a single roof.
It will take more than an encouraging word to the Bay to make things happen. This is a heritage project as well as an adventure in retailing. The cost of a transformation of the Bay to a modern urban mall should be borne by the public sector as well as private entrepreneurs.
There are always significant agenda items facing city council. Mayor Brian Bowman and council should move beyond the usual agenda by beginning a process of exploration. Start by sending a delegation to New York to meet with Richard Baker, a major shareholder and executive chairman of the Bay, and the effective decision-maker. Find out if the Bay might be amenable to the kind of transformation that could be profitable for the company and a step toward greatness for Winnipeg. Begin asking whether a new urban shopping mall would qualify for infrastructure funding. It will not happen without an injection of substantial public funds, but over the long term it would be well worthwhile.
Charles Huband is a former justice on the Manitoba Court of Appeal.