Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The Bay is key to downtown renewal

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If Winnipeg is to become a great North American city, it will require more than a recreation area with a focus on the MTS Centre, and more than a Canadian Museum for Human Rights (with or without an adjacent water park.)

The missing ingredient is a viable downtown shopping district.

Our city planners would like to see a commercial shopping area rise from the ashes, but precious little has been accomplished to make it happen. There used to be two large department stores linked together by Portage Place. The mall was supposed to provide a connecting link between the two and provide shopping opportunities itself.

Unfortunately, the entire concept disintegrated when Eaton's collapsed financially and the old building imploded to make way for the arena. I have no criticism of the Eaton's building's demise and its replacement with the new arena, for it has undoubtedly resulted in a renaissance of entertainment activity in downtown Winnipeg.

Winnipeg will never become a major urban area, however, without a vibrant commercial shopping area at the heart of the city. The only way that can happen in the foreseeable future is through the revitalization of the downtown Bay store as the catalyst for urban shopping.

How is that to be achieved when it seems clear the Bay has systematically reduced its inventories, slashed its customer services and reduced the entire scope of its operations in the Portage Avenue store?

It is now down to a Zellers store in the basement, perfume and trinkets on the main floor and few employees to service the infrequent customers. There are rumours of alternative uses of the upper four floors of the building -- providing the new occupants are willing to pay the cost of redesigning the building for non-commercial uses. But it seems no one is about to come forward with the funds to redesign the building to develop condos or to house university students.

It might seem ridiculous for government to subsidize the Bay, which is currently owed by wealthy Americans and is commercially viable in its overall operations in Canada.

But incentives are provided for manufacturers to locate in Manitoba and create employment opportunities. Why not a retail department store? Particularly when the property in question is a historic building that all would agree is an irreplaceable landmark in the urban centre.

The May 1 Globe and Mail reported the Bay is considering the concept of "a store within a store." More specifically, the Bay might invite Bloomingdale's (an upscale U.S. department store owned by Macy's) to operate within HBC department stores in Canada.

I have no doubt this concept is under consideration for the downtown stores in Toronto, Vancouver and, perhaps, Calgary.

The Winnipeg store will not be in their thoughts unless steps are taken by political leaders in the city and the province to make it happen.

Start by uniting to make a direct approach to Bonnie Brooks, the CEO of the Bay, to encourage this kind of development for the Winnipeg store. The concept should not be limited to Bloomingdale's. Additional specialty shops could become occupants along with the Bay and Bloomingdale's.

Indeed the concept of a store or stores within a store can be developed with or without Bloomingdale's, but Bloomingdale's would be nice.

It will take money -- lots of it, and both the city and the province should be prepared to participate.

If $7 million is available to establish a water park, there should be significantly more available to restore downtown shopping.

The building itself will require a complete retrofit to meet modern standards.

Governments should be prepared to pay a significant measure of that cost, subject to the condition it be designed for continued use as a shopping centre.

There should also be an investment in providing a pedestrian link along the east side of the Bay parkade to join with the skywalks on St. Mary Avenue. Improved pedestrian connections from the Bay to both the Winnipeg Art Gallery and the University of Winnipeg should also be considered.

In short, the political leaders of this community should take the initiative to persuade the management of the Bay to cause a renaissance in the centre of this magnificent city.

Charles Huband is a retired Manitoba Appeal Court judge and former leader of the Liberal Party of Manitoba.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 4, 2012 A13

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