Earlier this spring, the Fairmont Hotel came up with a clever little plan to bring some life to Portage and Main during the summer.
Every lunch hour over the past few weeks, the Fairmont has set up a pickerel-and-chips stand outside its main entrance on Portage Avenue East in an effort to treat downtown office-dwellers and other pedestrians to one of the city's most iconic foodstuffs, within sight of the city's most famous corner.
Of course, the City of Winnipeg would not stand for such an outrage. In this town, any and all attempts to have a little fun must be eradicated at once.
So on Thursday, a public health inspector visited the Fairmont and shut down the pickerel-and-chips stand on the grounds the hotel did not have a permit for a "temporary food establishment" outside of its kitchen, even though the stand was serving food prepared in the very same kitchen and selling it only metres away, on hotel property.
"There were no hand-washing facilities and food was not properly protected," city spokeswoman Alissa Clark said in a statement. "As a result, the temporary stand was ordered closed."
The Fairmont intends to reopen the stand this week. But the staff at the hotel -- one of the most upscale in the city -- were not particularly amused. They had been selling pickerel outside for weeks and didn't hear a peep about any regulatory issues.
"It came to us by surprise, of course," said Jacques Lavergne, the Fairmont's sales and marketing manager. "It's disappointing to say the least. This served more of a community purpose for us, as we have the Richardson Building next door and the people from the other office towers.
"It's nice to be out there with our neighbours. But no, they shut you down. And they say they want to increase downtown activity."
For the record, the City of Winnipeg is doing nothing to improve pedestrian activity at Portage and Main, even though six out of seven properties located alongside our most famous intersection are amenable to a partial reopening of the barricades that prevent pedestrians from crossing.
The Fairmont is one of the open-minded property owners. The holdout is the owner of Winnipeg Square and the Commodity Exchange Tower, which has argued against any amendment to a contract that will keep Portage and Main closed to pedestrians until 2017.
In 2006, when the city floated the idea of reopening the intersection during summer evenings and weekends -- when there's less vehicle traffic on the road and little pedestrian traffic at the underground mall -- Mayor Sam Katz expressed zero interest in the idea.
Historically, Katz has tended to oppose anything his predecessor Glen Murray favoured. But mainly, the current mayor is simply spouting empty platitudes when he says he wants Winnipeg to be a place where people want to "live, work and play."
As far as his favourite talking point goes, the mayor is barely batting one for three. Finding some sort of work in Winnipeg isn't much of a problem, thanks to a 5.6 per cent unemployment rate, even if many of the jobs on offer aren't exactly the most rewarding from either a financial or creative standpoint.
But if you want to live in Winnipeg, good luck finding a place to crash at night, thanks to a residential apartment vacancy rate of 0.7 per cent and home and condo prices that have doubled in seven years.
And the city really falls down when it comes to the crucial issue of play, as the public service has been waging war for decades on the little things that make day-to-day life enjoyable for ordinary people -- like being able to eat outside.
Shutting down the Fairmont fish-and-chips stand is not an isolated act for public-health inspectors, who are only enforcing the regulations on the books.
Those food-service rules, however, are way too strict. They prevent Chinatown grocers from displaying their wares along King Street, the way grocers in almost every other Chinatown on the planet are allowed to do.
They prevent anything but fully cooked or ready-to-eat foodstuffs from being served from mobile vending carts, which effectively means we can only buy hotdogs, smokies, veggie dogs and insipid precooked hamburgers on street corners.
According to Winnipeg's antiquated Food Service Establishment Bylaw, all food sold from small mobile carts "must be ready to be reheated. No food preparation such as cutting, chopping, mixing or stuffing of food" is allowed on the carts.
The same bylaw permits a wider array of food to be sold from larger food trucks. But the rules are still stifling the development of the food-truck culture that is blossoming in almost every North American city, because all the grub that can be sold legally from a truck in Winnipeg must be obtained from a licensed commercial establishment, such as a restaurant.
"The truck must have an established menu with a list of food suppliers. Receipts for food purchases must be provided to the public health inspector upon request," the regulations read. "The preparation and storage of food in private homes for distribution or sale to the public is prohibited."
Again, this means only a handful of committed Winnipeg restaurants and entrepreneurs are out there selling anything but fries and tube steak on the streets of Winnipeg.
At lunch hour on Broadway, you can usually find Lovey's Barbecue truck and J.T. Spring Rolls. The El Torrito taco truck moves between Portage Avenue and Henderson Highway. All three are doing God's work.
But that's about it, aside from the stands at Old Market Square during festivals and at the St. Norbert Farmers Market on Saturday mornings.
Winnipeg can do better, especially during our brief but glorious summers. To bastardize Pierre Trudeau, the government has no business with the taste buds of the nation.