Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The hotel domino effect

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If you close a problem hotel in the downtown, will the troublemakers go away? Yes, but probably only as far as the closest watering hole.

As Chuck Green, the wise, former owner of the Portage Village Inn observed before the city bought his hotel in 1998 and closed it down in the name of progress: "There are a lot of glue-sniffing, Lysol-drinking, dope-smoking rubbies in this town who like to lie down on the sidewalk and sleep."

Mr. Green, who has since passed away, predicted his clientele of gangsters, thieves and down-and-outers would migrate to nearby hotels, including the St. Regis Hotel, which is exactly what happened.

It was probably around then that the historic St. Regis, once a hangout for the scribes of the nearby Winnipeg Tribune, began its slow descent into a problem child of the downtown.

Now, CentreVenture Development Corporation has purchased the hotel in a similar effort to shuffle the problem a little farther. CentreVenture plans to close the hotel's beverage room and cash in its VLTs.

The city has bought and closed many downtown hotels during the last 15 years, including the Leland Hotel, which later burned to the ground, and a series of Main Street drinking holes, to clean up the neighbourhood.

There's no question the large number of low-end hotels that once littered the downtown, particularly on Main Street between the CP Rail mainline and Logan Avenue, were a blight and serious deterrent to downtown revitalization.

The Main Street strip has improved considerably since then, although a short walk under the tracks to the North End reveals another slew of derelict drinking establishments, which are probably enjoying better beer sales.

CentreVenture also played a role in closing the Bell Hotel on Main Street and turning it into a hostel for addicts and people with mental-health problems.

The new facility operates under the Housing First philosophy, which says troubled human beings need a place to live before they can get better.

Preliminary reports say the experiment is going well.

There are no plans to repeat the model at the 101-room St. Regis, although it's always a possibility in the future, says Ross McGowan, CentreVenture's CEO.

CentreVenture has leased the hotel back to its owners, who plan to continue operating it as a short-term residence for visitors in the city for medical care.

McGowan says it could eventually be converted to student housing or some other use, but it will be up to social agencies and the governments to take the lead on its future.

Some of the people causing problems on the street were hotel residents or visitors, but most were people using the beverage room. Their behaviour raised safety issues not just around the hotel, but in the general vicinity.

And even though only a relatively small number of people is causing problems, it was enough to force Air Canada last year to move its flight crews out of the downtown during overnight stops.

The decision was a major embarrassment for a city that is trying to tout its new amenities, including the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. There were two slayings in the hotel in the last few years.

The troublemakers, addicts and aggressive panhandlers may try to move to nearby upscale hotels, but McGowan says a strategy is being developed in co-operation with hotel owners, police and several agencies to prevent that from happening.

Of course, if every good hotel falls in a domino effect, well, that would be the end of efforts to revitalize the downtown.

For that and other reasons, the city, province and social agencies need to redouble efforts to provide meaningful assistance to the down-and-out on Winnipeg's streets

Closing problem hotels has benefits, but real solutions are needed to lift the homeless, addicted and the mentally ill out of their misery. Otherwise, they will remain a permanent stain on the conscience of the community.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 19, 2012 A12


Updated on Monday, November 19, 2012 at 9:51 AM CST: Fixes typo in last paragraph.

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