Ideas abound to reopen Neechi Commons


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Don’t call it a revival.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/09/2019 (1350 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Don’t call it a revival.

“We need a reinvention or a revamping,” said Neechi Commons Co-op treasurer Russ Rothney, “but not a revival.”

For 15 months, Neechi Commons, Winnipeg’s North End Co-op featuring a well-known grocery, bakery, arts-and-crafts store, catering company and restaurant, has been closed. After five years (and 23 years in its first location), one of the most innovative community-based businesses in the most poverty-stricken area in Winnipeg and a model for hope and reconciliation, was brought down by overwhelming debt due to high construction costs, operational challenges and an overly ambitious profit-sharing model.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Neechi Commons on Main Street shortly before it closed in 2017.

In the end, the board of Neechi Commons could no longer make payments on its $3.9-million debt, leading its lender, Assiniboine Credit Union (ACU), to try to sell the 28,000-square-foot building and 50,000-square-foot lot at 865 Main St. in June 2018.

The credit union didn’t foreclose on Neechi, but put the building and its land up for sale to recoup its investment. In fact, ACU allowed businesses like the Aboriginal Designers Co-op to continue for months afterwards.

But no investors have emerged. A few have sniffed around, looking to turn Neechi into a gas bar or warehouse, but none has fit the vision of what the North End space was intended to be: a place for community.

A sense of community is increasingly becoming a challenge in the North End. The loss of Neechi Commons came alongside the well-publicized financial struggles of the Circle of Life Thunderbird House and the closures of the North End Family Centre and the Indian and Metis Friendship Centre.

Since this time, an opioid epidemic has exploded in downtown Winnipeg and there are fewer and fewer places for struggling people to go. Portage Place is now up for sale and the Millennium Library has introduced security measures that effectively target poor Winnipeggers.

Citizens in the North End, such as those at the Kekinan Senior Centre, are worrying about their security, while lacking access to basic things like fresh food and safe community spaces.

Both the civic and provincial election campaigns almost completely avoided the issue of what to do to help Winnipeg’s North End. Politicians seem to have little interest in dealing with what is becoming an emergency situation.

The solution, it seems, will need to come from the community itself.

Enter Neechi Commons.

“We know we can’t compete with the big grocers in the city,” Rothney told me. “If anyone wanted to make a food market, they would have to come with big investments in security and training. We want Neechi to have the same spirit but deliver a different vision.”

He tells me there is profit to be made in any business focusing on local, Manitoba-grown foods such as fish and berries. There is also a great deal of value in selling locally produced Indigenous art and, of course, bannock.

When Neechi closed its doors, in fact, the only money-losing ventures were the restaurant and the grocery.

As a result, Neechi is proposing several ideas that would revitalize the space and the North End neighbourhood as a result.

The first is an Indigenous education and training centre, which could utilize the existing market, food services and meeting spaces to make classrooms and cooking studios. A tenant such as Red River College — which has showed interest in expanding its Indigenous Culinary Arts in the past — would be a perfect partner.

Next is a Manitoba Food Products Promotion Centre, which would feature small- and large-scale Manitoba-based food producers showcasing their wares to Manitobans. Summers could even host all-Manitoba food markets in the parking lot.

Another possibility could be in making Neechi into an Alternative Energy Hub, which could provide a space where alternative, sustainable, and environmentally friendly energy practices and products could be available. The space could even feature a small science museum and classroom to teach young people of the benefits of clean energy.

I’ve already mentioned the value of an Indigenous art store but one of the best-kept secrets of Neechi was the community hub it became for book readings, art shows, and even funerals. What about creating Manitoba’s first Indigenous Art Studio and performance space to foster and showcase what has become Canada’s most influential and profitable artistic community of Winnipeg-based Indigenous artists?

There are more ideas.

How about an Enrichment Hub that essentially was a drop-in space for youth but also supported elders and families to focus on things like Indigenous language acquisition and mentorship?

How about inviting the Bear Clan to make Neechi Commons their headquarters?

How about a culturally-based space to engage issues surrounding mental health and addictions?

Which brings me to what could be the best idea yet.

Last winter, a community meeting was held in reaction to the closure of the Winnipeg Indian and Métis Friendship Centre. Attendees made a very long list of all services the centre provided. These included over a hundred programs, everything from sports to bingo to craft programs to feasts to volunteer and employment opportunities.

Due to vandalism and neglect, the Friendship Centre is in dire need of much renovation and deep pockets to pay for it.

Meanwhile, a virtually new building sits about three blocks away called “Neechi,” the Ojibway word for “friend.”

A more perfect solution to an existing problem could not be found.

I reached out to the governance committee overseeing the new Friendship Centre and they had heard of the idea too. One unnamed source said to me: “It’s a no brainer.”

Now, all that’s needed is a brave, community-minded investor to pick up one of these ideas – any of them – and run with it.

Regardless, the board of Neechi Commons is interested in staying on and helping.

“We’ve been at this thing for decades,” Rothney explains, “and the dream is not over yet.”

Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.

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