Don’s Photo moves on from fading Portage Avenue image Reduced foot traffic, crime, tired building send 45-year-old downtown fixture to Broadway’s ‘night-and-day difference’

Take a picture before it’s gone.

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Take a picture before it’s gone.

Don’s Photo signs plaster an otherwise barren building at the corner of Portage and Kennedy. Advertisements for Canon and Fujifilm mingle with “We Are Moving!” and “We Have Moved” announcements on the windows.

“The area that we were in has changed a lot,” said Mike Godfrey, Don’s Photo’s president. “We just felt it was time.”

The family-owned business had occupied 410 Portage Ave. for 21 years. It officially bid adieu Monday, when it opened on the corner of Broadway and Edmonton.

“(This is) much better,” noted one customer, who declined to give her name as she was leaving the store.

“(I think) I’d be robbed going in and out of Portage. I would be afraid… I want to avoid Portage Avenue at all costs.”

There’d been a significant drop in foot traffic over the years, Godfrey noted. It was a catalyst for the move.

“For people… (to) feel comfortable coming to walk in our store, we felt that the (Portage Avenue) location wasn’t the best,” he said.

Two decades ago, the downtown building housed a beauty school, travel agency, barbershop and Don’s, Godfrey said.

Recently, the photo-equipment retail company has been the only tenant in the location across from Portage Place mall.

“There’s not a lot of draw to that area,” Godfrey said, adding petty theft and shoplifting have increased.

“We’re seeing a lot of people coming in, just grabbing stuff and running out. It happens on a fairly regular basis.”

“For people… (to) feel comfortable coming to walk in our store, we felt that the (Portage Avenue) location wasn’t the best.”–Mike Godfrey, Don’s Photo’s president

Godfrey estimated the business lost more than $100,000 worth of goods during its Portage Avenue tenure, though there hasn’t been a break-in for years.

In the first three weeks of 2023 there were 12 calls to police regarding commercial break-and-enters, and another six for robberies in the downtown area where Don’s was located. And the 101-year-old building — the exterior of which received a protective heritage designation in 2017 — “needs some work,” he said.

A new landlord is looking to redevelop the site and it’s an ideal time to move, Godfrey said.

The landlord did not respond to a Free Press request for comment Wednesday.

“We were… a little skeptical about being downtown (again) in general, just with everything that’s gone on,” Godfrey said.

Still, his team searched for a space in the city’s core. Don’s Photo began with Godfrey’s parents on Graham Avenue in 1978.

It moved to a bigger site at the corner of Graham and Vaughan before landing on Portage Avenue.

Downtown holds memories for Godfrey — browsing toys at The Bay during Christmas time, chatting with family at Grandma Lee’s Bakery.

“The downtown area is in our blood,” he said. “It’s in our DNA… so we wanted to stay.”

Finding a place was difficult. Retail buildings were either derelict or renovated with rent that was too expensive, he said.

He found 379 Broadway, a former Fools & Horses coffee shop, last summer. The square footage is smaller —1,700 compared to Portage Avenue’s 3,500 — but Godfrey figured the company could make it work.

“It’s a night-and-day difference,” he said. “Broadway is closer to what I remember Portage Avenue used to be.”

He’s comforted by the law courts’ proximity, the neighbouring businesses and the people walking by.

Both Don’s Photo locations — current and former — have seen upticks in crime, according to the Winnipeg Police Service’s CrimeMaps.

The shops along south Portage saw 1,130 property crimes between October 2021 and October 2022, a 139 per cent jump from the year prior, though there was a sharp decrease from normal crime levels in 2020-21.

In October 2019, the area tracked 1,311 property crimes during the previous 12 months.

“I’m sad to hear he’s going,” said Cindy Tugwell, Heritage Winnipeg’s executive director. “He was sort of a landmark on Portage for those 21 years.”

She frequented the Portage Avenue shop and considered it one of the few destinations on the downtown strip.

“I think there’s huge decisions that have to be made for Portage Avenue to survive. Businesses leaving is not a good direction,” she said.

It’s a contrast to the three decades before the First World War. Then, buildings were springing up along the route, a mark of Winnipeg’s heyday, Tugwell said.

The former Don’s Photo site is a mixed-use structure.

“It was indicative of the time… people wanted to live downtown. Amenities flourished and small businesses flourished because there were a lot of people working and living downtown,” Tugwell said.

Downtown residents are needed now, especially since office workers haven’t returned in pre-pandemic numbers, she said.

Portage Avenue has been struggling for decades as people and businesses moved to the suburbs, she added.

However, for Tugwell, glimmers of hope surround Portage Avenue with the Southern Chiefs’ Organization’s pending transformation of The Bay building, and the Manitoba Métis Federation’s purchase of the Bank of Montreal at Portage and Main.

“(This) is a downtown problem, not just a Portage Avenue problem,” she noted.

Thirty per cent of downtown ground-floor units are vacant, Downtown Winnipeg BIZ data shows.

“We’re pleased that Don’s Photo chose to stay downtown,” Kate Fenske, the non-profit’s CEO, wrote in a statement.

Don’s Photo used a BIZ grant when moving from one location to the other, Godfrey said. The Downtown Winnipeg BIZ has received 200 applications for its Building Business program, which started in October and encourages downtown settlement and expansion.

And 30 of them have come from potential new businesses downtown, Fenske wrote.

“I love Broadway,” Chris Brogden, a Don’s Photo store manager, said between tasks at the new site.

The shop will offer its regular products and services. It has another location on Main Street and two in Saskatchewan. At its peak, it had eight across the Prairies.

Don’s Photo employs around 40 Manitobans.

Gabrielle Piché

Gabrielle Piché

Gabby is a big fan of people, writing and learning. She graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in the spring of 2020.


Updated on Friday, January 27, 2023 12:49 AM CST: Updates headline for clarity.

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