It looks like the notion of having a fancy restaurant in the middle of the Esplanade Riel linking St. Boniface with downtown Winnipeg may have run its course.
After three different restaurants could not make a go of operating on the iconic bridge, the city is now considering two visionary multi-use, event-style concepts to lease the city-owned space.
That’s according to a public tender process that closed recently.
The two proposals — one spearheaded by the Manitoba Technology Accelerator and the other by Seven Oaks School Division along with a number of partners including North Forge Technology Exchange — only include food service operations as secondary elements.
The three different restaurants that could not turn a profit at the 4,000 square foot space in the middle of the foot-bridge since 2005 included two of the city’s most successful restaurant enterprises — Salisbury House and Wow Hospitality.
They all cited similar challenges — the high operating costs and the lack of parking. The latter challenge rendered the location particularly challenging during the winter months.
Both MTA and Seven Oaks are proposing mixed-use concepts.
Brian O’Leary, superintendent of the Seven Oaks School Division, said their’s is more conceptual at this stage — including a UFO welcome centre — and that a full business plan would be forthcoming. The multi-use concept includes both private and public sector partners.
Marshall Ring, the chief executive officer of MTA, submitted a more finished proposal, including stating that it is prepared to make a five year commitment paying $5 per square foot in addition to the approximately $66,000 annual operating costs which includes taxes and $10,000 annually for repairs and maintenance.
The MTA’s proposal imagines the building to be used as MTA’s head office and as an applied innovation and networking and event centre.
Ring said, "My commitment to my board is to make Winnipeg the startup capital of Western Canada and to build more $100 million companies here. We can’t do that if the city is not seen as vibrant and dynamic and this is how we intend to solve it."
MTA, whose most famously successful startup client was SkipTheDishes, is currently in a dramatic growth spurt after partnering with federal government-sponsored Start-up Visa (SUV) program. It has about 250 clients from that program from 20 countries and just signed a lease for 30,000 square feet of space at 136 Market Ave. to house those operations.
The MTA proposal says it would invest about $250,000 in renovations, establish a technology commercialization hall of fame and, with its partner Bell MTS, build digital signage that would display content outside, for instance showing the work of its SUV clients.
As for the parking challenge, Ring’s proposal includes motorized scooter docking stations at nearby parking lots and in front of the building that visitors could zip back and forth on.
Ring imagines it as an attractive target for broadcast cameras to cut to during Winnipeg Jets hockey games, for instance, that show off Winnipeg landmarks.
"We think it is an excellent opportunity to have that building as a dynamic landmark for what the city of Winnipeg is becoming," he said.
O’Leary said the Seven Oaks vision for the site involves the idea of It becoming the location for a number of different social enterprises.
The proposal includes about a dozen partners "with a whole bunch of complimentary ideas."
He said there would be a culinary aspect to it, a small performance space in partnership with the Winnipeg International Children’s Festival and a high school business incubator in partnership with North Forge.
He said they are also looked at using the space for some corporate training, for instance in diversity, equity and inclusion which could have some revenue generating potential, as well as a retail enterprise modelled after a social enterprise in San Francisco called 826 Valencia, a non-profit pirate supply store dedicated to helping children and young adults develop writing skills and to helping teachers inspire their students to write.
O’Leary said the financial considerations, like how much rent they would be willing to pay, have not yet been determined.
"We’re hoping we would be invited to have further discussions with the city and then develop a full business plan," he said. "We talked to some people in the restaurant industry and they told us because of the seasonal nature of the space it would be really difficult to make a go of it (as a restaurant) so we were looking at it being a social enterprise centre."
Kalen Qually, a spokesman for the city said the RFP closed on April 16. "The City is now evaluating submitted proposals before making a recommendation to the Standing Policy Committee on Property and Development, Heritage, and Downtown Development, which is expected to happen in the coming months."
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.