January 17, 2018

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Market makeover

The Common is anything but as The Forks continues its 6,000-year evolution as a place to meet

<p>The Forks Common is perpetually bustling in the evenings, making it a scramble to find a table at times.</p></p>

JESSICA BOTELHO-URBANSKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The Forks Common is perpetually bustling in the evenings, making it a scramble to find a table at times.

It's just after 10:30 a.m. Friday when The Common at The Forks Market really begins to buzz.

Two women on a doughnut date talk business while typing away at laptops. Senior citizens chow down on early lunches brought from home. A mom dashes after her toddler who made a beeline for The Almond Tree candy store. A Spotify playlist curated by Manitoba Music crackles over the speakers.

The Forks, a 6,000-year-old meeting place, is alive and well in Winnipeg, though it's undergone some major changes in the last few years.

The most recent shuffle is the closure of Sydney's, a 100-seat fine dining restaurant located on the market's second floor. Owner Michael Schafer said the closure is "due to very personal reasons" he didn't want to elaborate on publicly.

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It's just after 10:30 a.m. Friday when The Common at The Forks Market really begins to buzz. 

Two women on a doughnut date talk business while typing away at laptops. Senior citizens chow down on early lunches brought from home. A mom dashes after her toddler who made a beeline for The Almond Tree candy store. A Spotify playlist curated by Manitoba Music crackles over the speakers.

The Forks, a 6,000-year-old meeting place, is alive and well in Winnipeg, though it's undergone some major changes in the last few years.

The most recent shuffle is the closure of Sydney's, a 100-seat fine dining restaurant located on the market's second floor. Owner Michael Schafer said the closure is "due to very personal reasons" he didn't want to elaborate on publicly. 

Sydney's is serving its last suppers on the weekend, by reservation only, though its lease is up at the end of the month.

Sydney's is closing for very personal reasons.</p>

JESSICA BOTELHO-URBANSKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Sydney's is closing for very personal reasons.

Chelsea Thomson, manager of marketing and communications for The Forks North Portage Partnership, said The Forks hasn't decided what will go in the vacated spot yet.

"We're not in a super rush to fill spaces," she said Friday. "We want to make sure (to find) the right tenant for the place."

The market's sales have seen a 30 per cent increase across the board in the last year, Thomson said, but there's no waitlist for new tenants clamouring to get in.

So far at least two new businesses are moving in soon. McNally Robinson will offer a bookshop on the second floor, likely open by February, Thomson said. And Jenna Rae Cakes will open a second, smaller store at the market, hopefully by March, owner Ashley Illchuk said.

There are still a few old standbys, like Fro-gurts and Skinner's, who have been around since the market's launch in 1989. Taste of Sri Lanka opened six months after that and continues to do well, said owner Peter Bastians. Sales went up 60 per cent last summer from the year before and 20 per cent in the winter.

Still, Bastians said he worries about the variety of food vendors at the market — or lack thereof. Having three places serving Italian-influenced food — PASSERO, Red Ember and Zorba's Pizza — pits those tenants against one another, he said.

New tenants coming to The Forks include Jenna Rae Cakes and McNally Robinson.</p></p>

JESSICA BOTELHO-URBANSKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

New tenants coming to The Forks include Jenna Rae Cakes and McNally Robinson.

Thompson said an "independent food hall advisory committee" helps curate a wide variety of options and the menus for the three Italian spots mentioned differ from one another.

Chief among the changes at The Forks is obviously The Common, where it can be tough to even find a table most nights. Here, running clubs, families, tourists and myriad millennials convene for dinner and drinks.

For five years, Generation Green, an eco-friendly store focused on beauty and health supplies, occupied a first-floor stall in the same hallway as Fergie's Fish 'n Chips and Beachcomber. But when The Forks needed to make more seating available, management asked if Sherry Sobey would move Generation Green upstairs. She contemplated the idea, but ultimately declined. The new lease and renovations — which would factor into her rent costs — would be too expensive, she said.

Now set up in the Exchange District, Sobey said she found twice the square footage for far less rent. She enjoyed her five years at The Forks, but saw "a real detachment between the management and the vendors." 

"I do appreciate the fact that with all these changes, it is a business in the end that they’re running," she said. "It’s just unfortunate that it’s kind of losing that home-grown kind of grassroots appeal to it. It was really focused at one time on being a family destination whereas now it’s more a millennial destination."

The Forks is trying its best to appeal to all demographics. "If it's a place that Winnipeggers want to go to, then the tourists will come too," Thompson said. And hordes are coming — an estimated 30,000 people showed up last Sunday when the weather warmed up.

Other developments on the Forks' horizon include looking for a possible festival replacement for Interstellar Rodeo, which announced it was leaving Winnipeg last year. 

If railside redevelopment plans go as scheduled, people could soon be living at The Forks, too, Thompson said. Construction for residential development could start as soon as 2019, over the surface parking lots near Union Station.

jessica.botelho@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @_jessbu

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