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This article was published 1/6/2011 (3065 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Safety concerns helped to torpedo one of the biggest downtown office-leasing deals in years, a spokesman for the tenant says.
Western Financial Group announced last June it would be consolidating its four Winnipeg offices under one roof, and that its preference would be to have the new 72,000-square-foot office space in the downtown.
But instead of choosing one of the four downtown sites on its short list, a Western Financial official said Wednesday it will be the anchor tenant in Phase 2 of the new Polo North office/retail complex at Polo Park.
The loss of a potential major tenant to the suburbs comes at a time when the downtown has been on a roll, with new commercial and residential developments springing up and with this week's news that Winnipeg and the MTS Centre are getting an NHL team. That alone will add thousands more pedestrians to downtown streets, especially at night.
Randy Valpy said the reasons WFG chose Polo North include cheaper rent, cheaper parking rates and the ability to add more space down the road. But one of the main reasons was employees' and management's concern about downtown safety at night.
Valpy said some of the firm's 350 employees work until 10 p.m., and they were worried about having to catch a bus or walk to their cars downtown that late at night.
"If we were a nine-to-five operation, we probably would have jumped all over it (a downtown site)," he said. "But at the end of the day, it came down to knowing our employees would be fine. We just felt better about Polo Park."
The leasing agent for the downtown site that most intrigued WFG — the former Brick's Fine Furniture building at 111 Lombard Ave. — said he was disappointed by the firm's decision.
"A major, major downtown opportunity has again been lost to the suburbs," said Joe Diner of C.B. Richard Ellis Manitoba. WFG would have filled four of the six floors in the Brick's building.
"These big tenants don't come along that often," Diner said, adding it would have been his biggest downtown office deal since the mid-1990s.
Despite news coverage of the company's search for a new location, no one from the city or any downtown business organizations contacted them to offer information or to address any concerns, Valpy said.
"It struck me as a little surprising that someone... didn't reach out to us," he said.
Stefano Grande, executive director of the Downtown Winnipeg Business Improvement Zone, said CentreVenture, the city's downtown development agency, has the mandate to recruit and work with commercial tenants.
"But we have armed all the major real estate brokers with detailed downtown information, including safety information," Grande said, "which they would have used for their proposals."
Winnipeg Police Service statistics show crime rates are not higher downtown, he said. But misconceptions remain, and the BIZ is trying to address concerns with its evening safe-walk program and the WPS's new cadet program, which has police cadets patrolling downtown streets.
Diner refused to criticize the BIZ or CentreVenture for not contacting WFG. "Communication is a two-way street," he said, and WFG officials never told him downtown safety was an issue. If they had, he would have called in Economic Development Winnipeg to help persuade them it's not a legitimate concern.
Landing WFG as an anchor tenant clears the way for Cadillac Fairview to proceed with Phase 2 of its Polo North development on the former Winnipeg Arena site. The first phase was the recent redevelopment of the former WTN/CTV television studios.
Sites on short list
HERE are the four downtown sites that made Western Financial Group's short list:
— A six-storey, 90,000-square-foot office building that would be built on the centre pad above the Shops of Winnipeg Square;
— An 80,000-plus-square-foot office building that would be built on one of the undeveloped building pads at each end of Portage Place Shopping Centre.;
— The former Brick's Fine Furniture Building at 111 Lombard Ave., which is being redeveloped into an environmentally friendly office complex;
— Four or five floors in the highrise office building at 363 Broadway.
Better late than never
IT'S taken about six years for Shindico Realty Inc. and Cadillac Fairview to nail down a tenant for the arena-site project.
Shindico development manager Bob Downs said Western Financial Group will be the lone office tenant, and the 80,000 square feet on the ground floor will be retail space, although no retail tenants have been signed yet.
Downs said construction of the building will get underway in August or September, and the shell should be completed by October of next year. WFG will be developing its own space, and hopes to move in by March 2013.
Canada's largest Asian supermarket chain — Vancouver-based T & T Supermarket Inc. — had been interested in leasing 45,000 square feet on the main floor, but Downs confirmed that deal has fallen through.
Negotiations are underway with other interested parties, but no deals have been signed, he said. The same goes for the vacant retail space on the main floor of the WTN and CTV buildings.
Downs said he hopes to ink some more deals by the end of the summer.