True North deserves chance to revive Portage Place
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It probably wasn’t the reaction True North expected.
This week we learned that a division of True North Sports and Entertainment — owner of the Canada Life Centre and the Winnipeg Jets — is interested in acquiring the nearly empty Portage Place mall downtown.
True North is seeking a $34.5-million option to purchase the land and parkade beneath the mall, both of which are owned by the Forks North Portage Partnership, an agency controlled by the city, province and federal government. Implied in the option would be a second deal to acquire the mall itself, which is owned by a private company.
There aren’t a lot of details right now. All that True North will say is that it hopes to transform the moribund mall into a “mixed-use community” featuring housing, services and programs designed to address the area’s social and economic needs.
At first blush, True North’s interest in Portage Place is a sign of progress in the potential redevelopment of a building that is no longer a good fit for downtown. However, this is hardly your run-of-the-mill real estate transaction.
The land is government-owned, which means there is a legal and moral obligation to first seek out First Nations interest in the property. Then, there is the neighbourhood in which the mall is located. Winnipeg’s downtown is in the grips of a social crisis involving homelessness, substance abuse, mental health challenges, and escalating street crime.
These factors make the redevelopment of the mall a massively complex undertaking, and True North’s involvement potentially controversial. That was quite evident in the early reviews from interested community groups.
Winnipeg Mayor Scott Gillingham and members of city council welcomed True North’s potential involvement as a way to redevelop the mall to make it more “vibrant and attractive” so more people would move and live downtown. Others were much less supportive.
The Social Planning Council suggested any redevelopment should be “Indigenous-led” and the property must include a community space with public washrooms, showers, laundry facilities and other social supports. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives sounded similar notes, urging the city, province and federal government to reject the True North offer and engage with “First Nations, Métis and Indigenous community leadership” to develop a plan.
The priorities identified by the two groups are worthy. What is perhaps disappointing is that they suggest True North is not a worthy partner in pursuing those priorities.
It is difficult to fully support a plan that has not been fully described. True North’s vision for Portage Place — and the process by which that vision is created — must be laid out for all to see and discuss. However, it’s also not wrong to give True North the benefit of the doubt at this early stage.
True North is a successful private business that has earned enormous returns for the Chipman family and others who have helped it grow into a multi-faceted empire that is among the most influential in the province.
The Chipmans have used that influence to support and deliver a number of worthy projects for the city, including social programs to support the most vulnerable downtown residents
More importantly, True North has proven to be an active partner in Indigenous reconciliation.
Winnipeg’s arena was among the first NHL facilities to include an Indigenous land acknowledgement prior to games. This week, the Jets celebrated the fifth annual Winnipeg Aboriginal Sport Achievement Centre Night by hosting youth from First Nations and Métis communities at a game with the Edmonton Oilers. Thanks largely to the lobbying efforts of chairman Mark Chipman, both teams were permitted to wear Indigenous-themed jerseys for their warmup.
It would be presumptuous to suggest these gestures on their own fulfil our collective obligation to pursue reconciliation. It is also unfair to assume they are warmly embraced by all Indigenous people. In fact, it is safe to assume some Indigenous Manitobans may see True North as engaging in purely cosmetic deeds.
However, in the context of the future of Portage Place, it is more important to recognize that these events are the direct result of collaboration between True North and Indigenous community leaders.
All that said, the proof of True North’s commitment to reconciliation and Indigenous interests in the land beneath the mall will be found in the fine print of an as-yet unpublished redevelopment plan. If we’re being totally honest with ourselves, even if True North gets an option to purchase the mall, it may find it has undertaken a nearly impossible task.
A re-imagined Portage Place, if it is to really change downtown for the better, must find a way of attracting new residents without displacing the people who live there. It must increase opportunities for commerce, while providing essential supports for the vulnerable. It must be a place where people of different incomes and backgrounds have access to the same community amenities and services.
The owners of True North may not be the right people to accomplish that, but they’ve probably earned the right to try.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.