What was once an oft-avoided eyesore is now poised to be a main community hub in the North End.
Hundreds of people packed into 541 Selkirk Ave. on Saturday morning for the grand opening of Merchants Corner Inc.
The mixed-use development will host the University of Winnipeg's department of urban and inner-city studies, the Pathways to Education program for high school students put on by Community Education Development Association (CEDA), 30 affordable housing units and plenty of neighbourhood gathering space, including a café and commercial kitchen.
Groups like Meet Me at the Belltower and Aboriginal Youth Opportunities (AYO) already plan to meet at the new Merch on Fridays.
AYO member Mark Head said that, in an ideal world, the building will be a safe space for people to come socialize and learn in the North End.
"A new place like this is like a plant, right? You don’t know how it’s going to grow. Is it going to have a lot of leaves? Is it going to have a lot of blooms?" he said. "We tend to start knowing kind of within a year, this is what it’s going to look like."
Rob Neufeld, the board chair for Merchants Corner, said the next steps of development will involve scheduling programming that will bring the building to life and ensure it's a welcoming place.
"I think one of the main aspects of the whole project is connecting people," he said.
Board member Kathy Mallet echoed the sentiment.
"A building is a building, right? The people are the heart of the building," Mallet said.
She expects hundreds, most of them students, will pass through the Merch on any given day.
Reinaldo Contreras, a U of W grad now working as an associate researcher with the urban and inner-city studies department, will be one of them.
"This will give a new dynamic to the community and it will certainly attract different traffic to the area and I bet you there will be more economic activity here in the area," he said.
Community builders, politicians and neighbours mingled in the new and improved digs, formerly home to the Merchants Hotel. That space was gutted and made over starting in 2015. The hotel was widely seen as dangerous and people actively veered away from it before its closure in 2012.
Kelly Taylor, a North End resident of 30 years, called the former hotel "a black hole." She swung by Saturday to take in the building with fresh eyes.
"It is good. Any movement is good for the community. The North End is really a great place, it's the best-kept secret in Winnipeg," she said.
Elder Stan McKay led the grand opening with a prayer and spoke highly of the Merch concept in an interview beforehand.
"When I was going to the University of Winnipeg and living on Selkirk, this was not a good place. So it’s great that we’ve been able to take it and make it part of the community," he said.
"We’ve had a vision for this place for a long, long time and this is an amazing day."
Jessica Botelho-Urbanski covers the Manitoba Legislature for the Winnipeg Free Press.