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This article was published 29/6/2018 (771 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
At least 40 people will lose their jobs when Neechi Commons ceases operations today in the brick grocery-and-retail complex on Main Street.
Due to construction and renovation costs that left the co-op with at least $5 million in debt — $3.8 million to primary lender Assiniboine Credit Union and another $1.3 million borrowed from private lenders — the Indigenous-run business centre is closing its doors today, Neechi spokesman Russ Rothney said.
Rothney told the Free Press they chose to wind down the remaining operations this weekend because July is a slow sales month and Neechi "couldn’t afford to keep plugging cash losses."
"We’ve been scaling back heavy already, (but) the total loss will be over 40 (staff) from where we were a few months ago when we were still pretty well at peak," said Rothney, a board member on the staff-owned co-op that ran the complex. (He said he’s been volunteering on the board for nine years.)
Employees staffed an arts and crafts shop, bakery, general store, supermarket and restaurant throughout the complex’s five-year lifespan. About half of them had bought into the $500 co-op membership fee, while others were working towards paying it, Rothney said, adding their "top priority" was to buy out the members when they decided to close.
The only Neechi Foods Co-op members left are the seven people on the board, he said.
"There are a lot of sad, disappointed people, of course. Some of them were quite caught off guard, others were worrying. Some people have suggested we have a commemorative event to celebrate the positive — and we just might do that."
About 90 per cent of the employees who worked at Neechi identified as Indigenous, he added.
Neechi Foods Co-op has also focused on hiring North End residents since it opened its old store on Dufferin Avenue in 1990, said a news release from the board members.
"We’re not going away, we’re just trying to come up with a new solution for the Commons," Rothney said.
Not only will Neechi employees lose out when operation closes, local artists will lose a retail space too.
Work by more than 200 artists and artisans was sold at Neechi Niche, the art and giftshop on the second floor of the complex, a sales associate said.
Wooden bowls made by "Dan the Carver" were just one of the things often stocked in the store, alongside books, dreamcatchers, jewelry and paintings.
"For the local artists, it’s going to be tremendously missed," said Danny Waldman, a local woodcarver who sold dozens of smudge bowls on consignment every year.
"It was a wonderful outlet for local artists and artisans because they did both Aboriginal and local."
Artists signed a consignment agreement that stated the retailer would keep 30 per cent of a sold artwork’s profit and the artist would receive 70 per cent, Waldman and photographer Michael Yellowwing Kannon said.
However, Kannon said he got paid for one photograph of his that was sold, but his other 18 pieces that were at Neechi have gone missing.
"I got one sale and then I never heard back," he said, adding he went to visit the shop to find out his name wasn't even in the system.
With the store closing today, the photographer said he and other artists are worried about lost work.
Rothney said Friday he wasn’t aware of any lost artwork or artists’ concerns.
The Neechi Niche manager did not respond to a request for comment.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.
Updated on Friday, June 29, 2018 at 7:36 PM CDT: corrects typo
June 30, 2018 at 7:19 AM: Final
July 2, 2018 at 12:45 PM: Clarifies Kannon's statements about being paid
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