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This article was published 28/6/2018 (419 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
AFTER years of financial uncertainty — and millions in debt — Neechi Commons grocery-and-retail complex on Main Street will cease operations this weekend.
The Indigenous North End business centre opened with much fanfare on the corner of Main Street and Euclid Avenue in 2013, at a price tag of $8 million to convert two century-old buildings.
However, the high cost of construction and renovation left the co-op saddled with "a very large debt load," said a release issued Thursday night from Neechi’s board of directors.
The debt owed to primary lender Assiniboine Credit Union sits at almost $3.9 million, the board said.
"Neechi Commons will be closed to the public after Saturday, to allow the co-op to seek out partners interested in redeveloping the complex. The goal is to bring in new businesses and financing that would allow the Commons to continue to provide strategic economic, social and cultural benefits for Indigenous people, North End residents, and beyond," the release says.
"The staff-owned co-op is hoping that a new mix of products, services and ownership will lay the basis for the revitalization and long-term viability of Neechi Commons."
Throughout its lifespan, the complex housed an art and crafts shop, bakery, general store, fashion designers co-operative, supermarket and restaurant. (The Bison Berry Restaurant closed earlier this year.)
As the businesses wind down, there are empty spots on supermarket shelves where products such as fruit punch and tissues used to be stocked, and the smell of bannock and freshly baked cookies no longer fills the complex.
"I’m just sad," said Warren Catcheway, an area resident and member of Skownan First Nation, who found out Neechi was closing when he stopped by the complex Thursday.
"I was proud to come here. It felt good spending my money here, I was helping my brothers."
Sel Burrows, a Point Douglas community activist, said the community was excited five years ago to have a new local supermarket open. California Fruit Market had occupied the space before Neechi.
When Neechi closes, it will leave one of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods without a grocery store, he said.
The closest places to go grocery shopping, aside from neighbourhood convenience stores, are the new Giant Tiger and No Frills locations on Main Street near Inkster Boulevard, Burrows said, adding those low-cost options just a short bus ride north might have been part of the reason business wasn’t booming at Neechi.
"When you have a social economic enterprise, no matter how good it is and how wonderful it is, the number of people they’ve trained, people who wouldn’t have had jobs otherwise, who had jobs there and went on to better jobs, it still needs to be able to make money."
Deidre Nelson found out on Thursday her local bison meat stop was shutting down.
The East Kildonan resident, who teaches newcomers and international students English, said she made special trips to Neechi. She would often take students to the business centre to show them a buzzing Indigenous enterprise to help combat any negative stereotypes.
"I knew there was (financial) trouble, so it’s a surprise — but not a surprise," Nelson said. "You kind of still hope it’ll work out in the end."
Those sentiments were echoed by neighbours around the corner from Neechi who were having a community celebration at St. Andrew Ukrainian Catholic Church. Neechi consciously employed local residents, said Rev. Larry Kondra, chaplain for Welcome Home Ministries, so the job loss will hurt.
Noting the beautiful architecture and all the money spent repairing the brick building, Burrows said the Point Douglas community hopes it won’t sit empty for long.
The complex remains on the market for $4 million, said Kevin Sitka, president and chief executive officer at Assiniboine Credit Union.
After no bids were made to buy the Main Street fixture during a July 2017 auction — the reserve bid was $3.8 million — the complex went up for sale.
Peguis First Nation was interested in buying the complex last summer, Chief Glenn Hudson told the Free Press. The First Nation was open to leasing the facilities back to the co-op, he said Thursday.
"It was only us who were interested in helping them but, unfortunately, we couldn’t agree to terms," Hudson said. "Their terms were too demanding."
Sitka said he couldn’t comment on the mortgage loans distributed to Neechi, due to member confidentiality, but added the credit union has done "everything possible to support Neechi over the years, because we understand the social impact a store like that has."
The credit union gave Neechi a $3-million-plus loan to help the co-op get off the ground in 2013. Provincial and federal governments also chipped in millions at the time.
"We’re desperately hoping that someone will buy it, and it’ll be somebody with a bit of a social consciousness who will interact with the Point Douglas area and inner-city area like Neechi did," Burrows said.
"But that, unfortunately, is out of our control."