October 23, 2019

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The old corner's jumping again

NHL's return part of new downtown

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 9/10/2011 (2935 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 9/10/2011 (2935 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Standing on the corner of Portage Avenue and Donald Street at the start of the new millennium was a lonely experience.

The once-mighty Eaton's building had been shuttered a few months earlier after nearly a century as the premier retail centre in the city, its last few years notwithstanding. Across the street, the old Portage Village Inn was still a few months away from being converted into A&B Sound, and if you wanted to find a nice sports bar to watch the big game and enjoy a few frosty cold beverages, happy hunting.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES
The MTS Centre has been a major factor in downtown revival since it opened.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES The MTS Centre has been a major factor in downtown revival since it opened.

All around, too many tired storefronts showed the wear and tear of a declining downtown, a once-thriving central business district that was losing people, investment and money to the suburbs.

What a difference some downtown vision makes.

On Sunday, Portage and Donald had arguably never been busier. (Mind you, Eaton's aficionados may say what used to be considered one of the most successful stores in the world attracted more traffic in its heyday. A half-century ago, Winnipeggers reportedly spent 50 cents of every non-grocery shopping dollar there, and on a busy day, one out of every 10 Winnipeggers visited the store.)

But Sunday afternoon, more than 15,000 hockey fans crammed into the MTS Centre, a building that sits on the old Eaton's site and has been heralded on more than one occasion as the saviour of downtown.

The Chipman family, who spearheaded the $133.5-million arena, which opened in the fall of 2004, has bristled at such suggestions, saying the project was merely part of a much bigger revitalization. Whichever argument you buy, the evidence is everywhere. A couple of blocks to the west sits the two-year-old headquarters of Manitoba Hydro, a $278-million gem of a building that is one of the most energy-efficient corporate headquarters in the world.

On the north side of Portage, the old A&B Sound location and many neighbouring buildings are on wrecking-ball row as work will soon begin on a $75-million hotel/office/retail/parkade development across from the MTS Centre.

And if you're one of the many thousands of hockey fans who didn't win the Jets ticket lottery, you can park yourself in front of one of the dozens of big-screen TVs in one of the growing number of high-end watering holes in the area. Try the nachos, too.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES
Eaton�s store used to be a downtown centrepiece before suburban malls took over.
Local-(For Aldo�s mayorilty race downtown tour)-Eaton�s Building-Downtown Winnipeg- Joe Bryksa photo- Sept 02, 1998

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES Eaton�s store used to be a downtown centrepiece before suburban malls took over. Local-(For Aldo�s mayorilty race downtown tour)-Eaton�s Building-Downtown Winnipeg- Joe Bryksa photo- Sept 02, 1998

Stefano Grande, executive director of the Downtown BIZ (Business Improvement Zone), said there's no question downtown Winnipeg has undergone a significant makeover in the past decade or so, starting with the construction of what is now known as Shaw Park in the late 1990s.

"I think the biggest statement was made by the city, that our downtown had to reinvent itself. The arrival of the MTS Centre really made downtown the centre of sports and entertainment in Winnipeg. That's the new direction of the city," he said.

Sold-out hockey crowds converging on downtown more than 40 times a year — not to mention fans of concerts and other events — will help quicken the development of the city's sports, hospitality and entertainment district, he said.

Not everything is perfect, mind you. There is still too much crime and too many undesirables in the area, which gives some people second thoughts about venturing downtown. Once it is a thriving and vibrant area, and only then, are perceptions about it likely to change, Grande said.

"We're rounding the corner. There are thousands more people coming downtown than there were six or seven years ago. Perceptions are starting to change. With the Jets here, people's passion and pride about our city is at a high level," he said.

So if you're surveying the scene from the corner of Portage and Donald today, tomorrow or next year, one thing is for sure — you'll have plenty of company.

geoff.kirbyson@freepress.mb.ca

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