Downtown officials are stepping up their efforts to attract new grocery retailers in the wake of the pending loss of two of the three full-line grocery stores serving the area.

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PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES
Stefano Grande, executive director of the Downtown Winnipeg Business Improvement Zone

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES Stefano Grande, executive director of the Downtown Winnipeg Business Improvement Zone

Downtown officials are stepping up their efforts to attract new grocery retailers in the wake of the pending loss of two of the three full-line grocery stores serving the area.

Stefano Grande, executive director of the Downtown Winnipeg Business Improvement Zone, said Tuesday that when the Extra Foods store at 600 Notre Dame Ave. closes next month and the Zellers outlet in the basement of the Portage Avenue Bay store closes next March, downtown residents will be left with only one full-line grocery store -- the IGA at the corner of Broadway and Donald Street.

That will be an impediment to further downtown residential growth, Grande said.

"I think we all recognize that with Zellers leaving and Extra Foods closing, that is going to be an issue for downtown residents. It's definitely something we have to respond to."

He said the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, CentreVenture Development Corp. and Economic Development Winnipeg are working together to identify local and out-of-province grocers who might open a downtown store and to scout for potential sites for new stores.

"I think there is a huge opportunity with two big grocers leaving," Grande said. "So we're reaching out to grocers, downtown property owners and (real estate) brokers."

CentreVenture CEO Ross McGowan said several grocers "are showing some interest." He wouldn't say who or reveal further details about their talks, but added he's hopeful a solution can be found within the next 12 months.

"I think we'll be successful... It's a high priority with us."

Jino Distasio, director of the University of Winnipeg's Institute of Urban Studies, said one of the factors that has discouraged full-line grocers from setting up shop downtown was the small population base. But he said the downtown population has grown substantially in the last 10 years -- Grande pegs it at about 16,000 people now -- and is getting big enough to support a mid-size grocery store.

"To me, what that grocery store in the basement of the Bay has demonstrated is that there is a demand in the downtown for decently priced groceries," Distasio said. "So if you could find the right space and could offer groceries at affordable prices, I think you could do quite well."

Grande said a business case can be made for a mid-size, full-line grocery store for the Portage Avenue area, and a smaller, specialty foods store for the Exchange District/Waterfront Drive area, where new condominium developments are attracting a growing number of higher-income families.

Brian Timmerman, executive director of the Exchange District BIZ, agreed, saying there are about 700 residential units in the area, with another 200 in the works.

"That's a lot of households," Timmerman said.

McGowan said there still aren't enough people living downtown to support a big-box supermarket.

"We've probably got to be a little more creative... It could be a combination wine store, cheese store, grocery store, corner store," he said.

murray.mcneill@freepress.mb.ca