Hey there, time traveller! This article was published 28/4/2018 (1191 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Not that long ago, Brandon Murdock would go out of his way to avoid the notorious North End corner where gang members were dealing drugs and passersby feared violent attacks and getting robbed.
"You’d hear the craziest stories — people being beat up for their beer or a smoke," said Murdock, 23.
Today, the corner on Selkirk Avenue that used to be home to the Merchants Hotel has been transformed after receiving a multimillion-dollar makeover and addition, new non-profit owners and a new name, Merchants Corner Inc. Where there once was a dark, dank beer vendor, there is now a state-of-the art classroom where Murdock attends University of Winnipeg urban and inner-city studies classes part time. It is a luminous learning space with huge windows, a high-tech smartboard and a wall resurfaced as a whiteboard for instructors and students to write on. The new and improved three-storey "Merch" has about 10,000 square feet of space on each floor; education space in three classrooms on the main level take up about 5,000 square feet.
Upstairs, where dismal hotel rooms once served as a last resort for residents with no other housing options, there are modern, affordable apartments with high ceilings and tasteful finishes.
Merchants Corner — which includes the redeveloped hotel and new construction on six adjoining city lots — has 30 rent-geared-to-income suites. Thirteen are in The Merch, the other 17 are in the new apartment block behind it on Pritchard Avenue. Students from the area get first crack at the housing units.
On the top floor of Merchants Corner, Murdock works full time as a facilitator for the Community Education Development Association’s Pathways to Education program. The program supports 300 students a year in Winnipeg, helping them to graduate from high school and transition to post-secondary education, training, or employment. Murdock got his Grade 12 though the CEDA program and is now working towards a bachelor of arts degree at Merchants Corner, which is home to the University of Winnipeg’s department of urban and inner-classes studies.
The corner that used to suck the life out of the neighbourhood is now nourishing it.
"It’s what the community needed," said Murdock, the youngest of five children and the first in his family to graduate from high school thanks to the CEDA program. He’s now the first in his family to attend university.
In Grade 9, CEDA helped him get into a safe place to live and continue his education.
"The housing part is crucial," said Murdock, originally from Fisher River Cree Nation, who now lives in the West End. "There aren’t enough affordable housing options."
Merchants Corner is bringing together education, housing and supports such as the meal that CEDA students get there every day, Murdock said. He’s looking forward to seeing the finishing touches on the facade of the building — four huge feathers, signifying the protection of the eagle for all who enter.
Hijab Mitra of Mistecture Architecture met with neighbours and Indigenous elders to come up with the design and imagery for Merchants Corner, something Murdock said is "really cool." The main floor is recessed, with floor-to-ceiling windows facing Selkirk Avenue and wall surfaces that resemble the polished shell of a turtle. The light-filled circular atrium is a nod to the circle of life. Along the round, white feature wall, golden doves symbolizing peace break through hexagonal clouds and fly up and away into a clear sky. On the periphery are the offices for the U of W faculty and study and computer rooms for students.
"You can feel creative in this space — it’s not just a square box," said Merchants Corner community co-ordinator Shannon Bunn, whose desk looks out on it.
All that’s missing from the spectacular atrium is a social entrepreneur to run a café out of the Merchants Corner commercial kitchen, said Dawn Sands, executive director of the North End Community Renewal Corp., which has managed the co-ordination and administration of the project.
The atrium and outdoor sidewalk café facing Selkirk were designed with plenty of space for tables full of customers, Sands said. They’re looking for an enterprise that offers learning and work opportunities for students while providing snacks and non-alcoholic beverages for purchase, she said.
With a board that includes community members, Merchants Corner Inc., is helping to revive the once-thriving Selkirk Avenue neighbourhood, Murdock said, adding he plans to continue working in the area once he earns his BA.
"This is my heart," he said, stretching out his arms as if to embrace the neighbourhood and its residents.
University of Winnipeg Prof. Jim Silver has championed the Merchants Corner project since 2011. The head of the urban and inner-city studies department rallied area agencies to support the redevelopment of the hotel into a hub for housing, education and culture in the community.
Close to 40 per cent of area families are led by single parents, many of whom are young and Indigenous, U of W data shows. The high school graduation rate in the North End is just 55 per cent, compared with 98 per cent in suburban Winnipeg. There are parts of the North End where just 25 per cent of kids finish high school on time, Manitoba Centre for Health Policy statistics have noted.
The neighbourhood has a high poverty rate and a large Indigenous population — people who’ve historically had bad experiences with the education system, Silver said.
"If you’ve had bad experiences, it’s hard to develop a relationship of trust," said Sands.
The project’s goal is to re-establish that trust. It’s trying to create an educational and cultural complex that’s consistent with the Calls to Action in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report. Its programming will include Oji-Cree language classes for preschool children, their parents and grandparents. It’s going for an inter-generational approach that creates a culture of lifelong learning.
Bunn, Merchants Corner’s community co-ordinator, grew up in the North End and knows the people and their struggles intimately. At 16, she was a single mom who had dropped out of high school. In her 20s, she went back to get her Grade 12 and then studied business administration at Red River College. Her 18-year-old daughter just had a baby and is taking part in CEDA’s Pathways to Education program. She lives in one of the rent-geared-to-income apartments next door. Bunn wishes she had the choices her daughter has now.
"There was nothing," she recalled.
Now the low-income neighbourhood has Merchants Corner, and a high-end quality feel to it.
The expensive look and feel of the place has a lot to do with "modesty standards" that the project’s architect seems to have helped raise when it comes to government-funded building projects, said Sands.
Raising the quality standards of materials means they last longer and look better. And people tend to take better care of things when they feel valued and respected.
Bunn said her daughter keeps her Merchants Corner apartment on Pritchard immaculate, and wants it to look nice.
"She’s proud to live in it," Bunn said.
So far, 10 of the 17 suites at 540 Pritchard Avenue are occupied; none of the 13 suites in the main building on Selkirk have been rented out yet, Sands said.
People involved with the housing part of the project are learning that the need for singles accommodations is greater than they expected. Many potential students are couch-surfing because they have nowhere safe and affordable to call home, she said.
The housing units’ no pets and no smoking policies are under review, Sands said. Some who are eager to get an education and need housing won’t abandon pets that are like family, she said. And for residents who smoke — especially women — leaving their apartments to go outside for a cigarette at street level raises safety concerns.
They’re working to find ways to meet the needs of the community without putting up more barriers, she said.
Silver said the idea is to set up people for success. For him, that means keeping class sizes to a maximum of 25 students rather than three times that many, which is often the case at the university’s downtown campus. With fewer students, he has more time to spend with them individually, and if someone is absent, he notices.
"If a student hasn’t come to class in a while, I contact them and ask, ‘What’s up?’"
Students who receive bad grades have a chance at a do-over, but only if they work with a tutor to get extra help to bring them up to speed, Silver said. Notwithstanding the kinder, gentler approach, they know nothing is going to be handed to them on a silver platter.
"This is a place where you come to study and you’re going to have to work your ass off," he said.
The U of W offers courses at Merchants Corner in subjects not tied to urban and inner-city studies, such as economics and conflict resolution, he said, adding an "innovative" theatre course tailored for the student body will be offered next year.
Getting students from the main campus into Merchants Corner classrooms is an important part of the overall strategy, Silver said, allowing for interaction with inner-city and Indigenous students.
"We think of this as reconciliation in action," he said. "We find that coming here to the North End and taking our courses really shatters the stereotypes that many Winnipeggers have of the North End. So we try to get as many main-campus courses here as possible, and with Merchants Corner now up and running, we will be able to do more of that."
Bunn said the affordable housing units are for the studious, not people who want to host rowdy parties or be otherwise difficult tenants. Prospective tenants who may not have any formal work or housing references have to provide letters of support vouching for their good character.
Aside from the housing units and secondary and post-secondary classes, Merchants Corner is gearing up for more community involvement, Silver said. They’re working with Aboriginal Youth Opportunities and organizers of the Meet Me at the Bell Tower gatherings on Selkirk Avenue to provide a space for them to go after their Friday evening events and on the weekend, he said.
Sands said they’ve been asking people in the community what they want to see at the development, and the most common requests are for literacy programs and somewhere to simply gather and visit. But how does a place like that survive?
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With revenue from its two main tenants — the U of W and CEDA, Sands said.
Silver said the plan is to rent out meeting space and classrooms to outside groups, such as the United Food and Commercial Workers union members, who’ve booked space in the coming weeks.
Merchants Corner Inc. is leasing the main building on Selkirk and the new apartment block behind it from Manitoba Housing for 40 years, said Sands. After that, the non-profit organization will own the buildings. As part of the lease, Merchants Corner is overseeing Winnipeg Housing Renewal Corp.’s management of the housing units and Manitoba Housing provides the subsidies for the rent-geared-to-income apartments, she said.
Merchants Corner is creating a positive vibe in the area, said Sands, who has had people come up to her on the street, gaze at the building and say, "Isn’t it beautiful?"
"It’s a beacon of hope," she said.
Carol Sanders Legislature reporter
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.
Winnipeggers are invited to the grand opening of Merchants Corner today from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. There will be tours, entertainment, children’s activities, snacks and acknowledgements — thanking the government funders and donors. Federal and provincial governments committed $15 million to the project through the Investment in Affordable Housing initiative. The community raised an additional $2.7 million from donors to go towards capital costs, technology infrastructure and training spaces within the complex.
Looking back at the Merch
1913-14 — The three-storey building at 541 Selkirk Ave. is constructed as a hardware store for hardware merchant Robert Steiman.
1933 — It’s converted into the Merchants Hotel, with a beer vendor that eventually became a magnet for trouble in the neighbourhood.
2011 — University of Winnipeg urban and inner-city studies professor Jim Silver calls for the closure and redevelopment of the hotel.
2012 — Merchants Hotel closes. The 13 tenants renting rooms there get help finding new accommodations. A community coalition of 20 North End organizations including, the North End Community Renewal Corp., Urban Circle Training Centre Inc., the Selkirk Avenue BIZ, Andrews Street Family Centre, Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre, Ndinawemaaganag Endaawaad Inc., Community Education Development Association (CEDA), the U of W, and SEED Winnipeg join forces to redevelop the hotel and six adjoining city lots.
2014-2015 — Provincial and federal governments commit more than $15 million to the project through the federal-provincial Investment in Affordable Housing.
Fall 2014 — The community begins active fundraising with a $3-million goal.
Fall 2015 — Community fundraiser — donors get a chance to swing the ceremonial sledgehammer. Work begins to gut the original three-storey hotel and construct an addition on the west side. Work also begins on 17-unit apartment block next door.
May 13, 2017 — Firefighters are called to extinguish the flames when fire breaks out in the old building on a Friday night. Arson is suspected. No one is injured and the blaze doesn’t cause enough damage to set back construction.
February 2018 — CEDA Pathways to Education and University of Winnipeg’s urban and inner-city studies department move in, offering about 10 fall- and winter-term secondary and post-secondary courses as well as a pared-down spring-term selection.
Sources: Manitoba Historical Society, Merchants Corner Inc., University of Winnipeg