The provincial government has bought some time for those who seek a new future for the shuttered Hudson’s Bay Company’s downtown store.
The store closed Nov. 30, 2020, and it wasn’t long after that the Bay logo was removed from the top of the building and workers covered its once-popular street-level window displays with plywood. It is an ugly reminder of the tough times downtown Winnipeg has faced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On April 7, Scott Fielding, Manitoba’s finance minister, announced in the provincial budget that the government would offer $25 million in trust to preserve the 650,000-square-foot building as a step toward its future redevelopment.
Cathy Cox, the province’s sport, culture and heritage minister, provided some clarity on the vague commitment on April 19, saying the funds are intended for projects that will restore, preserve or maintain the 95-year-old building’s heritage elements.
That would include its limestone exterior, which dominates the corner of Portage Avenue and Memorial Boulevard, one of downtown’s busiest intersections.
The $25-million offer will buy some time for entrepreneurs, architects and civic planners to brainstorm an idea for the future of the building, which was granted heritage status by the city in 2019.
Projects at other Canadian cities offer some hints to what can be done to revive large, historic landmarks while preserving the buildings’ famous exteriors that evoke fond memories of historic events.
Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens, which was built in 1931 and was home to the National Hockey League’s Maple Leafs until 1999, sat vacant for 12 years before the puck was dropped on a plan to turn the arena into a sports and recreational complex for Ryerson University and a main-floor supermarket.
It even includes a hockey arena — far smaller than the original "Carlton Street Cashbox," of course — which links the building’s future with its storied past.
Montreal did something similar with the Montreal Forum, transforming the arena the Canadiens called home from 1924 to 1996 into a downtown entertainment complex that has kept a few of the arena’s seats and made a home for a statue of hockey great Maurice (Rocket) Richard as a reminder of Stanley Cup glories.
For the Bay building, this is where the province’s money becomes so important. It needs an idea and the money to make it work.
It won’t be cheap. The renovation projects in Toronto and Montreal required innovative solutions to engineering problems in order to find new uses for the old buildings. Those can’t be found in the bargain bin during Bay Days.
What could those ideas be?
A mixed-use project teamed up with a university like in Toronto is one possibility. The University of Winnipeg considered buying the Bay building in 2012 to expand its downtown campus. While times have changed in the past nine years, a $25-million provincial ante might get the university interested in being dealt into a project.
Winnipeg’s museum options have multiplied in the past 15 years, thanks to the emergence of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in 2008, this spring’s opening of Qaumajuq at the Winnipeg Art Gallery and the recently completed renovations at the Manitoba Museum. Perhaps there is room for another attraction in Winnipeg to be housed in a space that already oozes with history.
The province has provided the cash. It’s now up to Winnipeg to shop for an idea that secures the Bay building’s future and a stronger downtown.