A popular North End business known for its selection of regionally produced aboriginal specialty foods and crafts is finally expanding its operations.
Neechi Foods Co-op at 325 Dufferin Ave. will be the main attraction at a proposed business and community complex to be known as Neechi Commons. The complex will be developed in the former California Fruit Market building at 865 Main St. as well as an adjacent building at 879 Main St.
Originally expected to break ground in the fall of 2009, the co-op delayed construction to work with Bridgman Collaborative Architecture on making the complex more environmentally friendly. It also solicited stakeholder and public input before choosing a final design.
Now the planning process is nearing completion and construction on the project is scheduled to begin in July and wrap up early in 2011. Costs are estimated at just over $4 million.
"We’re very excited because this has been a long time coming," said Louise Champagne, president of the co-op. Speaking at a final planning consultation meeting held on April 1, she said the complex will rehabilitate two landmark Main Street buildings and contribute to ongoing revitalization efforts in the area. It will also provide the co-op, its anchor tenant, with a highly-visible location — one served by more than 650 buses daily, as opposed to virtually none at the co-op's current location.
Russ Rothney, the co-op’s project manager, said the expansion will transform Neechi Foods Co-op into a destination of choice for consumers who want regionally-produced foods such as fish, berries, and wild rice.
Approximately two dozen people attended the meeting at which Wins Bridgman and Marcella Poirier of Bridgman Collaborative Architecture detailed what the complex will look like.
‘It's going to be welcoming and exciting," Poirier said.
She explained the roof of 865 Main St. will be raised to match that of the former California Fruit Market building. The two buildings will be joined into a single complex that houses the co-op, other business and community based tenants, and will have available for use by community groups.
The parking lot of 865 Main St. will be pushed to the back of the lot to allow for a farmers’ market adjacent to Main Street. The market will Initially be an open-air space for summer use, but there are plans to erect glass walls and a roofso it can be used year-round.
"The complex is going to reflect the vibrant aboriginal community and use as little energy as possible," Bridgman added.
He explained the interior of the two buildings will be completely rehabilitated. A new mezzanine level will be added, creating a high-ceiling effect. A courtyard will also be added, respecting the community hub role the co-op has played for years. Energy-saving features such as geo-thermal heating and skylights for natural lighting are also planned.
Anne-Shirley Clough, a North End resident who grew up in the neighbourhood, was visibly excited at the meeting. She said it's about time residents of the North End and Point Douglas had easier access to affordable, healthy food — especially since many don’t own vehicles and must walk or use public transit.
"This means I will have a farmers’ market within walking distance and I won’t have to go to Birds Hill Park or St. Norbert," she said, adding the symbolic benefits of Neechi Commons are as important to the area as its practical benefits.
"I grew up in the North End and it breaks my heart to see what it became," she said. "We need something like this in the neighbourhood because we’ve lost too much. Thankfully, Main Street is slowly coming back to life. It’s so exciting."