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Bright future ahead for Portage Place

Two decades after taking over a derelict building and transforming downtown Winnipeg, True North Sports + Entertainment is preparing to do it again.

The real estate division of the company that owns the Winnipeg Jets recently unveiled ambitious plans to overhaul Portage Place, the mall that once housed an IMAX Theatre and movie theatre, and is still home to Winnipeg’s Prairie Theatre Exchange and a busy parkade. Unfortunately, its retail operations haven’t been thriving for years, and the white elephant mall has stifled downtown development for much of its existence since opening in 1987.

The half-billion-dollar transformation will turn the more than one million-square-foot mall into an “urban ecosystem” featuring a health centre, housing, groceries, community services and urban green spaces.

But it’s not just going to be different on the inside. The blueprints call for removing the top two of the four storeys, creating an outdoor public walkway where the mall’s clocktower sits today—only telling the correct time twice a day—and eliminating the barrier between downtown’s north and south neighbourhoods.

Carving the building up will enable the nearby YMCA to expand the delivery of its community services and Prairie Theatre Exchange to build out from its current space.

“You don’t get anybody’s attention with a bunt. If you want people to pay attention to what’s going on in Winnipeg, you better swing for the fences,” says Jim Ludlow, president of True North Real Estate Development. “We are cutting Portage Place up so it can breathe.”

Construction is scheduled to start shortly after the sale from Vancouver-based Peterson Group is finalized, expected before the end of the year. Part of the deal includes True North acquiring the underground parking lot from The Forks North Portage Partnership. A ribbon cutting ceremony will be held in 2027.

Over the last few decades, Winnipeg, like many other Canadian cities, has seen a rise in homelessness, addiction, and fears of violence. True North’s plans are aimed at addressing some of those issues.

The downtown skyline will welcome a 16-storey tower at the west side of the mall with housing for students and families. A 15-storey tower on the east side feature a wide variety of healthcare services, including primary care, an extended-hours walk-in clinic and an addictions treatment centre.

“When you’re looking at projects like this, the most important element for success is alignment between all constituents; the federal, provincial and civic governments, the private sector and the community. A relationship between all of them will produce the success we’re looking for,” Ludlow says.

There will also be a small number of ‘affordable’ retail stores. “There’s nothing wrong with having a dollar store here,” he says.

In 2001, True North bought the empty Eaton’s building on Portage Avenue, demolished it and built what is now known as Canada Life Centre. It has been widely heralded as a saviour of downtown Winnipeg, which, over the past two decades, has experienced unprecedented development and investment, although stalled in some cases by the pandemic.

Looking across Portage Avenue, Ludlow is also eager to see the redevelopment of the shuttered Hudson’s Bay store, which has been turned over to the Southern Chiefs Organization, representing 34 First Nations communities in the province. When the transformation of the century-old heritage building is complete, it will boast about 300 affordable housing units, a museum, art gallery and restaurants.

“We think each project will be helpful to the other.”

True North considered getting involved with Portage Place in 2015, backed off and was recently called back into the process.

“We came back into it almost reluctantly. Most folks have said we shouldn’t bother or that we’ve got to be crazy to take this on. But because we think a little differently, where they see a crisis, we see opportunity,” he says.

“We understand the local development landscape and we have a reasonable understanding of the challenges of Winnipeg’s downtown dynamic.”

With the Bay closed and Portage Place largely vacant, it’s easy for outsiders to wonder, “what’s wrong with Winnipeg? Why is there nearly two million square feet of vacancy downtown?” According to Ludlow, there’s nothing wrong with Winnipeg. We’re just doing things differently.

“There is a very creative and innovative response to redevelopment in the urban core of Winnipeg that’s aligned with the community and producing results that are reflective of what the community is. Winnipeg is healthy, it’s vibrant and it continues to work to evolve as a city,” Ludlow says.

True North Sports + Entertainment isn’t the only corporate heavyweight contributing to redevelopment efforts in downtown Winnipeg.
Two of the others are the Royal Bank of Canada and Air Canada. Perhaps you’ve heard of them?

RBC has a suite of financial solutions to help newcomers to Canada—and Winnipeg—get acclimatized. These solutions include waiving the requirements for a credit history when applying for their first credit card, car loan or mortgage, but the support goes far beyond financial matters.

It also includes providing advice, helping with job searches, locating affordable housing, dealing with various agencies, finding reliable wi-fi or even how to take public transit.

“We are striving to help New to Canada individuals find a more seamless settlement experience by serving as an advice giver, resource provider and community connector,” says Emma Khan, the bank’s regional community manager.

There’s a bottom-line rationale to RBC’s methods as new Canadians represent a critical driver of both economic strength and labour force growth.

“Newcomers will fuel Canada’s future growth and our capacity to remain competitive on a global stage,” she says.

Newcomers to Canada feel an immediate bond with the bank’s team because they are relatively new Canadians, too. They share their own experiences and provide guidance on Canada’s culture, customs and day-to-day life to help newcomers adapt to their new communities.

Mehulkumar Mochi, a newcomer specialist based in Winnipeg, arrived as an International Student in 2010.  “It’s a huge opportunity and I feel very honoured to be part of this team,” he says. “As a newcomer to Canada myself, there are many things to learn and know.”

Air Canada, meanwhile, continues to be a major employer in Winnipeg, with people working in airport and cargo operations as well as IT and maintenance. Winnipeg also hosts its global accounting and reporting centre.

Chris Isford, Winnipeg-based vice-president, finance and controller, says Air Canada employees based out of the company’s downtown headquarters on Portage Avenue adjacent to Portage Place are required to work at least 50 per cent of their time there.

“We need people downtown to improve the economics of downtown and that includes supporting all of the businesses located in the central business district, like restaurants, bars and entertainment venues,” he says.

He believes the redevelopment of Portage Place and the Bay will be extremely positive for downtown Winnipeg.

“We still need a bigger mass of people living downtown. There have been ongoing safety issues for our employees and others. The more people are downtown, the greater sense of safety there will be. Portage Place will help with that,” he says.


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