North End rising: Merchants Corner opens

Formerly a hotspot in the community for all the wrong reasons, the Merchants Hotel was officially reborn on April 28, 2018 as “Merchants Corner.” Now, this educational, residential and neighbourhood hub for the North End brings an entirely new positive impact — imagined and built by the community, for the community.

Hundreds gathered on the sunny Saturday morning at the corner of Selkirk Avenue and Andrews Street to get a first look at the space and hear from the visionaries who made the project a reality.

Merchants Corner, an educational, residential and community hub for the North End officially opened.

A $12.8-million redevelopment project, the innovative educational, student housing and community complex brings together the University of Winnipeg Department of Urban and Inner-City Studies and the high-school level Community Education Development Association (CEDA) Pathways to Education program. It also features 30 units of affordable housing as well as retail and community space.

Area residents, Elders, community groups and businesses had been pushing for a change to the troubled corner for well over a decade. With the support of the provincial government, the community saw the Merchants Hotel cease operations in 2012. Then in 2014, the provincial government announced continued support for the redevelopment of the project. One year later, dignitaries and community members proudly swung sledgehammers to start the road to transformation in a spirit of celebration.

A community dream is realized

Michael Champagne, a young champion of the North End who founded Aboriginal Youth Opportunities and Meet Me at the Bell Tower. Merchants Corner, an educational, residential and community hub for the North End officially opened.

At the grand opening, a longtime but youthful proponent of the project, Michael Champagne, got the day started with a spirited address to the crowd.

“Is this real life?” asked Champagne, a young champion of the North End who founded Aboriginal Youth Opportunities and Meet Me at the Bell Tower, a weekly event that brings members of the community together to discuss neighbourhood issues. He was also one of the first to raise funds for the Merch project by literally passing his hat. “The North End is a beautiful, strong, vibrant, generous, giving community. It’s about time we had a space that represented that back to the rest of the world.”

Buildings like this represent Mino-Pimatisiwin,” the Cree word meaning ‘the good life,’ Champagne said. “The good life where community members can be safe, where they can get educated, eat food, find housing, find family and find community.”

Along with Stan McKay and Ann Callahan, Kathy Mallett is one of Merchants Corner’s community Elders and an early supporter of the redevelopment initiative.

“It is a beautiful, wonderful place for our youth and community to come,” said Mallett, an inner-city activist and past co-director of CEDA. “It’s their home away from home.”

Dawn Sands, Executive Director of NECRC (North End Community Renewal Corporation) served as the opening’s emcee and explained how this event was the culmination of nearly 20 years of conversation and eight years of development.

“Your presence here today shows just how much all of you care about our community, about the people here, about those who live and work here and about this project,” Sands said. “Merchants Corner is a prime example of what can be accomplished when a community’s vision is honoured and supported.”

What you see today is what happens when we step outside of the box, banish the status quo and embrace opportunities to do things differently. We thank all three levels of government, foundations, private donors, professionals, businesses, community leaders, community members and volunteers who have all contributed to the redevelopment of Merchants Corner.”

A home for parents attending school

Merchants Corner is made up of two components: the north side Pritchard Avenue building and the south side Selkirk Avenue facility.

Merchants Corner, an educational, residential and community hub for the North End officially opened.

At about 27,280 square feet in size, the Selkirk Avenue building is split between residential, educational and community uses. Still in the works, it will also feature a social enterprise café that will be staffed by students.

The residential component takes up just over half the total square footage, with 13 residential apartments including three one-bedroom, nine two-bedroom and one three-bedroom unit. The $3.6-million housing component has been fully funded by Manitoba Housing.

The Pritchard Avenue component features 17 residential units composed of three one-bedroom, five two-bedroom and nine three-bedroom units in a 19,000 square foot building. This $5.5-million part of the overall project was also fully funded by Manitoba Housing.

All of these 30 subsidized, rent-geared-to-income residential units will be prioritized for students who have children and are attending one of the Selkirk Avenue educational institutions.

A new education campus

The U of W and CEDA’s Pathways to Education will be the main tenants of the community campus, utilizing over 13,000 square feet of education space on two floors.

University students will use the classrooms during the day while Pathways to Education and high-school students will use the same space in the later afternoon and evening. There will also be literacy programming for preschoolers and inter-generational Oji-Cree language classes.

The programs hope that the influx of university students and faculty members will normalize the idea of post-secondary education in the North End — a neighbourhood struggling with low rates of high-school attendance and completion.

Creating a space for high school-age students sharing space with university students is an innovative way to encourage our youth to pursue their educational dreams,” Sands said. “The University of Winnipeg is a critical project partner that values the importance of an intergenerational, community-based campus and recognizes the supports required for students’ success.”

This partnership between a university department and high-school education is believed to be the first of its kind in the country.

Merchants Corner will also offer up its spaces to area organizations and community-based programs who may need space for meetings or events. The $3.7-million price tag for the educational and community space will be covered by fundraising, or a combination of fundraising and a guaranteed $2-million loan from the province.

The project’s community partners, led by the North End Community Renewal Corporation (NECRC) have raised $2.7 million to pay for the educational and community programs of the south building.

Designed with the community

When it comes to the architecture and design of the spaces, the community was consulted at all stages by project architect Hijab Mitra of Mistecture Architecture.

Outside, the new Selkirk Avenue facade reflects the Indigenous nature of the community with four vertical feather-like elements. Inside, stairs wind up around a soaring, circular space that features a flock of golden doves in flight and design elements that evoke the image of a turtle shell. This area will serve as a student lounge.

The facility’s main classroom, located on the main level of what once was the Merchant Hotel’s bar, has street-level windows lining the space, looking out on and connecting with Selkirk Avenue and Andrews Street, and allowing the community to look in on this new centre of empowerment through education.

Rob Neufeld, board chair of Merchants Corner Inc. said the project is all about connection.

This project has brought people together,” Neufeld said. “It’s brought us together with the Elders and with the youth and encouraged so many investors to help out. The students are really the heart and soul here. The University of Winnipeg Community Renewal Corporation (UWCRC) hugely benefited the project and the Winnipeg Housing Rehabilitation Corporation, working on the housing aspect, made this work.”

Neufeld highlighted the importance of the spirit of reconciliation at the heart of the project, stating that, “It’s the healing that has to happen as we work together.”

A project that will change lives

It was an especially proud day for longtime advocate of the project, Dr. Jim Silver, professor of Urban and Inner-city Studies at the University of Winnipeg.

“This is a special day for the community, for our current students and the many, many future students who will study here,” he said. “I genuinely think it’s a special day for the city as a whole. This is a remarkable place and we’re doing remarkable things here.”

Dr. Annette Trimbee, President and Vice-chancellor of the University of Winnipeg. Merchants Corner, an educational, residential and community hub for the North End officially opened.

This place is going to change lives,” said Dr. Annette Trimbee, President and Vice-chancellor of the University of Winnipeg. Trimbee praised the educational model of multi-generational, family and community-centred learning. “The University of Winnipeg is very proud to be part of this community,” she said.

Marcella Poirier spoke on behalf of the UWCRC and its managing director, Sherman Kreiner, who was one of Merchant Corner’s founding board members.

“As the developer, we embraced the challenge of maintaining historical elements of the building and its connection with various communities on Selkirk Avenue while repurposing the new and expanded space, recognizing the Indigenous spirit of the neighbourhood,” she said.

She praised the 20 community organizations who came together to support the Merchants Corner project.

“These organizations believed in a shared vision and the community benefits a redeveloped Merchants Hotel could bring,” Poirier said. “In addition to the financial support from all levels of government, once again the community rallied phenomenal support for the project by exceeding the $1.7-million fundraising goal by $1 million.”

Poirier thanked business, labour union and private sector donors, as well as the Winnipeg Foundation for its gift of $600,000. She also thanked Assiniboine Credit Union for its commitment to the project.

“Assiniboine Credit Union provided a bridge-financing commitment that helped close the loop on the development finances,” Poirier said.

It was in conjunction with the Jubilee Fund, who provided a partial loan guarantee, that ACU was able to provide bridge financing for the project. ACU also provided a $50,000 grant to Merchants Corner.

Related: How the Jubilee Fund helps make positive social impacts in Manitoba

Support from all corners

At the heart of social, economic and community renewal is community,” said NECRC president Kyle Mason who grew up in the North End and continues to reside there. “We all need community and each other. I’m really thrilled a place like this is here now and will be a shining light of hope and community for future generations.”

The transformative nature of the project was also clear to Kevin Lamoureux, Member of Parliament for Winnipeg North.

Kevin Lamoureux, Member of Parliament for Winnipeg North.

“Years ago, when I was around this corner, it was not a nice place to be,” Lamoureux reflected. “The Merchants Hotel brought with it a lot of issues. Today, you get the sense we have turned a corner. I’m very proud of Winnipeg’s North End.”

The federal government and province have committed more than $15 million to the project through the federal-provincial Investment in Affordable Housing 2014-2019 extension.

“Manitoba Housing is proud to be a partner in the Merchants Corner project that has brought a community vision to life,” said Manitoba Minister of Families, Scott Fielding.

The City of Winnipeg also supported the project through financial contributions and the donation of land, and through the Community Incentives Grant Program, the Winnipeg Housing and Homelessness Initiative, and the William Whyte Neighbourhood Association.

Truly, this is a great example of co-operation, collaboration and a meeting of the minds to make this wonderful project what represents a North End rising,” said Winnipeg City Councillor Mike Pagtakhan. “It’s really a turning of the tide, right here on Selkirk Avenue. It’s truly a milestone and hallmark day for Winnipeg.”

Winnipeg city councillor Mike Pagtakhan.

“It’s a really proud moment for people in the North End and for Winnipeg as a whole,” said Shannon Bunn, the Community Coordinator for Merchants Corner Inc. “This place means a new beginning — for students, for families and for the community.”

The new beginning for the Merch even had former area residents stopping by.

“It’s awesome, just beautiful,” said Tammy Nault who had, for years, lived several doors down from the former troubled hotel. “I just had to come and see it.” She hopes the project’s innovative educational component will help spark North End youth’s potential.

“Kids will say, ‘I can do it too,’ ” Nault said. “It’s all about setting examples. You see different people in the area — it’s changing, it’s wonderful.”

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About Jason Halstead

Jason is a Winnipeg-based journalist and photographer who has been published across Canadian media.

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