No takers so far as anxious downtown stakeholders hunt for a replacement for Zellers grocery store

Stefano Grande Downtown
Stefano Grande

The imminent closure of the Zellers grocery store has sparked significant concern from the downtown community at large – all wondering, what next?

Okay... so now, where's the meat?
Okay… so now, where’s the meat?

This issue resonates strongly with our BIZ members. And it has become an issue that the Downtown BIZ and our downtown stakeholders have received numerous calls about. From office workers to residents to students, we are hearing a public appeal for a grocery store in the heart of our city.

The Zellers grocery store in the Bay offers an abundance of fair-priced produce and is the only full-line grocer in the immediate area. Many office workers and students rely on this store for their Monday to Friday lunch needs, and residents depend on its services from week to week. Its close proximity to the University of Winnipeg and office towers, and connectivity to the walkways and parkades has made it a downtown staple.

Should be an opportunity

While 18 convenience stores and a full-line grocer on Donald maintain their services downtown, the unfortunate news of Zellers’ grocery store closing remains a strong point of contention and concern.

However, its closure is not a sign of downtown decline. It simply happened that Target stores bought out Zellers but its downtown location was not part of this acquisition. One would hope the huge gap left in the market would be seen as an opportunity by private sector grocers.

Over the last several months, every grocer imaginable has been contacted by downtown stakeholders about the unique opportunity to develop in downtown Winnipeg – from local grocers who know and understand the market to grocers that people often wish were downtown.

Yet grocers consistently identify a single challenge: tight profit margins that result from the creation of new stores and investment of millions in retrofitting of older buildings and spaces, complete with entirely new coolers and fridges.

Significant downtown revitalization efforts have resulted in a slow but steady rebirth of our downtown. More people than ever before live, work, study and visit downtown. Creating density takes time and this is also true when it comes to attracting new retailers and services like a grocer.

This challenge of attracting a full-line grocer isn’t unique to Winnipeg. It’s a North American phenomenon. As more and more people with disposable incomes left downtowns and inner-cities to flock to the suburbs, so did the grocery store. While significant investments are being made by grocery stores in the suburbs, the downtown has suffered and similar reinvestment is needed.

We need leadership from the private sector. Who is willing to step up and help continue with this positive momentum?

Over the last two years, many downtown housing developers and commercial developers have stepped up – SoPo, CentrePoint, The MET, Penthouse, The District and many others are helping create a vibrant downtown for our future generations to enjoy.
These developers have several things in common. They know it is more profitable and much easier to build somewhere else. Yet they understand that the future of our city and its people depends on a vibrant city centre. As community leaders, they also know that if they don’t step up, no one else will. The public sector has responded as well to help balance the current market realities – knowing that a sustainable city can only be achieved if we build up.

Make a difference

A grocer located in the immediate area of The Bay would produce a significant boost for the urban renewal that is currently in motion and would certainly be welcomed by the growing number of students at the University of Winnipeg, as well as current and new residents downtown.

We know that waiting is not an option. The way we react as a community is a measure of how quickly we want our downtown – and perceptions of it – to change.
The first step is finding that special grocer and community leader that is willing to step up, take a risk, and make that difference for our downtown.

Who will it be?

Stefano Grande is executive director of Downtown Winnipeg BIZ.

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