Time to plan for The Bay’s next life

One Saturday afternoon about seven years ago, give or take a year, I was stopped on Donald St. in downtown Winnipeg by a forty-something woman who appeared lost.

“Excuse me,” she said, “Can you tell me where Eaton’s is?”

“Well…”, I started, hesitatingly. “They used to be right across the street, where the arena is now, but unfortunately they went out of business back in ’99.”

“Oh,” she said, frowning as she took a long, disbelieving look at the MTS Centre that now sits at the corner of Portage Ave. and Donald St. “I used to always like going shopping at Eaton’s whenever I was in Winnipeg.”

I could only assume that she was an occasional visitor from the United States, as it was virtually impossible for any Canadian of her generation to be unaware of the T. Eaton Company’s dramatic two and a half year downward spiral in the late ’90s, from entering creditor protection in February 1997 to the company’s collapse in mid-1999.

It wasn’t unusual for Winnipeg’s downtown department stores to draw shoppers from far and wide, not just from Manitoba and northwestern Ontario, but even from northeastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota.

For many Winnipeggers born before 1980, there were also the fond memories of childhood visits to the grand downtown department stores, both of which were comparable in floor space and assortment of goods and services to entire suburban shopping centres.

Among those born since 1980, however, that’s all just an older generation’s nostalgia for a way of life they never knew.

The downtown department store’s day, unfortunately, seems to be nearly done.

After a short-lived sales boost after Eaton’s closed, The Bay’s downtown store went into rapid decline.

The Bay now occupies just three of its six storeys — save for The Paddlewheel’s lingering, doleful existence on the otherwise deserted sixth floor — plus a basement, whose survival as a Zellers store is in doubt as parent company HBC phases its discount store subsidiary out of existence by selling its mall leases to Target Corporation.

Not everyone is convinced that HBC is committed to even keeping the downtown store open, especially now that The Bay’s Polo Park store, a mere five kilometres away, is the company’s de facto flagship store in Winnipeg.

What do we do with the huge department store at Portage and Memorial if HBC executives in Toronto decide to close the shop?

In Friday’s Free Press, retired judge and former provincial Liberal leader Charles Huband suggested that “[if] $7 million is available to establish a water park, there should be significantly more available to restore downtown shopping.”

“Governments should be prepared to pay a significant measure of that cost, subject to the condition [The Bay] be designed for continued use as a shopping centre,” he added.

Such subsidies are rightfully controversial. Department stores and water parks are not public services in the way that schools, libraries and community centres are; keeping The Bay going would be an open-ended commitment; and subsidies themselves are often most readily available to the politically well-connected, not equally to all.

HBC itself might be cool to the idea. Accept public funds in an open society, and you accept the political baggage and the public scrutiny that goes with it. Some organizations see that as a potential headache, and purposefully avoid government “support”.

There is also no guarantee that even the most generous subsidies will be enough to draw customers back to The Bay. In the U.K., whose cities are far more densely populated than Winnipeg will ever be, traditional downtown retail strips are increasingly full of empty storefronts as shoppers opt for web sites and suburban shopping centres.

A December 2011 report concluded that many of Britain’s “high streets”, as traditional retail strips like Winnipeg’s Portage Ave. are called, “are sickly, others are on the critical list and some are now dead.”

In the U.S., many cities similar to Winnipeg in size no longer have any large downtown department stores. In Des Moines, a city with a metro area population of 580,000, the venerable Younkers department store closed its 280,000 square-foot downtown location in 2005.

Like Eaton’s, Younkers left behind memories of a time when a trip to a downtown department store was a special occasion. (The chain survives in suburban malls across the Midwestern U.S. as a Bay-style upper-mid-market retailer.)

The former downtown Des Moines store, after sitting vacant for several years, is starting to be converted into a mixed-use residential/commercial building.

But all that remains of downtown department store shopping in Winnipeg-sized U.S. cities like Des Moines, Little Rock, Knoxville and Wichita is, typically, a couple of Dollar General and Family Dollar discount stores — roughly equivalent to Giant Tiger and The Bargain Shop here in Canada — with all the brand-name retailers being in the suburbs.

Given the troubles being experienced by downtown retailers in the U.S. and even the densely populated U.K., Winnipeg might soon look very much the same.

So, it might be worth hoping the best for The Bay’s downtown Winnipeg store, but preparing for the worst.

A good starting point would be to keep an eye on what’s going on with former downtown department stores being given a new lease on life as mixed-use buildings in places like Des Moines, Pittsburgh and Victoria, and to keep in mind that the best hope for keeping The Bay building standing and looking good at the corner of Portage and Memorial might be to accept that its retail days could soon come to an end.

H/T Bloomingdale’s Coming to Winnipeg?

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

3 Responses to Time to plan for The Bay’s next life

  1. W. Krawec says:

    The Bay Downtown is basically where Eaton’s Downtown was in 1994 or thereabouts. On life support, only because it’s marginally more enticing to keep the store going until someone makes an attractive offer for the building than it is to just shut it down and attempt to sell a distressed asset like a massive, old, vacant building.

    If you walk through there, it has all the signs of a corporate parent that has more or less given up. Sales clerks are hard to find, and from my observations a regular shopper there, shoplifters are brazen (the shrinkage rates relative to sales must be astounding). The store received a fresh coat of paint but it’s still in rough shape. It’s probably worse than Eaton’s was by the time it reached the end of the line.

    And now, perhaps the grand finale – subsidies. My recollection is hazy, but I do recall that Eaton’s received a subsidy of some sort in the mid-90s. I can’t recall exactly what it was for – either a heritage building renovation grant or a break on property taxes, but it was argued at the time that Winnipeg couldn’t afford to lose one of its major retail anchors. That probably kept the heart of Eaton’s Downtown beating a few more years until the whole chain finally went under in 1999.

    I think the end is nigh for The Bay Downtown, and I don’t think it will be terribly long before Portage Place converts from a mall into an office building. It’s probably time to seriously start planning for life after downtown retail.

  2. Great article! I love the Bay downtown and consider it more than a shopping destination – it’s a piece of Canadian history. I’ve always thought it could be an incredible shopping/museum destination.

  3. Jay says:

    What we need to do is implode downtown Winnipeg. Start from scratch at 1/3 the size.

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