Portage Place is 35 years old: How downtown advocates want the community to lead the redevelopment of the mall

September 17, 1987. Opening day of the Portage Place shopping center.

Nine men cut a tape, a catchy song blasts off the public discourse system, and thousands of Winnipeggers descend on the downtown shopping center and nearly 150 new stores to find out what the excitement is all about.

The $80 million complex was built to revitalize then-declining downtown Winnipeg, and confidence in its ability to do so was high at the time. Notable Manitoba politicians and developers sealed a time capsule filled with 1980s memorabilia under an Edmonton court clock. The capsule was to open in 75 years, the term of the lease agreement between the owners of the Cadillac Fairview malls and all three levels of government, which jointly own the land on which the mall is located.

Notable Manitoba politicians and developers sealed a time capsule filled with 1980s memorabilia under an Edmonton court clock. The capsule was scheduled to open in 75 years, the length of the lease agreement between the owners of the Cadillac Fairview shopping center and all three levels of government. (Source: CTV News Winnipeg)

But it turned out early on that Portage Place wasn’t working as intended. North Portage Development Corporation’s 1994 presentation to the Regional Standing Committee on Municipal Affairs says that after just seven years, the mall was already in financial trouble.

“Portage Place is one of those projects called negative cash flow. It is one of about 12 projects. And the reason for having negative cash flow is because there isn’t enough money being generated from Portage Place to pay for debt servicing. There is $56 million in debt on the project,” Session Hansard said.

Work on Portage Place has continued to deteriorate, and for nearly half its life expectancy later, the Mall is a wrapper of its former self. Only 30 retail stores and 13 restaurants in the food court remain in its mostly empty lanes, filled with vacant retail space.

The Cadillac Fairview sold the mall in 1997. It was sold again in 2005 to the Vancouver-based Peterson Group, which has been looking for a new buyer for several years now.

Starlight presents a show

In 2019, Toronto-based Starlight Investments offered to buy the mall and park attached to it for $70 million. The company introduced an artistic concept that featured a redeveloped mix of residential and retail spaces. The deal was conditional on funding from all three levels of government. The city and county committed nearly $50 million in cash and incentives, while no agreement was reached between Ottawa and Starlight.

The Portage Place redevelopment was an exciting opportunity for Kate Keeler, executive director of the Winnipeg Social Planning Board.

“Together we put together a committee of community organizations and community members to say OK, we were pretty sure this would pass, but let’s do our best,” Keeler said. “Let’s approach Starlight with an open mind and say ‘This is what the community really needs. “

But as soon as the consultation process was about to begin, COVID hit, and everything shut down.

Starlight withdrew from the deal last September and requested a refund of its deposit. No reason was given for the retreat. CTV News Winnipeg has reached out to Starlight Investments for comment but has yet to respond.

Keeler says the whole ordeal really got people talking, “There’s a really strong community interest in it, and that’s one thing that happened, that resulted from the Starlight deal,” she said.

Portage Place city halls wanted

Damon Johnston, president of the Winnipeg Aboriginal Council, was part of the Keeler Committee.

He believes the city should reserve Portage Place town halls to give citizens a chance to express their opinions.

“I really think we need to push the line a little bit higher in terms of direct citizen participation in these more challenging — but also exciting — opportunities for our city,” Johnston said.

For him, it is about improving downtown Winnipeg, and helping those affected by addiction and homelessness. He points to what other cities like Calgary, Edmonton and Saskatoon have done to solve similar problems.

“Almost every western city faces the same kind of challenges,” he said. “So once again, we can reach out to them to get some of their good ideas.”

And with the recent acquisition of The Bay Downtown by the Southern Chiefs, Johnston says it’s time to talk about it.

“It’s definitely one chance,” he said. “The First States now have Hudson Bay, and that has always been part of Portage Place.”

30 retail stores and 13 restaurants remain in the food court in Portage Place’s mostly empty lanes, filled with vacant retail space. (Source: CTV News Winnipeg)

Housing is the case

Johnston says everyone redeveloping Portage Place needs to include affordable housing for those living in poverty.

“Housing is a huge issue in Winnipeg,” he said. “We want supportive housing. We want programming there, we want the HR support that works with these tenants to slowly move them to a better place.”

He also points out that there is no community center downtown, “Will we have a consensus to do something like this, and if so, how would that be appropriate?”

Kehler believes there is an opportunity for community-led development, now that Starlight is out.

“The feds never said no to money,” Keeler said. “They never said yes.” “If governments are willing to consider this amount of money for a private organization, why not consider it for community-led development?”

She believes the process should begin with consultation on the first treaty to see if the land can be returned to the indigenous peoples, similar to what happened with the Kapyeong Barracks.

“We would like to work with anyone who develops the mall so that it is just what the community needs,” Keeler said.