Rescue plan for retail in core
Stakeholders applaud report’s blueprint
By: Murray McNeill
Winnipeg Free Press, January 9, 2010
A comprehensive new study paints a sobering picture of retailing in downtown Winnipeg, but also sketches out a plan to bring new life to the area.
New York consultant Michael Berne of MJB Consulting says in a 109-page report being released today that the city’s most prominent strip — Portage Avenue — no longer has the population base or big income-earners to attract most big-name retailers, and should content itself with becoming a bargain destination.
And despite its artsy airs, historic architecture and hip atmosphere, the Exchange District is only plodding along in its development as a dining and entertainment destination, the report says.
But Berne says the downtown can bounce back.
“There are certainly some strengths to build on,” he said in an interview. “It won’t be easy, but I certainly don’t think it’s a lost cause.”
His plan includes a new marketing and retailer-recruitment strategy, and calls for additional government incentives for property owners and retailers and the hiring of an in-house retail specialist to troll for new businesses.
His recommendations have struck a chord with downtown organizations that paid for the $30,000 study — the most comprehensive on the subject in decades.
“I think what his report has done is go beyond just identifying the needs and also gives us examples of how to structure the different retail areas,” said Stefano Grande, executive director of the Downtown Winnipeg Business Improvement Zone. “And it explains why we should do it that way.”
“He worked really hard to understand Winnipeg and I give him full marks,” said Ross McGowan, president and CEO of the city’s downtown development agency, CentreVenture Development Corp.
Dave Stone, general manager of the Portage Place Shopping Centre, said he hopes Berne’s marketing strategy and recommendations are adopted.
“I’m absolutely excited about Michael’s report and the level of support it is already getting from the various stakeholders,” Stone said. “They’re all saying now is the time for us to make this happen.”
Berne’s report says previous revitalization efforts have been hindered by the sheer size of the downtown, and the lack of a comprehensive marketing and recruiting strategy that ensures different areas aren’t wrestling for the same retailers.
His report identifies which types of retailers, based on demographics and “psycho-graphics,” are best suited for each of the three main retail areas. For example, the Exchange is ideal for unique and “casual-chic” storefronts, Portage Avenue for “cheap-chic” and discounters with crossover appeal, and Graham Avenue for deep-discounters and immigrant or ethnic-themed shops and restaurants.
Berne calls for a single organization with an in-house retail specialist to lead the marketing and recruiting and to make sure everyone is working from the same page. The early consensus among stakeholders is that CentreVenture should fill that role.
Grande said the city, which helped fund Berne’s study, and the province will be approached for funding. The groups will be seeking about $100,000 a year to hire the retail specialist, and $500,000 to $1 million-plus to help property owners upgrade and for retailers to move or remain downtown.
Here is what MJB Consulting and president Michael Berne has to say about the downtown’s three main retail areas:
¦Portage Avenue no longer has the population — only about 98,000 people in the local trading area — or the income — the median household income for the area is in the mid-to-high $20,000s vs. $43,383 for the city as a whole — to attract the kind of brand-name, commodity retailers found in suburban shopping centres.
¦A significant amount of retail space is in older buildings and is too small or outdated for today’s retailing needs. Most also don’t have on-site parking.
¦On the bright side, the downtown has a high concentration of office workers, college and university students and transit riders during the day that retailers can draw on, and the MTS Centre and other entertainment venues also draw people at night.
¦In fashion, the focus should be on attracting “crossover” retailers that appeal to shoppers from a broad range of socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, including lower incomes. That includes discount retailers such as Zellers and “cheap-chic” fashion purveyers specializing in inexpensively priced “of-the-moment” looks that would appeal to the area’s substantial number of twenty-somethings.
¦In food and beverages, target quick-service, convenience-oriented food outlets and specialty-beverage retailers that appeal to daytime students and office workers, and well-known, mid-market restaurants, bars and retailers for the evening sports-and-entertainment crowd.
¦”We all agree he’s on the right track for what needs to happen in the downtown and with development of Portage Avenue in particular.” — Dave Stone, general manager of the Portage Place Shopping Centre.
THE EXCHANGE DISTRICT/WATERFRONT DRIVE
¦Many historical buildings require extensive upgrades to accommodate new retailers.
¦The area’s retailers have to compete for lunch-hour shoppers with the downtown’s enclosed shopping centres and skywalks, which can be a tall order in winter.
¦At night, they compete with the bars and restaurants in other popular nightlife districts, such as Corydon Avenue and Osborne Village.
¦There’s also the public perception that the downtown can be unsafe at night and that parking can be expensive and hard to find.
¦Target casual-chic eating and drinking establishments that offer compelling alternatives that can’t be found elsewhere. For example, a quick-service format, healthier, higher-quality foods, a more stylish setting and slightly higher prices that would appeal not only to lunch-goers, but also the after-work/happy-hour crowd.
¦Take the same approach with fashion — target unusual stores that aren’t likely to be found elsewhere in the city. They can include both upmarket shops and boutiques that appeal to young, relatively well-paid professionals with artsy, funky tastes (“yup-sters”), and the kind of vintage or retro-clothing stores that draw the creative and alternative-thinking types (“hipsters”).
¦Berne said Waterfront Drive should be marketed as part of the Exchange — the best bets would be one or two sit-down eateries specializing in breakfast/ brunch/lunch (Stella’s Cafe & Bakery, for example), or service-oriented retailers with an established customer base (maybe a day spa or beauty salon). Forget about a freestanding café or ice cream parlor because they need lots of pedestrian traffic, which Waterfront lacks.
¦”I think the direction stated for the Exchange is in line with our thinking and in line with the way most Winnipeggers think about the area. We are the city’s cultural epicentre; a hip, specialty shopping destination with fine dining, entertainment and cultural opportunities.” — Mal Anderson, executive director of the Exchange District Business Improvement Zone.
¦Graham has a hard time competing with neighbouring Portage Avenue for larger-brand retailers.
¦Most retail is concentrated in a two-block stretch between Vaughan and Edmonton streets. East of that, the street-level retail energy dies.
¦Quick-service food concepts that serve basic fare would appeal to office workers and the thousands of transit riders that use the street each weekday.
¦Deep-discount retailers could also be attracted to the street’s cheaper rental rates.
¦The cheap rents, the high volume of transit riders, and Graham’s proximity to the Winnipeg Convention Centre also make it well-suited to immigrant- or ethnic-themed retailers like Priscilla’s Elegant Shop, which specializes in cheap-chic fashions for Afro-Canadian shoppers.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 9, 2010 B4