Downtown newbies: Why some entrepreneurs are investing in Winnipeg's core post-pandemic

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© Sam Samson/CBC Ericka Tagle is renovating this space on Donald Street to be house her nail salon.

While the pandemic has forced many businesses to close in downtown Winnipeg, some Manitoba entrepreneurs are still investing their time and money in the area.

“Once the pandemic kind of cools down, hopefully the offices will fill back up and the downtown can thrive and be what it’s meant to be,” said entrepreneur Ericka Tagle, who owns a nail salon called Pretty Young Thing.

Her shop has been located on Sargent Avenue for three years, but she’s now ready to expand — and she’ll do it in a new space on Donald Street as of next month.

Between January 2020 and October 2021, 68 businesses closed downtown, according to the Downtown Winnipeg Business Improvement Zone — the pandemic being a major factor.

But in that same time period, 44 businesses have opened, the BIZ says, showing interest in a downtown that was struggling even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Manitoba.

Tagle says her Donald Street space is central for all her clients, and she got a better deal on it compared to other locations the same size in different Winnipeg neighbourhoods.

Now she just needs downtown to fill up with people again — which she’s confident it will.

“Just the other night, there was a Jets game and there was a lot of foot traffic walking by,” said Tagle, peeking out the windows of her new location.

“I think that being downtown will help my business grow.… There’s a lot going on everywhere. In my building alone, there’s salsa classes, so I could retain clients from them, [or] from people downstairs.

“There’s still a lot of people downtown.”

‘We can be that liveliness’

A few blocks away at 140 Bannatyne Ave., a digital finance company is setting up its Winnipeg headquarters and hoping to hire hundreds of employees over the next few years.

Neo Financial, a Canadian-created company that offers digital-only financial services, held a recruiting open house this week.

“We can be that liveliness downtown,” said Arlin Dueck, who works with Harvest Builders — a company that helps Prairie tech startups like Neo Financial get going.

© Sam Samson/CBC Arlin Dueck is with Harvest Builders, a company that helps get Prairie tech startups up and running.

He hopes the draw of restaurants, culture and other businesses will attract talented employees to the area.

“Businesses need to take that chance and bet on Winnipeg to come in and further serve as an additional catalyst to that revitalization of the core.”

One building that’s garnered a lot of attention is 300 Main St., a residential and commercial building just south of the corner of Portage and Main.

The 42-storey building has continued construction throughout the pandemic, and is now accepting residential tenancy applications for the spring, with 10,000 square feet of commercial space available.

The building is being developed by Artis REIT, a commercial real estate investment trust that owns Winnipeg Square and 360 Main, among several other properties in the area.

A GoodLife Fitness Centre will be among the tenants at 300 Main, as well as two restaurants: the Calgary-founded chain OEB Breakfast Co. and the Earls restaurant, currently just south of 300 Main, which will move into the new building.

While downtown has been comparatively quiet and empty since COVID-19, the developers are confident the area will bounce back.

“We believe in Winnipeg and the opportunity the city has with the expected wave of immigration and growth of the economy,” an Artis REIT spokesperson wrote in an email.

“Although many have not been in the office for an extended period, we’ve been excited to return and anticipate that as the health climate improves, the energy will follow.”

© Trevor Brine/CBC The building under construction at 300 Main St. now owns the title as the city’s tallest structure.

Tagle hopes that’s true. She said she used to explore downtown with her family as a child, in between bus rides from one end of Winnipeg to the other. The influx of new businesses is already reigniting that feeling of discovery, she says.

“I can walk down certain streets and have not have seen a business before. Like, ‘oh, I didn’t know that was there!'” she said.

“There’s still that kind of exploration feeling that I would get when I would visit another city.”