Creating a community hub

The Winnipeg Foundation

Dr. Jim Silver and Kathy Mallett in front of Merchant’s Corner.
Dr. Jim Silver and Kathy Mallett in front of Merchants Corner.

Merchants Corner’s mixed-use campus honours and invigorates neighbourhood

The Merchants Hotel is undergoing a transformation reflective of the community spirit in the North End. Not that long ago, Aj’a Oliver remembers things were very different at the corner of Selkirk Avenue and Andrews Street.

“It was a very scary place to go,” says Ms. Oliver, a student in the University of Winnipeg’s Urban and Inner-City Studies program, which is now located in the renovated building. “Some people wouldn’t even want to walk in front of it.”

Community members had talked about closing the Merchants Hotel for decades. It was originally built as a hardware store in 1913 and converted to a hotel 20 years later. As ownership changed hands several times and the neighbourhood experienced a decline, the hotel became associated with violence and crime.

“[It] had been a magnet for problems here in the North End,” says Dr. Jim Silver, Professor and Chair of the Department of Urban and Inner-City Studies at the University of Winnipeg.

In 2011, Dr. Silver brought together the North End Community Renewal Corporation, the Community Education Development Association (CEDA), and other North End community organizations to form the Merchants Corner Steering Committee. The group convinced the Government of Manitoba to purchase and shut down the Merchants Hotel in 2012, paving the way to redevelop the hotel and six adjoining lots into a mixed-use residential and community space.

While the provincial government committed to providing funding for the redevelopment, it was contingent on the Merchants Corner Steering Committee raising an additional $1.7 million. Dr. Silver noted grant support from The Winnipeg Foundation has been important not only as a financial contribution, but as a vote of confidence that helped attract other funders.

Opening in phases in early 2018, the new Merchants Corner will be home to three classrooms shared by the U of W’s Department of Urban and Inner-City Studies and CEDA Pathways to Education, 30 units of student housing, and a community café. Community involvement was integral to the project, with workshops and door-to-door consultations providing input on the design of the new space as well as the cultural activities to be offered.

While the façade of the hotel building has been maintained, the interior was gutted. Many components of the renovation reflect and honour Indigenous cultures and perspectives. Four feathers form part of the façade of the new addition, a design feature requested by the community during consultations. Faculty offices are arranged in a circle, honouring the importance of the circle in Indigenous cultures and promoting faculty-student interaction.

“This community deserves a nice place to go to,” says Kathy Mallett, who was the Co-Director of CEDA until her retirement and remains active on the Merchants Corner Steering Committee. “It’s far beyond the bricks and mortar... That building of community is so important.”

The renovation of Merchants Corner is part of a continuing effort to build a “community campus” of educational initiatives on Selkirk Avenue, which also includes the Urban Circle Training Centre and the University of Manitoba’s Inner City Social Work program. Urban Circle also created the Makoonsag Intergenerational Children’s Centre, which offers child care with preference going to students in the area. With the added housing at Merchants Corner, Dr. Silver notes the increased opportunities for adult learners, many of whom have children, to continue their education.

“I don’t think there’s any other place in Canada where a university department deliberately moves into a low-income and largely Indigenous neighbourhood and then works cooperatively with a high school program,” says Dr. Silver. “We think, among other positives that will come out of this, high school graduation rates are going to take off.”

While education programs are key to Merchants Corner, the new space will also house a variety programming geared to the community. An Elder-in-Residence will provide spiritual support and Meet Me at the Bell Tower will host its community gatherings on Fridays as well as family-based programming on Saturdays, including Oji-Cree language programming.

“It’s going to become a real hub for positive, energetic cultural and educational activity,” says Dr. Silver.

Ms. Mallett foresees that young people taking part in the programming at Merchants Corner will stay in the area and continue to build a viable community.

“I see [Merchant’s Corner] as a shining diamond. It’s going to sparkle in throughout the whole community and I think it’s going to spread. It’s beautiful.”

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