Is There a Future for Winnipeg’s Landmark Division Retailer?

While it was already on death row, the Hudson’s Bay Company presence in downtown Winnipeg ended with an unexpected suddenness. After the retailer announced that its greatly scaled-down former flagship would close in February, it finally locked the doors of the 600,000-square-foot store in late November. Less than two weeks later, a crew arrived and stripped them of their signs.

The accelerated closure, like so much else, was a consequence of the pandemic. Hudson’s Bay, which began as a fur trader in the 17th century, is one of many retailers that has gotten out of hand by stagnation and the general economic downturn. And once life slowly returns to normal, Winnipeg is unlikely to be the only city to face post-pandemic housing problems.

I have a soft spot for big downtown department stores, which is in part driven by the nostalgia that surrounds them at this time of year. My grandmother sold belts and foundations in the long-ruined Smith’s department store in Windsor, Ontario. To be dropped off to go home with her sometimes meant waiting a bit awful, at least for a little boy, in a storeroom full of boxes of mysterious body sculpting clothes.

But the real department store of my youth was across the river in Detroit. With a footprint of 2.1 million square feet and 51 elevators, the JL Hudson store on Woodward Avenue made its counterparts in Toronto look puny by comparison. It’s long gone too.

Like most children in Windsor, I was certain that the only real Santa Claus could be found on a throne in Hudson’s. (A Mazelian entrance to his chamber obscured the existence of several Santa Clauses in several rooms – or at least deceived me.)

In Winnipeg, Gordon Goldsborough, president of the Manitoba Historical Society, told me that as a child he believed the real Santa was found either in downtown Bay or at his neighbor Eaton. Though he can’t remember squaring that duality in his head.

While some retailers succeeded online and offline during the pandemic (try buying a bike), this year was especially difficult for department stores and many clothing retailers. In the U.S., luxury retailer Neiman Marcus, part-owned by the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, filed for bankruptcy, and JC Penney was only saved from total collapse when two large real estate holding companies, including one of Toronto’s Brookfield Asset, were controlled The management bought it mainly to ensure that the space in the shopping malls stays full.

The Bay, owned by New York real estate tycoon Richard A. Baker, has not fallen into the same state as these two companies or many other smaller Canadian retailers. But it got embroiled in a lawsuit with landlords over unpaid rents in stalled provinces. Mr. Baker recently took the bay off the stock exchange. A real estate inventory assessment was particularly dire when it came to business in downtown Winnipeg. It was valued at $ 0.

Unusually, it also resisted final contracts. The downtown Toronto store, which had overtaken Winnipeg as the company’s flagship, stayed open briefly in late November to defy shutdown orders for that city. The company claimed it contained a “grocery store,” but the Ontario government did not buy it.

A court then denied the company’s motion to amend Ontario’s lockdown rules to remove the requirement that groceries must be sold in order to stay open or to clarify why Walmart and Costco both offer a wide range Offer food without having to close their doors.

The business, which followed two other Bay branches in Winnipeg when it opened in 1926, was in a long, slow decline. The restaurants, once local institutions, closed seven years ago. A grocery store in the basement closed long ago and only two of the six floors remained operational with plenty of space between goods and displays.

“It wasn’t about if the building should be closed, but when,” said Cindy Tugwell, managing director of Heritage Winnipeg. About six years ago, she began working informally with a group to investigate potential developers’ interests and uses for the huge building.

Brian Bowman, Winnipeg’s mayor, has also set up his own advisory group.

While the Bay building is protected from demolition after its World Heritage List, Ms. Tugwell has not downplayed the troubles it faces. The Eaton business was another landmark of the region. But that didn’t save it from being knocked down long after the Eaton chain fell to make way for the arena where the Winnipeg Jets play.

The Bay building is surrounded by empty retail space and it is unclear how much demand there will be for office space after the pandemic.

Renovations, which would include opening condominium light wells on upper floors, could cost up to $ 120 million, she said.

But Ms. Tugwell is optimistic that the bay will live on in a new form. Mr Goldsborough, sharing their optimism, suggests that part of this could become the home of the Provincial Archives, which contain the Hudson’s Bay Company’s centuries-old records.

“It’s not just a landmark in Winnipeg or Manitoba, it’s important to all of Canada,” she said. “Nostalgia is a big part of it, but when it comes to this building, it really is a beautiful historic building.”

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Ian Austen is from Windsor, Ontario. He trained in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has been reporting on Canada for the New York Times for 16 years. Follow him on Twitter @ianrausten.

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