Spotlight: COVID-19 a big symptom, not cause, of Winnipeg downtown woes

One of the businesses that failed to survive was Dominion News, which was located on Portage Avenue for nearly 100 years. Guy Paquette, the shop’s owner since 2012, said he wished there was more funding for small businesses downtown. (Bryce Hunt)
Closure of Dominion News a pandemic business collapse in Winnipeg’s downtown — another that has left the area increasingly lifeless.

By Bryce Hunt

Donning a Metallica T-shirt, Guy Paquette latched the lock of Dominion News’ front door in downtown Winnipeg for the last time in February.

The shirt was symbolic for him. The opportunity to buy one depicting his favourite rock or metal band was one of the things that initially drew him to the Portage Avenue store that sold magazines, newspapers and clothes.

“Who didn’t want to wear a Kiss or Iron Maiden shirt back then? The place to go get that was Dominion News,” he said.

Paquette said he and his friends used to jump on the bus and head downtown after school to visit the pinball arcades, music shops and Dominion News.

His consistent interest in the store landed him a job there as a cashier when he was in high school, and he eventually bought it in 2012.

‘I’d look outside at 4 p.m. and everyone was heading out of the area. It’s like people were rushing to get out’

Guy Paquette

Paquette said he enjoyed his years as an owner and employee, but saw the store’s foot traffic dissipate significantly in the new millennium. He knew the local store’s days were numbered, but was chasing the milestone of its 100th anniversary, which would’ve come in 2024 as it first opened in 1924 and officially closed on Feb. 24, 2022.

“It would’ve been nice to end on a high note,” he said. “If it weren’t for the pandemic, we would’ve made 100 years guaranteed.”

The closure of Dominion News was the latest in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic in Winnipeg’s downtown that has left the area seemingly lifeless.

Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, a primary business association in the city, reported that nearly 50 downtown businesses have closed, and total revenue losses have surpassed $139 million for downtown storefront businesses since March 2020.

Tourism advocates say it’s been a huge toll on the core area.

“The pandemic eliminated conferences and events that represent thousands of people that come from across the country and internationally who stay and spend money downtown,” Natalie Thiesen, Vice President of Tourism at Tourism Winnipeg said. “Prior to the pandemic, downtown was in this state of renaissance with the amount of investment in new buildings and merchants. The pandemic has delayed some of the great progress we were making.”

Problems not just COVID-19-related

Paquette said it was the pandemic that ultimately did the store in, but there were other factors that led to its demise over the years, including an increase in online shopping, a lack of interest in printed media and most notably, a public safety concern in the area.

“There are people going around causing destruction, and that leads people to not want to be downtown,” he said. “I’d look outside at 4 p.m. and everyone was heading out of the area. It’s like people were rushing to get out.”

Paquette said his store was the victim of constant acts of vandalism, which included smashed windows, attempted break-ins and torched garbage cans.

“At least once or twice a year, I lost a window or had my door kicked in,” he said. “I claimed my insurance so many times that my deductible was more expensive than the window itself. I just started to pay for them myself, which was frustrating to have those dollars come out of my pocket.”

The store was easily noticeable on downtown’s busiest street due to its large L-shaped sign, which hung over Portage Avenue since it moved out of the nearby Kensington Building in 1999.

The move out of the building, paired with the emerging convenience of online shopping, was what first signalled the store’s decline to Paquette.

“When we were in the Kensington building, we had the benefit of getting visits from Robertson College students and other employees of the building,” he said. “When we moved, we lost those customers, and they were buying the products we sold on Amazon.”

In a last effort to stay open, he applied for and received some government funding throughout the pandemic, but the damage done by a lack of customers was too much to overcome.

Paquette said he wished the funding for small businesses trying to survive the pandemic was more substantial and hopes there are better plans for those recovering going forward.

Some efforts have already been made on this front as the federal government recently announced they would be providing $2.5 million in funding to support the recovery and growth of Winnipeg’s downtown economy.

Downtown Winnipeg BIZ has also released the framework for a downtown recovery program in an effort to help build businesses and draw people to the area.

Some of the key points from the report include creating a downtown events fund to help large gatherings operate safely and a marketing campaign to support existing businesses.

On top of these programs, another federal proposal could see the area benefit from $10 million in funds to improve the area.

As well, a future bright spot was revealed in April after plans emerged for an Indigenous-led revival of the Hudson’s Bay building. Governments have stepped up with millions in funding to see the Southern Chiefs’ Organization transform the shuttered building into housing and other needed amenities.

Store owner will work elsewhere in city

With his business now closed, Paquette said he’s left with some loose ends and a few months’ worth of paperwork to get through to officially close things out.

Whatever products remained on his shelves were donated to goodwill.

In the fall, Paquette plans to start searching for a new job in a new part of the city.

“I might still work in the retail industry, but I definitely wouldn’t start another store…at least not here anyway,” he said. “I need to put some distance between myself and downtown for a while.”

Twitter: @brycehunt15

Further Reading:

Small steps forward for downtown businesses (Winnipeg Free Press)
Pitching in to pretty up downtown (Winnipeg Free Press)
Developer pulls out of deal to take over Portage Place mall (CBC Manitoba)
State of the Inner City PDF (Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives)

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