201 Portage transformation a step toward revitalizing downtown Winnipeg: CEO

One of Winnipeg’s tallest buildings is celebrating a new look after years of renovations in the hopes of revitalizing downtown and welcoming employees back to the iconic corner of Portage and Main.

Dozens of dignitaries, including Premier Heather Stefanson and Mayor Scott Gillingham, gathered at 201 Portage Ave., Wednesday to commemorate the transformation, showcasing the $25-million in upgrades to the courtyard, lobby and upper floors.

The 33-storey building will also welcome a new restaurant come spring, as 529 Wellington prepares to open a sister location on the main floor.

They’re steps many people hope will build momentum in a downtown still recovering from the COVID pandemic.

Read more: Growing population key to growing Winnipeg’s downtown: BIZ

With a set of changes under its belt and more to come, Harvard Developments is hopeful 201 Portage will become more than just a place where people come to work.

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“It’s critically important that people have a reason to come downtown, not just to sit behind their desk,” president and CEO Rosanne Hill Blaisdell said.

“It’s an experiential initiative, if you will, and we’re human beings, right? So, the social interactivity is really, really important.”

Part of that plan involves hosting entertainment and classes in the building’s new spaces, while making guests feel safe coming out of the pandemic, Hill Blaisdell told Global News.

“We’ve taken into consideration some important features that our tenants want, and that’s ensuring that we maintain a high level of cleanliness, that we create spaces for distancing.”

Click to play video: 'Iconic Winnipeg intersection Portage & Main receives makeover'

Iconic Winnipeg intersection Portage & Main receives makeover

Most employees working out of 201 Portage are back in the office full time, but the numbers for downtown Winnipeg are still well below pre-COVID norms.

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As of September, the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ reported 64 per cent of workers had returned at least part time, while 41 per cent were back full time.

However, downtown traffic and visitation are looking up, CEO Kate Fenske said in conversation with 680 CJOB’s Hal Anderson.

“If you’re downtown sort of 7:45, 8 a.m. that morning rush hour – I think … I’m the only one that’s happy to see rush hour back – but we’re starting to see even more folks coming downtown in October (and) November, so I would expect those numbers to be even higher than they were in September,” Fenske said.

Read more: Feds pledge $2.5M to help spur business growth in downtown Winnipeg

For the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, though, downtown isn’t where it needs to be yet.

Companies are exploring ways to make their workplaces more attractive, including hybrid models that are very popular with workers, the chamber’s president and CEO Loren Remillard said Wednesday.

“There’s always going to be barriers for some individuals. Everyone’s needs are different. For some, it’s the cost of commuting, gas, maintenance for vehicles, insurance (and) parking. All those things are going to be barriers. For some, it’s going to be the time,” Remillard said.

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But other barriers exist for those working from home as well, he added. “You’re not interacting with your colleagues as much or maybe not interacting with your direct supervisors as much, so there’s a barrier, perhaps, to your professional development that comes into play there,” Remillard said.

Read more: Does the option to work from home make for a better work-life balance?

“I think as we’ve all seen over the course of the pandemic, connecting with your coworkers over Zoom or Teams isn’t quite the same as to walk into the kitchen lunchroom and be able to have a conversation, so a lot of companies are really emphasizing the importance of the socializing aspects of work.”

For Hill Blaisdell, making downtown a good experience needs to be a collaborative effort, and she’s optimistic.

“I think we’re going to get there. I do.”

Click to play video: 'Crime, Safety and Revitalizing Winnipeg’s downtown'

Crime, Safety and Revitalizing Winnipeg’s downtown

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