Add heritage experts to Winnipeg Hudson's Bay building advisory committee, group asks mayor

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A group representing Manitoba's provincial heritage agencies is urging Winnipeg's mayor to add it to a committee struck last week to help decide the fate of the city's historic downtown Hudson's Bay building.

The retailer closed the 600,000-square-foot Portage Avenue structure at the end of November — some three months earlier than planned, due to pandemic restrictions.

The advisory committee, which Mayor Brian Bowman announced on Dec. 15, includes several representatives from the city's business and economic development sectors — but that's not enough, said Gordon Goldsborough, president of the Manitoba Historical Society.

That organization is one of eight whose representatives penned an open letter to Bowman, asking him to consider expanding the committee.

"What struck us as conspicuously absent was any consideration of the heritage of the building and how that could be integrated into whatever new uses could be found for it," said Goldsborough.

"What you want is to have a committee that is as diverse and as well rounded as the uses that that building would be put to, so it concerns me if the only focus of the committee is business, that they won't have the best possible outcome that I think the building really deserves."

The Manitoba Heritage Summit Group comprises all eight of the province's heritage agencies, the letter says.

Goldsborough said on top of bringing in someone from the heritage group, additions like a conservation architect or a structural engineer would help the committee make sure it can actually pull off the ideas its members come up with.

Things like retail, residential living and office space could all be part of a multi-use plan for the building, he said. And from a historian's perspective, the redevelopment presents another great opportunity: archives storage.

Goldsborough said the Hudson's Bay Company Archives could be moved from the nearby Archives of Manitoba, and that other provincial and city archives have been in need of a new space for years. Those are the kinds of suggestions that may not be explored without a historical perspective on the committee, he said.

"Wouldn't it be symbolically just perfect if the records of the Hudson's Bay Company ended up being stored in an archival facility in the old Bay store?" he said.

"If you look at it purely as a business transaction or as a development opportunity, you may not consider the full scope of all of the possibilities."

And while the existing advisory committee may consult groups like Goldsborough's down the line, he said that doesn't seem like the best way to see the building meet its potential.

"My experience has been that consultation is usually done late in the game, you know, when you've already kind of got your mind set. And if that happens, well, then you're not likely going to be terribly open to different ideas," he said.

"I envision something that … Winnipeggers would be proud of. And if it just turns into more housing or retail space, you know, I'm not sure that that's quite consistent with what it could and should be."