Portage Place hurt by poor economy

Police are going into Portage Place much more these days while several stores in the downtown Winnipeg mall are moving out.

Retail centre eyeing radical changes to win back stores, shoppers

Police are going into Portage Place much more these days while several stores in the downtown Winnipeg mall are moving out.

Throughout the mall and connected skywalks shows 16 retail spaces sitting vacant or in the process of being vacated.

"[The year] 2009 was a tough one for the economy and one of the first things that take a bit of a hit is the retail end of it," said Dave Stone, the mall's manager.

Some store owners blame the lack of free parking in the area while others say panhandlers keep people away.

When 2,000 Manitoba Hydro workers moved downtown into the corporation's new headquarters last year, many retailers in Portage Place thought it would create more mall traffic, but that's not happening.

"I've seen a couple of fights actually in the mall, so sometime I just stay away from the food court area," said Hydro employee Linda Adolphe.

Police calls double

Calls for police service in the area around the mall have doubled in the last five years, according to documents obtained by CBC News.

But the numbers don't always mean officers are responding to specific crimes or making arrests, said Sgt. Darrall Kotchon.

Many of the calls are proactive with police responding to the community's desire for more beat patrols and to make spot-checks on suspicious activities and individuals.

"People that walk there [and] business people are saying, 'Hey, we've noticed a problem here, can you guys respond to that? And that's what we do," Kotchon said.

"We work with these community partners. They identify a need and we go in there and provide special attention."

Police have designated the mall, along with several other locations in the city, as a "hotspot," he said, adding that crime numbers are actually dropping in the area as a result.

However, one activity that remains a stubborn problem around Portage Place is the illegal drug trade, which police and the officials with the Downtown Biz say they are working to reduce.

New ideas for the mall

In the meantime, there's a plan in the works to get the mall back on track and Stone is working with the Downtown Biz to create a new concept.

The mall is looking at attracting discount name brand clothing stores and craft shops as well as more professional services.

"Portage Place is going through a learning curve and part of that learning curve is understanding who is downtown, what they're spending money on, and what they're not spending money on," said Stefano Grande, Biz executive director.