An effort to save an iconic Winnipeg cultural space and a building some say is loaded with historical significance now has a serious financial backer.

John Pollard, co-CEO of locally-based Pollard Banknote has made an offer to buy the Fortune Building and will make a similar offer for the building next door, with a plan to restore both and retain music venue Times Change(d) High and Lonesome Club as a tenant. 

Fortune and MacDonald Buildings on Main Street

Century-plus old buildings on Main may get reprieve from wrecking ball (Sean Kavanagh/CBC)

The Fortune Building sits at the corner of Main Street and St. Mary Avenue. The three-story structure's current owners are opposed to the city giving it heritage status and want to tear down the building for redevelopment.

Winnipeg's Standing Policy Committee on Property and Development, Heritage, and Downtown Development will consider next week whether to put the building on the city's list of historical resources and possibly protect it from demolition.

Buildings with a past

The three-story building was built in 1882 by real estate speculator Mark Fortune. He quickly sold it to another Winnipeg businessman — Alexander Macdonald — who built a similar building next door, calling it the MacDonald Building. Fortune would later die during the sinking of the famous passenger liner Titanic.

Heritage Winnipeg executive director Cindy Tugwell calls the two buildings "extremely significant" to Winnipeg's history.

Cindy Tugwell

Heritage Winnipeg executive director Cindy Tugwell calls the two buildings "extremely significant" to Winnipeg's history. (CBC)

"They are some of the oldest heritage buildings in the downtown, built during the land boom of 1881, and the last remaining buildings on Main Street that emulate that time period of entrepreneurship and the people that owned those buildings — and what they did for this city," Tugwell said.

More than a century has passed since the original owners plied their trade in the Fortune Building, but it has an iconic contemporary story as well. For nearly 30 years it has been home to the Times Change(d) High and Lonesome Club. The roots-blues music venue has figured prominently in the on-going music and cultural story of the city.

Times Change(d) proprietor John Scoles has waged a lonely battle to save the building and his business, until now.

John Scoles

"For years I have been battling just on a shoe-string, trying to tell people we are doing something for culture and community and for the first time ever I have an ally in backing that idea," John Scoles told CBC News. (CBC)

"For years I have been battling just on a shoe-string, trying to tell people we are doing something for culture and community and for the first time ever I have an ally in backing that idea," Scoles told CBC News.

John Pollard had been looking for a project involving a small downtown or Exchange District property for some time when he became aware of John Scoles efforts to save Times Change(d)

"Times Change(d) has a community and culture going on there.… This is not just about a bar, this is about making downtown more livable," Pollard said.

The businessman made an offer to purchase the Fortune building in late November 2015 and is in the midst of preparing an offer on the adjacent MacDonald Building. The buildings have separate titles with different owners.

Worth saving: Pollard

Pollard says not only is Times Change'd worth saving but the buildings have deep historic significance in Winnipeg.

"These are really old buildings. There are all kinds of historic reasons to save them," Pollard said.

Scoles says their plea to city politicians for heritage designation comes with a "full value package," that promises to restore the building and make it a going concern into the future. He believes that isn't always what happens.

"So often you end up with these battles where a building is designated but then, who looks after it? What's the future beyond that point?  In this case we are going to go into a battle with a future, a plan," Scoles said.

"We're not just talking about … oh, bleeding hearts saving this building. We are saying, we've got a plan for a restorative redevelopment," he said.

If the purchases are approved by the current owners, Pollard said the upper floors of the Fortune Building would be converted to office-type use, noting they have been vacant for more than 40 years.

Pollard said they've done as much of a structural assessment of the buildings as they can with the access they have and believes they are in decent shape.

He looks at the MacDonald building as more of an "open slate," and would consider consider retail or try a residential component for the property.

Looking for a win-win

"The biggest challenge is to find out what the current owners want to do," Pollard said. "I hope this is a good news story for the owners."

That sentiment was echoed by Scoles, who believes the purchase could meet everyone's expectations.

"I am really optimistic that we are able to work with the current property owners in a really good win-win sort of way. We're not trying to take anything away from anybody. We are trying to move things forward in way that seems that they to want move forward in a way that will be beneficial. In a wider scope that perhaps anybody thought of prior," Scoles said.

The owners of the Fortune building were reached by phone but declined to comment on the offer to purchase or the coming review of the building's heritage status.

In a written submission to the city arguing against heritage status for the Fortune Building, George and Shirley Landes say "the building is beyond repair and placing any impediment to demolition and redeveloping the site would be economically unfeasible and a disservice to the community." 

Cindy Tugwell said she was "very disturbed by the submission to the city committee.

"Fundamentally it's not their right to tell what's right for the community when you haven't gone to the community to find out," Tugwell said. 

The former  head of city development arm CentreVenture, Ross McGowan, launched a review of South Main street in 2014 and suggested the Times Change(d) club was an ideal anchor business for activity in the area.

Current CentreVenture CEO Angela Mathieson told CBC News " CentreVenture would be very interested in sitting down with the Pollards to assist them in their efforts."

The committee reviewing the heritage status of the building meets next Tuesday and submissions from both sides are expected to be heard.