Manitoba

'A vital community meeting space': Neechi Commons building to be auctioned off

Residents in Winnipeg's North Point Douglas neighbourhood are rallying to keep the doors open at Neechi Commons after news the worker co-op building will go up for auction on July 12.

Indigenous-owned North Point Douglas grocery store struggles to pay $3.8M debt

Neechi Commons' building on Main Street is set to be auctioned off July 12. (Jacques Marcoux/CBC)

Residents in Winnipeg's North Point Douglas neighbourhood are rallying to keep the doors open at Neechi Commons after news the worker co-op building will go up for auction on July 12. 

"This is a vital community meeting place. It's not just a grocery store," Bernadette Smith, the newly minted NDP MLA for Point Douglas, said Wednesday morning, surrounded by organizers from the community.

Point Douglas MLA Bernadette Smith (left) speaks with community organizers at Neechi Commons Wednesday. (CBC)

"We definitely should be asking the government to put in some funds."

The Indigenous-owned grocery store, restaurant and arts centre in North Point Douglas has struggled to pay off its $3.8-million debt to the Assiniboine Credit Union since it opened in 2013, said Neechi Commons president Louise Champagne.

"We were aware that this was coming," said Champagne. "We need people to come in and shop here and support the business."​

Food desert

Neechi Commons bills itself as a destination for healthy, fresh, affordable food in an area underserved by Canada's major grocery chains to the extent that Champagne describes it as a food desert.

Louise Champagne is the president of Neechi Commons. (CBC)

Neechi Commons spokesperson Russ Rothney said the co-op has been playing catch-up since they bought the 10,000-square-foot space on Main Street and Euclid Avenue.

Justice Murray Sinclair helped Neechi Commons get off the ground and has been informally involved for years. He said Assiniboine Credit Union has been "generous in their own way to keep it going as much as possible," but ultimately has its own financial responsibilities.

The board reached out to Sinclair earlier this year in hopes that he could help find a solution going forward. Currently Neechi Commons employs 35 people, down from 45 in years past.

"There's going to be a number of employees at Neechi Commons that will lose their employment if the business can't continue," said Sinclair, adding ideally a buyer will step in to take over ownership of the building and rent the space back to Neechi Commons.  

"I am really hopeful that we can continue the business operation and allow the social enterprise objectives to be met."

Social impact

Rothney said despite the impending auction of the building, he is optimistic about the future of the store and services it provides.

Assiniboine Credit Union president Kevin Sitka said the organization is open to finding a sustainable, long-term answer to Neechi Common's financial struggles.

We've created a community asset here and I really think it's important.- Louise Champagne, Neechi Commons president

"Our staff and our members shop there, we promote Neechi Commons on our website and in our social media, and we've found experts in many fields to help volunteer there throughout the years," Sitka said. "We've done all of this because we understand the social impact Neechi can deliver.

"We believe in the need for a food store in the North End, just like we believe in providing banking services in the North End, which we do. We certainly hope service can continue in some way into the future."

'We want to see it thrive'

Kelly Bernardin-Dvorak has lived in Point Douglas for eight years and regularly shops at Neechi Commons.

It would be a devastating blow to those in the neighbourhood were the co-op to close, she said.

"Neechi is part of the fabric of gathering. It's hard to come here and not have people to hug and say hello to," Bernardin-Dvorak said.

"We want to see it thrive, it's important to us. It not only provides groceries but it's a community hub. People work here, people are getting employment skills here."

Champagne said she is concerned but also views this as an opportunity to restructure the organization's finances.

"We've created a community asset here and I really think it's important people come together and figure out how to keep it going," she said.

Residents in Winnipeg's North Point Douglas neighbourhood are rallying to keep the doors open at Neechi Commons after news the worker co-op building will go up for auction on July 12. 1:54

With files from Jillian Taylor