Osborne again: After a period of decline, cannabis retailers bringing new life to the Village

With two cannabis retailers open and a third one on the way, Osborne Village has seen an increase in foot traffic — and a decrease in "for lease" signs.

Signs of improvement in Osborne Village suggest retail vacancies were 'temporary phenomenon': former planner

A 'leased' sign appears in the window of the former Desart space on Osborne Street, where a new Vietnamese restaurant is set to open. The space had been vacant since 2015. (Cameron MacLean/CBC)

The day after recreational cannabis became legal in Canada, Lynda Regan noticed some new faces appearing in the Osborne Village gift shop where she works.

"I had a bunch of people come in with Tweed bags who had said, 'Oh, we've never been here before. We'll definitely be back.' So that was great," said Regan, assistant manager at Silver Lotus.

Tweed is one of three cannabis companies setting up shop in the densely populated Winnipeg neighbourhood. Along with Tokyo Smoke at the corner of Osborne and Stradbrook and Delta 9's soon-to-open retail space on River Avenue, the pot shops are part of an economic resurgence in Osborne Village, which has become a hub for retail cannabis in Winnipeg.

"I think we're definitely seeing an upswing in foot traffic in the Village since the cannabis stores have opened up," said Jason Churko, manager of Into the Music on Osborne Street.

Like Regan, Churko has also noticed new people coming into the store, who might not have visited the neighbourhood before.

"I think we're seeing a lot of people coming from the suburbs that maybe are feeling OK about going to buy cannabis now, in the same way that they would go to the liquor store and buy alcohol," he said.

Jason Churko, manager of Into the Music in Osborne Village, says he's noticed new faces coming into the store since two cannabis stores opened in the neighbourhood last month. (Cameron MacLean/CBC)

Just a few months ago, Osborne Village faced a vacancy problem, with empty storefronts along the busiest strip in what had once been dubbed "Canada's best neighbourhood."

After receiving that designation in 2012, the neighbourhood went into a "downward spiral,'" said Kyle Matheson, co-owner of Osborne Village restaurant Nuburger and a board member of the Osborne Village Business Improvement Zone.

Too many businesses have come and gone in the Village over the past half-decade to remember. One after another, prominent spots in the core stretch of Osborne Street between River Avenue and Stradbrook Street went empty and papered over their windows.

Some spaces, like the former Basil's restaurant location, cycled through a number of failed businesses after the longtime Village eatery closed due to a water main break in 2008. TD bank vacated its space on Osborne in 2017, and a few spaces down, a fire destroyed the adult store Smitten that same year.

Desart, a store that had operated in the Village since 1968, closed in 2015 and the space remained empty.

Signs of recovery

Thinner crowds on the sidewalk meant fewer customers for the remaining businesses. Into the Music's Churko noticed a change had come over the neighbourhood.

"It seemed a little stagnant," he said.

The inability of so many businesses to thrive in the Village baffled long-time resident and former city planner Harry Finnigan.

"Not when you see more and more people living in the neighbourhood, density going up — it just didn't make sense that we would have those vacancies for as long as we did," he said. "Turns out, in retrospect, it was a temporary phenomenon."

Harry Finnigan has lived in the neighbourhood for the last 15 years. He doesn't understand why so many business spaces remained vacant for so long. (Cameron MacLean/CBC)

Signs of a recovery began to appear over the summer. Jekyll and Hyde's Freehouse abruptly shut down in July, becoming the last in a line of restaurants and bars that occupied its Osborne and Stradbrook space.

Now, Tokyo Smoke has opened its flagship Winnipeg store there.

An expanded Little Pizza Heaven restaurant moved into Smitten's former space, and Tweed took over the old TD Bank.

Delta 9, which opened its medical cannabis clinic on River Avenue in 2017, is in the middle of a major renovation to expand into a retail space.

Cannabis hub

Almost overnight, Osborne Village has become a hub for cannabis retail in Winnipeg.

"Having been from Winnipeg — I'm born and raised — I'm just super excited to see an area of the city that I've known and loved my whole life become so much more vibrant as a result of such an exciting time in Canadian history," said Molly Karp, community manager for Tokyo Smoke in Manitoba.

The Village's central location close to downtown explains, in part, why it has attracted such a large number of cannabis stores, Karp said. The neighbourhood also has a history as a haven for hippies and other subcultures, Karp said.

"So the mentality has always really been there and I think it just it makes sense that cannabis retailers are finding their grounding in Osborne Village as well," she said.

It just seems a little bit more exciting. There's more people around, and the energy is just different.- Jason Churko, Into the Music

Delta 9's building once housed Kustom Kulture, a well known Winnipeg head shop that shut down in 2013.

Al Roney, vice-president of retail operations for Delta 9, expects the cannabis retailers and other businesses will create a positive feedback loop.

"Not only is it giving a spinoff to the local businesses, but the amount of money that's been spent on real estate and improvements and construction, and buying materials and fixtures to merchandise these stores, is also a huge boon to Manitoba," he said.

More businesses are expected to open in the neighbourhood in the coming weeks. A Vietnamese restaurant will open in the former Desart space. Beside it, Small Mercies, a gift store and café, will hold its grand opening Dec. 8. The restaurant Pete's Place opened in the former Basil's location earlier this year.

"It just seems a little bit more exciting. There's more people around, and the energy is just different," said Churko.

As new people come into the Village to buy cannabis, it gives other local businesses a chance to reach new customers.

"Hopefully we're making some friends with the new faces," said Churko.

Recovery incomplete

Not everyone is convinced there's been a change for the better, though. David Folayal, who has lived in the Village for three years, says safety remains a concern.

"Fighting, stabbing — like, people are not safe. If you're walking, gotta look out your back, you know what I mean?" he said.

Oak Table, which offers free meals and health services to low-income people and seniors who live in the area, hasn't seen any change in the number of people coming through its doors at Augustine United Church on River Avenue.

Executive director Glynis Quinn has worked in the neighbourhood for 17 years and says the neighbourhood has changed significantly — and not necessarily for the better.

"I certainly think that the Village was a little bit more alive with younger people at that point in time," she said. As the population has aged, the number of businesses has dropped, she said.

Not all empty storefronts have reopened. The former Second Cup space at River and Osborne remains empty, although the BIZ says a new tenant has been lined up. (Cameron MacLean/CBC)

Not all empty storefronts have reopened. The former Second Cup space at River and Osborne (which was a McNally Robinson store even before that) remains empty.

As well, the owners of the shuttered Osborne Village Inn have yet to announce what new businesses will open in the space, although the BIZ says new tenants has been lined up for both locations.

Still, Quinn says she's happy to hear that new businesses are starting to move in and welcomes the boost the cannabis stores have given to the neighbourhood.

"I do think that if we can hold on to this resurgence in the Village it will be a wonderful thing," she said.

For now, the cannabis retailers say they're here to stay.

"I think for sure we'll be able to be in Osborne Village for the long run," said Tokyo Smoke's Karp.

As for safety, the BIZ plans to double its budget for foot patrols, which will operate day and night, Nuburger's Matheson said.

Although many new businesses have opened in the village, 'for lease' signs still appear on some buildings. (Cameron MacLean/CBC)

If the new businesses can hold on and more people return to the sidewalks, Churko hopes Osborne Village can regain some of its lost allure.

"Because it's a cool place to be," he said. "It always has been."


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