More young people, renewed energy at historic site as new tenants set up shop: Forks VP

A coffee shop, a candle shop, a micro-restaurant and a pizza place — you may have noticed a few new things at The Forks.

Jenna Rae Cakes, McNally Robinson Booksellers among new additions at popular Winnipeg meeting spot this year

The Common wine and beer kiosk at The Forks opened in 2016. (Aidan Geary/CBC)

A coffee shop, a candle shop, a micro-restaurant and a pizza place — you may have noticed a few new things at The Forks.

In 2017, the popular Winnipeg meeting spot and historic site welcomed a handful of new, mostly Manitoban tenants. The roster includes Fools and Horses coffee, Coal and Canary Candle Company and Winnipeg chef Scott Bagshaw's newest project, the small-plate spot Passero.

More changes are still to come, including the introduction of a McNally Robinson Booksellers storefront on the second floor of The Forks Market and a satellite location of popular Winnipeg sweet shop Jenna Rae Cakes.

Despite what may feel like an overhaul, The Forks itself says it's just doing what it's always been striving to do: nurturing a Winnipeg meeting place with a focus on local business.

"We always use the same mission statement. It has been the same one that we have had for our entire existence — so nearly 30-plus years — it has been to be the meeting place," said Clare MacKay, vice-president of corporate and community services with the Forks North Portage Partnership.

"I think the transformation that's happening in the Forks Market is a wonderful way of highlighting that mission statement."

The Common is one of the most visible additions to The Forks in recent years. (Aidan Geary/CBC)

New energy

The Forks — which saw the official opening of its Market in 1989, but was a traditional meeting place for Indigenous people for centuries before that — now sees about 4 million visitors per year, which is more than Banff, MacKay said.

Those numbers stay strong into the winter, MacKay said — January and February visitor numbers have rivaled their best summer tallies for the past seven or eight years. This weekend, she guessed The Forks would see around 50,000 visitors.

But MacKay said the new energy she sees being captured there probably sparked around two years ago, when the Forks Foundation's board of directors approved $2.5 million in renovations in 2015 and the site earned a "unique hospitality licence" from the province, meaning somebody can get a drink at The Common, a beer and wine kiosk, and carry it throughout the Forks Market building.

Fools and Horses coffee shop is one of the new tenants at the Forks Market. (Aidan Geary/CBC)

"Being able to have that licence opened up a world of possibilities for us. We are the first of our kind," she said. The Forks worked with Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries and the Liquor and Gaming Authority to earn the distinction.

"I think that was the moment where … we could become something that added to that idea of us being the meeting place," MacKay said.

Those two moves led to the creation of The Common, the beer and wine-serving centre of the food hall in the Forks Market that opened in 2016. MacKay calls it the most visible change to the site.

Over the past two years, she said the centre has been able to attract more young adults, bringing the 18-35 demographic into a space already families and older adults.

"It's made it more popular," said Shane Nicholls, 23, of the renovation. He went to The Forks a lot as a kid, he said, and has grabbed drinks there with friends as an adult.

The liquor licence at The Forks allows The Common to serve beer. (Aidan Geary/CBC)

"I think it's nice to have stuff for kids as well as adults, different entertainment for both," he said.

His companion, Karen Batchelor, 23, also gave the renovations a positive review. Batchelor is currently a university student in Montreal, but she came home for the holidays and spent part of her last day in the city sipping beer at The Common.

She didn't grow up coming to The Forks, but likes to skate there now, she said.

"The timing worked out well that the Ice Castles are also open, so we're going to that as well," she said. "I like skating [on the river trail] at least once a year, so I … just snuck it in."

Reacquainted, re-enthused

The changes at The Forks are what interested Chris Hall, co-owner of McNally Robinson Booksellers. He's hoping he'll be able to get the new 850-square-foot storefront open by the end of January, or shortly after.

A mural in front of the soon-to-open McNally Robinson Booksellers location shows what's going on outside the Market building. (Aidan Geary/CBC)

"Winnipeggers are getting reacquainted, or re-enthused about the place. I think it had kind of faded in their minds — they had been there and knew what was there and it wasn't as appealing anymore," he said.

Hall recently set up "story bars" — mini bookstores inside partner businesses like coffee shops and restaurants — stocked with books featured in McNally Robinson's monthly newsletter.

It seemed like an opportunity too good to be missed.- Chris Hall, McNally Robinson Booksellers co-owner

He got a phone call from a rep with The Forks wondering if there was a possibility for a story bar partnership there.

During the conversation, Hall was asked if he would consider opening a satellite location at the site instead.

"I thought, well this is an amazing opportunity and then the space they were talking about was kind of a prime location. It seemed like an opportunity too good to be missed," he said.

The space will be much smaller than the bookstore's 25,000-square-foot Grant Park Shopping Centre location, so it will focus on bestsellers, Prairie writers, Indigenous titles and "a really good kids section, because The Forks is such a family-oriented place," Hall said.

There will also be a rotating selection of gift items.

"There's something special about that place and it's why 101 people out of 100 will tell you to go to The Forks if you ask, as a visitor, where you should go in the city," Hall said.

"It's literally and figuratively the centre of Winnipeg and it's only going to get better over the next few years. And we get to be there."