Merchants Hotel closer to 'transformative' affordable housing, education in the North End

Merchants Hotel closer to 'transformative' affordable housing, education in the North End

Construction at the old Merchants Hotel is still ongoing but a sense of change is already rippling through the community, says Jim Silver, the chair of Urban and Inner-City Studies at the University of Winnipeg.

The historic three-storey building on Selkirk Avenue was previously a magnet for trouble and violence. Now it is being converted into an affordable student housing complex, which will also double as a university classroom.

"I think it will be quite a bit different than what it is now. In Merchants Corner we are going to have 30 units of student housing, fully subsidized. Most of the units have two and three bedrooms because most of our students have kids," Silver said.

There will also be three classrooms to offer university-level courses in the day. CEDA-Pathways to Education, the North End after-school high school support program, will share classroom space in the late afternoon, Silver added — which he thinks will benefit the program's participants.

"They will be in a university space, they will see that most of the university students look like them — they are Indigenous people, they've grown up in the inner city," he said.

"This arrangement is unique, I think, in Canada and I think it's going to be transformative."

There will be Oji-Cree language classes for preschoolers and their families and Silver said the university has now also partnered with R.B. Russell Vocational School, whose culinary arts students will run the café and kitchen in the building.

"It will be a beehive of activity there, and I think the community is going to change because what I think is going to happen is that younger people who live in the inner city are going to say, 'Hey, I'm going to go to university when I'm 17 or 18 years old. I'm going to go to Merchants Corner because that's a cool place and it's in the neighbourhood,'" Silver said.

The previous NDP government committed more than $13 million to the project.

"We are at the tail end of the fundraising for this. The two buildings are well under construction and we have raised somewhere in the order of $15 million, and have just a little bit more to go," Silver said.

While it is on the last leg of the fundraising journey, the University of Winnipeg Foundation has launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise $20,000 by the end of 2017 to purchase equipment for the café and support programming.

The 100-year-old building was a hardware store before it became a hotel. It thrived for about 70 years before it began to decline, and was closed in April 2012.

It will be a bit longer before the doors to the new homes and classrooms open, but Silver said there's already been a palpable change in the neighbourhood.

"The people who live in the neighbourhood say the change has been dramatic," he said.

"The Merchants Hotel was a really dangerous place. There was … violence, illegal drug trading. But since we closed [the hotel] down, people have said, 'Wow. It's so quiet, it's so peaceful. We love it.'"