‘Welcome to our new home’: Social enterprise moves into Neechi Commons

By | August 21, 2020

A social enterprise is taking over a vast space that used to serve as an Indigenous grocer, art and cultural hub in Winnipeg’s North Point Douglas area.

Self-starting Creative Opportunities for People in Employment — which goes by the abbreviation Sscope — is the new tenant of the Neechi Commons building.

“Welcome to our new home,” Sscope executive director Angela McCaughan said from inside on Thursday. “It’s perfect for our new endeavour in this location. I am so excited.”

Neechi Commons’ nearly 50,000-square-foot lot held its grand opening in 2013 with aspirations of revitalizing the neighbourhood as a commerce and development hub. Plagued by financial struggles, the building closed about two years ago and has sat mostly unused.

Sscope provides employment, housing and other supports for people with mental health and other challenges. Now, it’s hoping to expand on its mandate in the big new space.

Angela McCaughan stands next to empty isles in Neechi Commons that once were stocked with groceries. Soon they’ll hold clothing and household items in the Sscope thrift shop. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Negotiations with Assiniboine Credit Union, which currently controls the space under mortgage possession, began only a month ago but things moved fast. Sscope signed a one-year lease and relocated from its previous Arlington Street location this week.

“I’ve been dreaming of this building for three years, ever since it shut down, because it provides so much opportunity for this community,” said McCaughan. “It was sad to see it sitting empty.”

Affordable housing

McCaughan believes Sscope will solve the historic revenue challenges of the building, in part by offering affordable housing and safe spaces for people with nowhere else to go.

Sscope estimates it will earn $12,000 a month based on rental revenue from 20 housing tenants.

Those tenants will pay through employment and income assistance or have their room and board covered by working in Sscope’s thrift store, snow and lawn services programs, and new possibilities McCaughan is still dreaming up.

People with nowhere else to go are able to stay in the new ‘safe space’ affordable housing options at Neechi Commons. Sscope just moved in this week and plans a number of changes to the spaces over the next year, including adding boxframes, lockable closets and more. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Shelves that used to hold food will soon be filled with clothing and household items that will sell at reduced prices.

Near Neechi Commons’ old bakery, there will be a common area for the community to come in and visit, get some food, socialize and access resources and workshop materials related to self-care and mental health.

The space is at least five times the size of Sscope’s previous digs. Its “beautiful, bright, warming” spaces upstairs already serve as bedrooms for a handful of people who moved in this week, said McCaughan

‘Moving forward’

Jennifer Watson is one of those tenants. She used to struggle with addiction and is now in recovery.

When her home burned down recently, she had nowhere to live. She started volunteering with Sscope last month and and now lives in its new space.

Jennifer Watson shows off her Marilyn Monroe posters hung up on her corner of a room where she is living at the Neechi Commons building. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Watson said she hopes to stay there until she gets back on her feet.

“I’ll be working in the store, which is exciting,” she said.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for people that are living on the streets so they have another place to go … hopefully moving forward with their lives.”

Board caught off-guard

But for all the benefits of the move, not everyone seems happy with how the deal was done.

Russ Rothney, board treasurer for Neechi Commons co-op, said Thursday the board had not been advised by Assiniboine Credit Union that it had come to an agreement with a tenant.

“We were told they were favourably considering an offer, we hadn’t been told who it was from,” he said Thursday. “We don’t know anything.”

WATCH | New tenants hope to help homeless, those in need from Neechi Commons space:

Sscope, a thirft store and 24/7 safe space, signed a one-year-lease in the former North End grocer, gallery and restaurant space known as Neechi Commons. 1:25

Neechi Commons was forced to close in 2017 after struggling to pay back millions of dollars to the province and make payments to its primary loan lender, Assiniboine Credit Union.

The credit union put the space up for auction in 2017, but no one placed a bid.

Without a new investor by late 2018, the co-op’s board decided to close and moved out. The credit union took over the building at a time when the Commons still owed it $3.9 million.

“The situation we’re in still is that Neechi has title to the property but the credit union has effective control because we closed operations in 2018 and basically turned over responsibility,” said Rothney.

He said the board proposed this past April that it should be permitted to start renting out space in the building, with rent revenue going to the credit union to lower the debt.

“We had some pretty exciting potential tenants to start things off with a heavy focus on providing home delivery local foods from farmers in and around Winnipeg.”

Rothney said the prospective tenant wanted to move in quickly due to demand for delivery services rising during the pandemic.

“[Assiniboine Credit Union] basically implied at that point that it was too complicated for them.”

The board is still hopeful it can find a source to help it pay off the debt, which could help it regain control and reopen.

The credit union still controls the building under mortgage possession, said ACU marketing director Dean Beleyowski.

“It is certainly positive for the community to have the building filled again,” he said in a statement.

Neechi Commons is located at the corner of Main Street and Euclid Avenue in Winnipeg’s North End. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Point Douglas Residents Committee said it’s encouraging to have someone new in the building able to bring more affordable housing and return other services to the area.

But PDRC would’ve liked to have been informed of the developments ahead of time, said committee housing chair Ben Thiessen.

‘We hope to work with Sscope’

They also have some concerns about Sscope being situated in a “higher risk location” near Main Street bars, but Thiessen said Sscope reassured them there will be adequate security at the space.

“We hope to work with Sscope moving forward in helping provide a safe alternative on the battle against homelessness in our city,” he said.

Sscope may have only signed a one-year lease, but McCaughan said that’s just temporary. They plan to buy.

“This is our place forever. We just need a year to get the capital in place to purchase the building, but this is our space forever.”

A Sscope Inc. truck sits parked in the Neechi Commons parking lot. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

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