323 Portage Avenue has seen a lot of nightclubs since the 1980s. The building built in 1955 and known as the Dayton building was originally a store and restaurant that lasted till 1983.
The decline on Portage Avenue reached a critical point for retailers on the north side in 1979. This was year that Winnipeg Square and Eaton Place (now Cityplace) opened. It was also the year St. Vital Shopping Centre and a year later Kildonan Place opened.
Portage Avenue became a street where the south side still was successful for retailers whereas the northside was marked by video arcades, an adult theatre and aging hotels.
Still, many people still came downtown for nightlife including movies, live theatre and retailing on the so investors turned the old Dayton’s department store into Dayton’s nightclub in 1984. Substantial renovations were made to the building to accommodate the specifications of the club including moving the entrance to the side street.
The bar proved a bit posh for Winnipeg and lasted two years during a recession before closing and re-opening as Times Nite Club. That club format lasted quite some time and was less formal. Winnipeg was going through a tough period of decline, however. There is a gap in my knowledge about how long the bar was there. It seems to me that there was another club in that location around 1991-1994 called Richard’s American Bar before there was a return to the old name. Any help remember that era would be welcome.
A murder outside Times Nite Club in 1999 kind of affirmed that the area was getting dangerous. Coming in the same year as Eaton’s closure, it marked a low point for downtown Winnipeg.
The arrival of the MTS Centre in 2004 assisted in stabilizing some of the restaurants in the area and breathed some life in what had been an angst filled time. The empty Eaton’s building was subject to huge debate and ultimately was demolished in 2003 to make way for the new arena. Around 2007, Times Nite Club was renovated for $2 million and became Blush Ultraclub. It attracted a good crowd most weekends but by 2009 was really open weekends. In 2010 it closed.
The Winnipeg Jets arrived in 2011 and the crowds on game nights doubled in size. The Manitoba Moose attracted families whereas the Jets brought an older crowd willing to spend money before and after games. It seemed a no brainer that a sports bar nearby would work. In 2011 the 4Play sports bar opened in the former Ultraclub space.
The concept lasted till 2012. Why did it fail? The problem was days when hardly anyone came in. And those early Jets days were a learning experience for people on finding before and after places to eat and drink for Jets games. 4Play Sports just wasn’t able to get enough traffic throughout the week. The Palomino Club looked at relocating to the old 4Play location in 2015 but ultimately decided they’d better off on Main Street in the old Whisky Dix spot.
For a very long time 323 Portage Avenue’s storefront sat empty opposite one of the busiest arenas in North America.
The wait to see what goes into 323 Portage Avenue is over. It has been announced that Snap Fitness is going to occupy just under 12,000 square feet of the front space facing out to MTS Centre. The back area remains unoccupied for the moment but 5,700 square feet awaits a new restaurant or club. Around $1 million in renovations is being done to accommodate the gym. It will include group exercise classes in Zumba and yoga. Weightlifting and boxing instruction will be available as well. And steam showers will be a popular amenity.
The new Snap Fitness will be North America’s largest location for the franchise. It will be open 24 hours which is a first for downtown. Goodlife Fitness is already in a office tower at Portage and Main and the YMCA is west on Portage but both have more limited hours. The new Snap will be operated by an owner with three locations in the province already.
Restaurant and bars are a tough business at the best of times and a lot of hope was laid at the MTS Centre (2004) and Manitoba Hydro Place (2009) to generate traffic. They did. However, a true entertainment district was slow in coming. In 2010, the MTS Exhibition Center in the old Portage Village Inn/A&B Sound Building showed that people would go in great numbers to the area with the right attraction such as Bodies and Titanic. The success led to the construction of Centrepoint which will add the last component on their storefront when Brown’s Socialhouse opens in 2017.
Downtown Winnipeg is enormous in size relative to the other cities. It is marked by areas of vitality and then along certain streets it is long stretches of surface parking and nothing else. There are more people living downtown in the Avenue building, the student residences at the University of Winnipeg, Red River College and Waterfront Drive. Still, it is hard to get the connectivity that was once Portage Avenue all the way from Portage and Main to the University of Winnipeg.
Snap Fitness fills a niche that makes the city operate beyond regular hours. People feel safer when there are more people in the surrounding area. Empty storefronts are like missing teeth in a smile. The addition of a gym across from the MTS Centre is a good sign that a neighbourhood is forming.
This has been an editorial by John Dobbin.
To read more from John, visit his blog Observations, Reservations, Conversations