The Fairmont Hotel Winnipeg, originally the Winnipeg Inn, played a significant role in the Richardson family-led development of Portage and Main. It was a long-delayed grand presence on the corner that the family had held off on until better times. It was striking that the corner had long had a gas station on the site for many years, a testament to just how much of a car city we were even at this historic corner.
Between 1968 and 1970, the Richardson building and the then Winnipeg Inn were constructed. One became the tallest office building and headquarters for Richardson operations worldwide, and the other transformed into one of the grandest hotels in the city.
The buildings are closer together than people realize, and the Richardson family has spent the last number of years improving the outside with public artworks, doing their part to ensure safety on their corner by moving the much-feared entrance to the concourse into the secure area of their building.
From 1970 to 2000, the Richardsons owned the hotel but sold it that year. As a private company, it was probably just asset management. In 1996, they had sold Richardson Greenshields to Royal Bank for cash and shares, and owning a singular hotel that needed upgrades probably seemed a poor use of resources. Certainly, in 2003, Richardson was back in the brokerage business, and it was likely cash-heavy as an investment initially. Today, Richardson Financial is a heavyweight again in the industry.
While the hotel might have been sold, the Richardsons invested $10 million back in their concourse connecting to the former Bank of Canada building at 161 Portage. Upgrades went into the building as well.
In 2020, the Richardson Innovation Centre was completed in the middle of the pandemic and didn’t get the big splash it ought to have gotten. The 62,000 square foot building is sleek and modern, the heart of the research and development side of what the company does in agriculture.
The Richardsons have a campus thinking for their area of Portage and Main, and having a hotel in the middle of the property that they no longer own did not fit well with that thinking. They have major upgrades planned according to the exec in charge. In fact, they have stated they believe the business case for owning and upgrading makes sense in the post-pandemic era.
Given the Free Press story in the last day stating that office workers are going to continue to work hybrid schedules, local restaurants are saying that Mondays and Fridays are low points. Some of the workers coming in just two days a week are resentful, thinking there is no need for coming in any days.
This is likely up to the companies and workers to sort out. If productivity remains good, they might be right. At its high point, the Richardson Building had 3000 people working in it and 150 support staff. It is possible it might have that many people again, but it will be a process. One thing is up, though, and that is the hotel and convention business, and the Fairmont figures to be part of that.
In 2024, the Richardsons seem to want to make a splash in Manitoba. Their foundation has just helped donate 193 acres of peatland in the province this week. This, along with supporting the arts over the years, has ensured vital aspects in Winnipeg and surrounding areas.
In terms of supporting downtown, it is better that the Richardsons own the Fairmont than not owning it. The investment talked about is not idle chatter either. This year will have some substantial building and renovations going on. It will be difficult to see how it all meshes together. The gaps between projects in terms of space are always problematic. It will be interesting, though, to see a number of downtown hotels get built or spruced up in the next year.
This has been a guest editorial by John Dobbin.
To read more from John, visit his blog Observations, Reservations, Conversations