Downtown Winnipeg businesses thrive despite COVID-19 pandemic

Downtown Winnipeg businesses thrive despite COVID-19 pandemic
Downtown Winnipeg businesses thrive despite COVID-19 pandemic

Colin Koop remembers a time when the idea of ​​owning his own brewery felt like a dream.

“Somehow we’ve managed to make this place work even though we started off kind of behind,” Koop said as he poured pints at Devil May Care Brewing on Fort Street.

In this multi-part series, CTV News Winnipeg interviewed four city-centre employers about their work lives post-COVID-19 pandemic.

Koop opened his business in downtown Winnipeg in 2022, two days before Christmas, just before the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re a small, local, independent craft brewery,” Koop says, adding that they also mix it up with other types of fun drinks and operate a taproom and production facility.

The brewery is just one of several new businesses that have opened during or after the pandemic.

According to the most recent statistics from Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, more businesses have closed than opened year after year.

Kate Fenske is CEO of Downtown Winnipeg BIZ and she says the tide may be turning.

“We’ve been tracking what’s happening with businesses, and for the first time this quarter in 2024, we’ve seen more businesses open and more businesses close,” Fenske said. “That really shows that there’s still commitment, there’s investment, there’s optimism in downtown.”

Fenske said large-scale projects like the redevelopment of the Hudson’s Bay building and Portage Place and the future development of Railside at The Forks are essential to that strategy.

“I think we have to be ambitious.”

“My wealth at the time was less than zero”

Since 2015, Koop and his business partner dreamed of opening a brewery, so in 2018 he began “contract brewing” with local label Stone Angel until the pandemic closed the brewery.

“With contract brewing, you’re using excess space and production capacity at another facility,” Koop said. “We would be using someone else’s equipment to produce our own beer.”

During the pandemic, Koop took his brewing skills to Torque Brewing, where he continued to ship dozens of cans across the province after securing a deal to brew out of their brewery.

Given the hard times and the fact that Stone Angel went under, it seemed very unlikely that he would open his own space.

“My net worth at the time was less than zero,” Koop said. “We started with nothing, less than nothing.”

Ironically, beer sales provided them with enough money to open their own store.

“The increase in retail consumption meant that people were staying home, they had a lot more disposable income,” Koop said. “They were drinking a lot more.”

Colin Koop operates a production facility in the back of the Devil May Care Brewing building. During the pandemic, Koop was able to pocket enough money from his individual beer can sales to consider finding a storefront of his own. (Joseph Bernacki/CTV News Winnipeg)

Koop and his partner could have opened a store anywhere in the city, as commercial real estate was struggling throughout the city. However, the pandemic had caused rents in the city center to drop enough that they could afford to open a store.

“Honestly, ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved downtown Winnipeg,” Koop said, “My mom used to take me to Eaton’s all the time to go shopping. I have really fond memories of that.”

READ MORE: Hybrid Work-From-Home Schedules Stick in Downtown Winnipeg

Downtown Winnipeg BIZ and its partners are tasked with making the city centre a thriving place.

“We’re seeing positive investment and confidence in our city centre,” Fenske said. “We need to think about what Winnipeg residents want and deserve.”

She said the return of thousands of workers to the city centre is also contributing to its revival.

“What we know is that employees absolutely have an impact on the vibrancy of our city center,” Fenske said. “It’s great to see more and more of them bringing employees back.”

READ MORE: ‘People are coming back slowly’: Thousands of workers return to offices in downtown Winnipeg

Colin Koop said he hopes more businesses will open, especially supermarkets.

“Right now we’re in a bit of a supermarket desert,” Koop said. “We need a supermarket in the city center.”

He said the perception that the city centre is not safe is also a major problem and that visitors should be able to trust that they will not be attacked when in the city centre.

“I’ve been here for two years now, every day, and I love it,” he said.

A recent report from the Winnipeg Police Service says violent crime has increased by more than 30 percent in the past five years. With a new crime reduction strategy in the works, many wonder if it will be enough, but Koop is confident.

“You know, people just realize that downtown isn’t scary,” Koop said. “People want to be here, right?”

Colin Koop said he was influenced to choose a downtown location based on fond memories of growing up in the neighborhood. He hopes future entrepreneurs will be attracted to the area and said the community is in desperate need of a grocery store. (Joseph Bernacki/CTV News Winnipeg)