“Please finish your drinks, everyone, and then kindly get the fuck out.”
Just past 2 a.m. on Sunday, Aug. 26, Jack Jonasson, owner of popular Ellice Avenue tavern and music venue Lo Pub, shouted out his traditional closing time request one last time over the din of the roomful of regular patrons who had crowded in to bid the favourite haunt a final farewell.
Only hours later, another of the street’s small businesses - breakfast and lunch joint the Black Sheep Diner - closed its doors for good; this, just two days after the nearby Ellice Café & Theatre, the brainchild of the late Rev. Harry Lehotsky, also shuttered its doors.
The sudden wave of proximate closures comes largely as a disappointment to students of the street’s adjacent university campus and residents of the area, which has struggled to cultivate an increase in community-positive commercial activity in recent years.
The businesses’ reasons for closure, as well as the outlooks for the now-empty properties they leave behind, are various.
The HI Hostel & Lo Pub
While regulars of the Ellice and Kennedy complex’s lower half were well aware the building’s other tenant, the HI Hostel, would be closing more than a month ahead of its final day, they were caught off guard by news that the Lo Pub would also shut its doors - news that came only a few days in advance of the pub’s last call.
Adam Nikkel, a musician who had performed at the venue on multiple occasions and who often made his way to the tavern as a regular customer, was among the legions of Winnipeggers who crammed themselves into the business’s relatively small space on its last night of operation.
“Lo Pub is the best venue in the city for local bands,” he said, echoing the sentiments of many others who attended that evening. “There’s just no place like it.”
While HI Hostel Winnipeg’s media representative declined to comment on the financial situation of the city’s former backpackers’ hub, Jim August, CEO of the Forks North Portage Partnership (FNPP) - the developer that currently owns the building - said the economics of the business weren’t working.
According to August, the hostel occupied more space than it could fill with the city’s traffic of young travellers.
Financially speaking, however, the Lo Pub was another story.
“Independent of (the HI Hostel) we were profitable and viable,” said Jonasson, who ran the pub for four-and-a-half years.
Although he noted his search for a new location has yet to begin, Jonasson made it clear the Lo Pub would return elsewhere, whether under its old name or simply carrying the original’s spirit.
“This is what I’m meant to do,” he said. “So this won’t be my last stop.”
The FNPP intends to sell the building to a new owner, August said.
He also expressed the buyer would be neither an alcohol vendor nor nightclub, but that the building would likely be used as a residential or office space, or perhaps as another hotel or hostel.
When asked if he thought that the weekend of closures specifically indicated a negative shift in the commercial atmosphere of the Ellice neighbourhood, Jonasson speculated that the wave was more of a coincidence than a representation of larger problems.
Ellice Café & Theatre
Opened in 2005 as a non-profit community development initiative, the Ellice Café & Theatre unfortunately succumbed to its own non-business philosophy, said New Life Ministries interim pastor Curtis Halbesma.
“Our hope was just to cover our costs, but unfortunately we didn’t come close to that,” he said.
According to Halbesma, a commitment to keeping prices as low as possible and foregoing a liquor sales licence in order to create a comfortable environment for those facing addictions, as well as limited seating in the restaurant, contributed to a non-viable financial situation.
In its search for a new property owner, Halbesma noted that New Life Ministries is looking for a buyer with “a good vision,” “stable financing” and an attention to the needs of the surrounding neighbourhood.
According to Halsbesma, the property might be used as a community training centre of sorts. Another possible use for the multi-level, multi-suite location might be as space for “a network of smaller organizations working together,” he said.
The theatre portion of the Ellice Café & Theatre will remain in use in some capacity until December.
The Black Sheep Diner
First opened in 2007, the pint-sized diner known by many university-area residents as the place to go for locally sourced breakfast and lunch, announced its impending closure in early summer, giving regulars ample time to come by for a last taste of their popular fare.
In an open letter posted to the business’s website, space limitations at the Black Sheep Diner’s Ellice Avenue location were cited as a primary reason for the shut down.
But fear not - “there will be a continued hunt for a new space” and fans of the restaurant “may see another incarnation of the Sheep in the not-so-distant future,” the restaurant said in the letter.
The restaurant’s owner, Angela Forget, could not be reached for further comment.
Read more about the Lo Pub on page 11.
Published in Volume 67, Number 1 of The Uniter (September 5, 2012)