While many have praised plans to turn the St. Regis Hotel Embassy Lounge into a dry facility, others, including the bar’s regular patrons, say they are disappointed by the plan.
On Nov. 15, the CentreVenture Development Corporation announced it had bought the Smith Street property with intentions to improve the Sports, Hospitality and Entertainment District (SHED) by reducing drunkenness and alcohol-related violence in the area.
The St. Regis, which houses a licenced VLT lounge, has been the site of two beating deaths - both alcohol-related - since 2009.
Leonard McCloud, a St. Regis regular for 18 years, has seen the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to the iconic haunt, slated to close in January.
“I’ve been in countless fights here - hell, I’ve been stabbed in fights here more than once,” said McCloud, who added that, personal experiences aside, the bar is a safe place for customers on the whole.
“But it’s still the best place in town,” he added. “It’s like its own community. For the most part, everybody here’s friends. It’s a beautiful place.”
For John Sloss, who used to work as a bartender and security guard in the lounge, the loss of the St. Regis is a sentimental one.
“I grew up here. I’m very sad about (losing) it,” said Sloss. “This is like home to a lot of people.”
Jeff Hart, another regular, says the spot is a popular destination for aboriginals from northern communities visiting Winnipeg for medical treatment.
“It’s a convenient place for a lot of native people,” said Hart. “It’s like the hub of downtown for us, and soon that will be gone.”
Ross McGowan, president and CEO of CentreVenture, says the decision to make the facility alcohol-free is only one aspect of a larger plan.
“We want to increase positive and desirable behaviours by getting more people to the area,” said McGowan, who explained increased programming, better lit streets and sidewalks, and additional security to promote pedestrian comfort will soon be implemented in the SHED.
According to McGowan, while the Embassy Lounge will be closed as of January, the attached hotel has been leased back to its current owners for another year.
“During that time we will explore options like housing or redevelopment,” he said.
In 2007, CentreVenture purchased the Bell Hotel on Main Street - another one-time watering hole - and transformed it into a dry, 42-unit affordable housing facility.
Jino Distasio, director of the University of Winnipeg’s Institute for Urban Studies, says the move fails to address larger issues.
“In terms of the bigger picture, (the building’s purchase) points to increasing pressure between a desire to improve downtown and create this new image for it against the backdrop that is the actual reality of downtown,” he said.
“Closing bars does not address poverty or any of the related factors,” he added. “It’s not enough to just pretend these problems don’t exist and shuffle certain people out of the area.”
The sidewalk in front of the lounge is known by many as a popular spot for panhandlers - a fact bemoaned by some downtown residents and workers.
Distasio pointed to other cities such as Vancouver, which made efforts to move homeless people out of key areas during the 2010 Olympic Games, as examples of past attempts to address social problems on an exclusively superficial level.
“We’re not solving anything by doing this,” said Distasio. “We need to have a longer-term vision and strategy for downtown that’s appealing but still equitable.”
As for St. Regis customers like McCloud, they’ll have to find a new hangout once the new year arrives.
“People are obviously just going to go somewhere else,” said McCloud, adding the bars lining nearby Main Street, many of which have poorer reputations than the St. Regis, will likely become alternative choices for displaced patrons.
“People are always going to need some place to go for a drink.”
When asked if the negative behaviour sometimes associated with the lounge will simply migrate elsewhere after the closure, McGowan said a “comprehensive safety and comfort strategy” is being put in place with the help of police and various downtown partners to address future issues.
The owner of the St. Regis hotel could not be reached for comment before press time.
Published in Volume 67, Number 13 of The Uniter (November 28, 2012)