‘World-class things happening here,’ but Brandon’s downtown revitalization still faces challenges

Manitoba’s second-largest city has a downtown stagnation problem.

While the COVID-19 pandemic hammered efforts to rejuvenate Brandon’s downtown, the start and stop of revitalization efforts has been going on for years, residents say.

Now, some entrepreneurs are rallying to restore the downtown and prove it’s worth saving.

The Brandon Chamber of Commerce is among those exploring different strategies to support the downtown area.

This week, its renewal goals got a bost from the Manitoba government with $400,000 for the Brandon Downtown Revitalization Incentive Program, an initiative aimed at rejuvenating the city’s downtown business community after the hit it took from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite past efforts to boost the downtown, there are currently around a dozen commercial buildings listed in the area, ranging in price from $330,000 to $3.55 million.

That can be interpreted in two ways, says chamber president Tanya LaBuick — an opportunity for entrepreneurs to buy in at an affordable price, or as a devolution of the city’s core.

A well dressed man and woman stand in front of old wooden doors attached to a historic building.
Brandon Chamber of Commerce president Tanya LaBuick, left, and Brandon Downtown Development Corporation executive director Emeka Egeson stand at the entrance to the chamber office on Wednesday. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

But LaBuick, like other Brandonites CBC talked with, said it will take a commitment from the entire community to breathe new life into the city’s downtown.

A key step in revitalization is promoting and developing local businesses, cultural activities or events that bring people to the core, she said.

Beyond the lower traffic flow of locals in the area dampening revitalization efforts, LaBuick says, businesses are also hurt by factors like labour shortages and supply chain issues. For businesses located downtown, those struggles are compounded, she said.

“I do believe it can be turned around,” and the downtown “could be something quite unique and flavorful … for our city,” LaBuick said.

“[But] we’re going to have to take action.”

The quest for revitalization

Robyn Sneath, of Sneath Group, and her husband Jason have been advocating for Brandon’s downtown since 2012.

The local entrepreneurs purchased six buildings, two of which are currently for sale, in the city’s downtown core and have been working to transform the area into a popular destination for locals and tourists.

Their flagship property at 1031 Rosser Ave., home to the Skin dermatology clinic and the recently opened Hills Spa, received nearly $22,000 in 2020 through the province’s Heritage Resource Conservation grant.

A women in a cozy brown sweater stands in front of a colourful mural.
Robyn Sneath, of The Sneath Group, stands on Rosser Avenue in downtown Brandon on Tuesday, Oct. 18. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

Revitalization is “not for the faint of heart,” Sneath cautioned, and developers have to “believe that you’re doing something worthwhile.”

“I wish people could see that potential,” Sneath said, encouraging people who own, or want to open, a small business to consider relocating to the historic core “to help get that critical mass together.”

Sneath says revitalization needs positive enthusiasm, as opposed to the “doom and gloom” talk dominating downtown discourse.

While the downtown cannot return to what it once was, it can create a new vibrant identity, she said.

“There are world-class things happening here … people aren’t really talking about,” she said, which people need to come downtown to experience.

“I think people will be pleasantly surprised at what they find.”

‘A work in progress’

Downtown rejuvenation has been a conversation for the 25 years Brandon Royal LePage broker Brad Hardy has been in real estate.

“I think it’s always been a challenge,” he said. “It’s just something that I think is a continual ongoing process.”

He doesn’t think there have been “dramatic shifts” in downtown real estate due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A for rent sign is taped to a window.
A space for rent in downtown Brandon. The Chamber of Commerce and Brandon Downtown Development Corporation are actively trying to recruit new entrepreneurs to set up shop in the area. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

A duo of buildings at 829 Rosser Ave. and 29 10th St. are in a unique situation, he said, as they’ve been redeveloped in the last five to 10 years — marking the last major building upgrades downtown, to his knowledge. 

The buildings are not a typical representation of downtown architecture — most have not experienced the same extensive level of upgrading, he said.

Seeing the development of new or upgraded facilities is a positive sign, because it encourages people to consider living or working in the area, said Hardy.

“Downtown is … a work in progress,” he said, but it’s encouraging to see people make investments in the area.

Revitalization ‘not where we want to be’

Emeka Egeson, executive director of Brandon Downtown Development Corporation, is leading the charge of downtown’s resurgence. 

“We are not where we want to be” on bringing “life back to downtown,” he said.

The skyline of a city with colourful autumn trees in front of it.
Revitalization efforts for downtown Brandon are ‘not where we want to be,’ says Egeson. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

The development corporation has supported three Sneath development projects — the Prairie Lofts at 829 Rosser Ave., 29-10th St. and the Skin Clinics and Fraser Sneath Coffee at 1031 Rosser Ave.

But “we know we can’t do it alone,” said Egeson.

At the top of his wish list for revitalization is an investment in public infrastructure and creating safe spaces where people feel more comfortable coming to visit.

But Egeson remains optimistic for the future of the area.

“Businesses are coming back to some extent, but I will say there are also challenges that we continue to work on,” Egeson said.

“We need to continue to work together … developers and entrepreneurs and businesses who want to invest in the downtown.”