Thursday, 20 August 2009

Polo Park opens to fanfare !

As noted in This Was Winnipeg, Polo Park Shopping Centre opened on August 20, 1959. Here's a look back !

  Top: Manitoba Free Press, June 12, 1925

Once on the deserted outskirts of the city, this 60-acre site was home to Polo Park Race Track. Opened on June 12, 1925, it was the city's largest horse racing track with grandstand seating for 4,500, another 11,000 could watch form the lawns. 

In the early and mid 1950s a great deal of development that took place in the area. The new Winnipeg International Airport sparked a flurry of industrial and warehouse construction. the neighbouring land became the home of Winnipeg's new arena and football stadium.

This development caused the value of the land to soar. Owner Jim Speers found a new site at Portage Avenue at the Perimeter and the old one was sold to eastern developers in 1954 for a rumoured $1 million.

Winnipeg Free Press, May 20, 1954

In April 1954 local developer David Slater Ltd. announced plans for a Polo Park Shopping Centre. The following month, Simpson-Sears bought 15 of the available 60 acres for a $5 million, multi-level department store with parking lot and "super service station."

The mall was a series of interconnected buildings that had an indoor courtyard but the halls themselves were 'covered' rather than indoors. There was room for 40 stores and almost 4,000 cars. The developer told media that a regional shopping centre like Polo Park: "....is the return to the age-old tradition of a village market but with 20th century comforts." (May 20, 1954 WFP).

Polo Park (Source" Manitoba Photos)

Construction was to begin as soon as the 1956 racing season ended but there was a delay with no public explanation. One rumour was that anchor tenant Simpson-Sears was dragging its feet on finalizing its plans. Whatever the holdup, it wasn't until January 1958 that shovels hit the ground.

Once underway, the city had to overhaul the area's infrastructure and reconfigure its transportation routes. Despite initial statements by the city and the developer that the project would not cost taxpayers a cent - it did. The paving of Empress Street was paid for entirely by the city. The $800,000 Empress Street Overpass ended up receiving just a $200,000 subsidy from Polo Park Centre Ltd. 

As costs continued to rise, the city pointed out to the developer that if it ended up footing any more than 57% of the cost of the redevelopment project, a money referendum would be triggered and there was no guarantee that it would pass. At that point the city and Polo Park Centre Ltd. reached a 57% -  43% cost sharing agreement for the new infrastructure. 

Winnipeg Free Press, Aug 19, 1959

The management of the mall had some heavy hitters. The president of Polo Park Centre Ltd. was Maitland Steinkopf and its chair was Charles Bronfman.

Original tenants
Polo Park opened to customers on May 20, 1959 with an impressive array of local and national retailers such as Gensers, Zellers, Kresge, Reitmans, Dominion Stores, Hanford Drewit and Birks. Eight of them are still there today.

Polo Park, outdoor version (source)

At 9:45 am on August 20, 1959, a rainy Thursday morning, two-thousand people showed up at centre court for the official opening of 'Canada's largest shopping centre'. The emcee was Fred Davis of Reach for The Top fame, Premier Roblin unveiled a plaque that read in part:

Proudly dedicated to the families past and present who with courage and devotion built the Greater Winnipeg of today…and to the families of the future who will build a still Greater Winnipeg

Winnipeg Free Press, Aug 19, 1959

At the opening ceremonies Steinkopf announced that an expansion plan to add 30 more stores was already in the works.

Polo Park Shopping Centre News Release
Polo Park Winnipeg Building index


The View from Seven said...

Good post, Mr. C.!

I was told once that Sears' had its own grand opening celebration that turned into a fiasco. They were giving out pieces of cake, one of which was supposed to have a prize hidden inside.

Instead of eating the cake, people were ripping it open with their bare hands looking for the prize, scattering chunks of cake all over the store.

mrchristian said...

Lol - I'll go back and check that out. That's funny !