The companies behind Winnipeg’s world-class downtown art gallery, sports and entertainment center and convention center are calling on all levels of government to renew their focus on the heart of town.
Three of downtown’s biggest private players want governments to partner with them, show leadership to create a roadmap for downtown’s future, and mobilize the funds needed to close the lingering gaps that affect people who live, work and visit the area.
“We always thought Winnipeg had good bones. It’s a big city,” Jim Ludlow, president of True North Real Estate Development, said in an interview last week.
“There is an opportunity here, but…for the opportunity to be maximized, we need to have true provincial, civic and private sector alignment.
Years ago, downtown Winnipeg was losing residents faster than it was gaining, and major businesses closed, including the Eaton’s store on Portage Avenue in 1999.
In 2002, the True North development group began demolishing this building to create what is now known as the Canada Life Center – one of the developments that helped spark change for the downtown core as the establishment of a sports, leisure and hospitality district, or SHED.
But Ludlow says more work is needed on public services that would help support these developments, such as rapid transit in the city, affordable housing downtown and access to addiction support.
These problems could all be solved by at least two levels of government if they came together to prioritize the city centre, he said.
University of Winnipeg urban geographer Jino Distasio says some of the significant progress that was made downtown between 2005 and 2020 has been undone during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The pandemic has shut down the economy, it has crushed small businesses, it has crushed the entrepreneur starting a new business, opening a new restaurant or bar,” he said.
“It has changed the habits of coming downtown and enjoying an evening beyond a simple sporting event.”
The director of the Winnipeg Art Gallery and Qaumajuq Inuit Art Center says the gallery is committed to this recovery, but agrees there are barriers preventing some people from coming and spending time downtown.
Stephen Borys says it is essential that all levels of government join in a plan to revitalize the region.
“We want people to feel good, to feel safe, to feel energized to be here. And right now there are just too many gaps that don’t connect the dots,” he said.
Things like better lighting, active transportation routes and more safety initiatives could go a long way to filling those gaps, Borys said.
He wants the Winnipeg Art Gallery and other downtown stakeholders to help create a roadmap to get there.
“We play a huge role in making sure people come downtown, stay downtown, spend money downtown, and feel good about being downtown no matter what. where they live in the city,” he said.
Another big player in downtown Winnipeg is the RBC Convention Centre, which helps fill hotel rooms, restaurants and tourist attractions with people in the city for conferences or conventions.
Drew Fisher, the centre’s president and CEO, says work has already been done on a downtown master plan, but that plan now needs to be implemented.
“It’s obviously going to take a holistic approach to accomplishing them,” he said.
Fisher has witnessed growth in other urban centers like Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary, and says their downtowns thrived when housing was a priority.
“This urban growth has really organically helped make the downtown areas in these areas more vibrant, and I’m confident Winnipeg will be the same,” Fisher said.
Support for people in a situation of dependency
A promising downtown player is the Southern Chiefs’ Organization, which recently took over the former Hudson’s Bay Company building on Portage Avenue.
The organization plans to renovate the historic building to include 300 affordable housing units, two restaurants, a public atrium, rooftop garden, museum and art gallery.
SCO Grand Chief Jerry Daniels agrees with the idea of a master plan with the support of all levels of government, but says it cannot be development only.
It must also include a plan to address social issues facing downtown residents.
“We really need to stop the flow of our people into addiction. We really have to try to get past that,” he said.
The City of Winnipeg website includes numerous documents on the future of the city centerincluding a residential development plan, parking strategy and urban design guidelines.
The Downtown Winnipeg Business Improvement Area also has its own recovery plan for the region.
But there is no agreed strategy that everyone follows together.
A spokesperson said the Manitoba government will work with other levels to make Winnipeg safe, accessible, vibrant and affordable, adding that the province spent $2.5 million this summer to help downtown businesses to recover from the pandemic.
Kalen Qually, the city’s communications officer, explains that the city government is developing a plan for downtown called CentrePlan 2050, which will help guide long-term development and city investment “to ensure success, vibrancy and downtown health for years to come.
He did not say whether the province or the federal government was involved.
Although Winnipeg businesses face the challenge of overcoming the economic hole the pandemic has put them in, Distasio says he’s optimistic about the city’s future.
“Hopefully we’re starting to see some recovery,” he said.
“But it will take a collective effort, probably including all three levels of government, but also led by the private sector to really come back and invest in ideas and in new ways of really experiencing the city.”