Canada

Wake up, Winnipeg

Proponents hope an urban face-lift and new jobs will change the downtown core from dowdy to hip and happening

BRIAN BERGMAN August 13 2001
Canada

Wake up, Winnipeg

Proponents hope an urban face-lift and new jobs will change the downtown core from dowdy to hip and happening

BRIAN BERGMAN August 13 2001

Wake up, Winnipeg

Proponents hope an urban face-lift and new jobs will change the downtown core from dowdy to hip and happening

Canada

BRIAN BERGMAN

in Winnipeg

It’s a hot and muggy Sunday night in mid-July and the pride of Newfoundland, Great Big Sea, is in full roar. An estimated 100,000 people have taken over one of Canada’s most famous intersections, Portage and Main, and filled the street for several blocks back from the concert stage. This is the final event of a free, three-day downtown festival organized by the City of Winnipeg, and the crowd is pumped in the way that the fab four from St. John’s are famous for. Teenagers, parents and seniors alike are clapping their hands over their heads, thrusting their fists into the air and singing along with the band’s infectious lyrics:

This is downtown Winnipeg as the city’s mayor,

Glen Murray, would like to see it. Hip. Happening.

Happy. In fact, the weekend festival, dubbed Get Together Downtown, is part of a much larger effort to revitalize Winnipeg’s flagging civic core by, among other things, turning abandoned historic buildings into upscale restaurants, nightclubs and condominiums; convincing niche and high-tech businesses to relocate from suburbia; and generally encouraging more people to live and play in the heart of the city.

“That’s what the street festival was all about,” says Murray. “We wanted to get people outside to really see the downtown and have a relationship with it.”

Well come gather all around me, there is something you should know.

There is no place quite like this place if we get it on the go.

Murray is a 43-year-old Montreal native who came to Winnipeg in 1985—and never looked back. He is a born-again Winnipegger who speaks with the zeal of the converted (he is also openly gay, though practically no one in Winnipeg, friend or foe, bothers to mention that anymore). Since being elected to city council in 1989, and especially since becoming mayor almost three years ago, Murray has made downtown revitalization a personal crusade. That effort has been embraced by the city’s business and media elites, including the Winnipeg Free Press and the high-profile Asper family (owners of Can West Global Communications Corp.). But it’s also generated controversy, mostly revolving around plans to demolish the 96-year-old Eaton’s building on Portage Avenue—once the largest retail outlet in Western Canada—to make room for a spanking-new $ 125-million sports and entertainment complex (page 20).

That Winnipeg is long overdue for an urban face-lift is some-

thing few dispute. A century ago, it was the third-largest city in Canada (now the eighth), a commercial, agricultural and railway hub that city fathers touted as “Chicago of the North.” But the Depression years took a heavy toll, and the waning of the grain industry and Winnipeg’s manufacturing base led to inevitable decline. Over the past quarter-century, the city’s downtown has been hit by another kind of blight, as businesses, retailers and residents fled to the suburbs. The result was a dowdy—and at times downright seedy—civic core framed by a series of abandoned historic buildings, many of which ended up, through tax arrears, in city hands. “We became the biggest landlords of empty space,” says a rueful Murray. “We had pigeons for tenants.” What Winnipeg has been blessed with from its last great boom is an abundance of spectacular late-19th-century and early-20thcentury architecture. But many of these buildings have fallen into

disrepair. Now, private developers, egged on by tax breaks, government loan guarantees and other incentives, are taking a crack at readapting old spaces for new uses. Two years ago, the city established CentreVenture, an arm’s-length, not-for-profit organization aimed at fostering new investment in Winnipeg’s downtown. Among other things, CentreVenture offers heritage tax credits up to $250,000 to developers who restore historic buildings. It also provides capital building grants up to $50,000 and has first option on all of the city’s surplus downtown properties—many of which it sells, using those revenues to bring other projects onstream.

Annitta Stenning, president and chief executive officer of CentreVenture, says her organization is getting buildings and businesses back on to the city’s tax rolls, and at relatively little expense.

“Our experience is that for every $ 1 the public sector invests in tax credits, there is at least an $8 private investment,” she says. Among the success stories Stenning counts the Paris Building, a magnificent 11-storey structure that was built on Portage Avenue in 1915, but recendy sat vacant for five years before a Texas-based developer agreed to invest $4 million converting it into modern office and commercial space. Similarly, says Stenning, CentreVenture provided crucial gap financing to a local developer who is turning long-abandoned buildings in the city’s former warehouse district just west of Main Street into condominium units.

CentreVenture is also active in lobbying various levels of government to invest in Winnipeg’s downtown. Municipal and provincial support convinced suburban Red River College to locate a campus extension Ín the city’s central Exchange District. The $32-million campus, to open over the next two years, will bring more than 2,000 students and 200 staffinto the civic core and may spark a much-needed housing boom (currently about 68,000 people work in downtown Winnipeg, but only 14,000 live there). The city is looking to build a new $9-million waterfront road just east of downtown, starting near the city’s founding site, the Forks, where the Red and Assiniboine rivers meet, as well as a $ 15-million pedestrian bridge connecting the Forks to St. Boniface, Winnipeg’s French Quarter and the birthplace of Louis Riel.

Even before the latest public-sector drive to revitalize downtown Winnipeg, individual entrepreneurs were making their stand. Lowell Laluk is managing partner in the family-owned Mariaggi’s Theme Suite Flotel, which opened in the heart of the Exchange Distria 10 years ago. Laluk’s father, Don, bought the building, which had been a luxury hotel in the early 1900s, but had long since declined into low-rent apartments and commercial space. An impressive renovation resulted in seven theme rooms (with

seven more on the way), including the 270-square-metre, $550per-night Jakarta Tropical Penthouse, which features a baby grand piano, pool table and bar—and is where CanWest Global founder Izzy Asper celebrated his 65 th birthday. “When we first opened, the area was in really sad shape,” says Laluk. “We were surrounded by prostimtes working the streets. It was a real no mans land. But we believed in the future, that ‘if you build it, they will come.’ ” Verna Judge is another downtown pioneer. Along with her partner, Alan Shepard, Judge opened a Christmas novelty store in the Exchange District four years ago. In the same building was a run-down coffee shop that owed money to bikers. It wasn’t long before Judge and Shepard received phone calls threatening that the building would be burned down. They subsequendy took over the coffee shop and turned it into Step’n Out, an upscale restaurant. “When we first came here, people were so freaked out about safety,” says Judge as jazz music plays quietly in the background. “But now, the neighbourhood is very safe.”

Still, civic boosters agree that a crucial element is attracting new people and businesses to relocate to Winnipeg, where the population has remained static at about 680,000 since the early 1990s. In this regard, recent moves by CanWest Global, which owns

Southam News and a 50-per-cent stake in the National Post, are considered encouraging. Since June, CanWest Global chief executive officer Leonard Asper has unveiled plans to bring 700 new jobs to the city’s downtown, including a call centre to centralize the circulation and telemarketing operations of seven of the company’s major western city newspapers, as well as a new digital broadcast centre. CanWest is still looking at relocating a further 500 administrative and managerial staff from other parts of Canada.

In an interview in his 33rd-floor office, Asper told Macleans that “the general philosophy is if something can be in Winnipeg, it should be in Winnipeg. This is where we live, we like it here and we like doing business from here.” As for the decision to locate the new jobs centrally rather than in, say, an industrial park, Asper explains that “we had a bias as home teamers and as part of the overall push that’s going on to make it work downtown.” Asper traces that effort back to the city’s successful staging of the Pan-American Games two summers ago. “The sidewalks were all crowded,” he recalls, “it was almost like New York City, and we all said, ‘This is the way it should be.’ ”

Asper fully expects some of his employees to resist moving, but says many others will jump at the chance. “With Winnipeg,” he says, “it’s very difficult to get people to move here—and it is impossible to make them leave.” Certainly, the city’s loquacious mayor falls into that category. During a lengthy walking tour ofWinnipeg’s downtown, Murray’s passion for his adopted city is palpable. The mayor says he likes nothing better than spending an afternoon bicycling through the city’s historic streets, grabbing dinner at a trendy Exchange District café and then staying downtown for a play or the ballet. In this way Murray may be the perfect poster boy for an emerging urban ethos: Winnipeg the hip. Get used to it. E3