Building a resilient Manitoba starts with a vibrant downtown

by Stefano Grande and Jason Syvixay, Downtown Winnipeg BIZ

According to Statistics Canada, a base population of 1.2 million in the Manitoba Capital Region will increase to 1.6 by 2036, and trends are clear, more and more people are moving to urban centres. With rising costs to infrastructure, health care, jobs, and transportation networks, managing this population growth should be a central concern during the upcoming provincial election. True global cities are competitive when their knowledge, capital, and people are concentrated. With this in mind, social, economic, and environmental concerns that pose a barrier to a sustainable province may be reconciled with greater investments in downtowns.

Research tells us that downtowns can comprise less than 1% of a city’s total land area but can generate up to 25 per cent of the city’s tax base. Downtowns and vibrant business districts across the province are important economic and social drivers. From Selkirk to Brandon and Thompson to Steinbach, they contribute to community well-being and their boundaries define the diverse values, aspirations, and hopes of our citizens. As our leaders begin to focus their attention to policies and platforms during the current provincial election, we encourage them to mobilize greater participation from the public, as new ideas can percolate. Community discussion shapes successful and resilient strategies. As leaders begin to value the virtues of a prosperous city, meaningful job opportunities for business and innovation will begin to flourish throughout the province.

Hosted by the Downtown Winnipeg and its stakeholders, a forum held at the Winnipeg Art Gallery spurred discussion with Premier candidates on the value of Downtown Winnipeg. The need for heritage preservation, robust transportation investments to support all modes of travel, ending homelessness, and sustaining the use of Tax Increment Financing for residential and downtown district development, were some of the broad conclusions formed. To read premier candidates and their responses to the forum’s questions, visit http://www.downtownwinnipegbiz.com.

The last decade has seen tremendous growth and change. One of the BIZ’s major priorities has been to keep downtown up front and centre, engraining the importance of downtown in the hearts and minds of government and Manitobans. The media has and continues to play a role in shaping the fabric of our city, and the thoughts of its people. We have elevated conversations about safety, homelessness, impacts of sprawl on the downtown and inner city, incentives to housing development. Celebrating the arrival of new developments, foot patrols, Cadets, housing for the homeless and new businesses, have given our community much needed confidence to begin believing in the downtown again. With over 2 billion in private and public sector investment over the last decade, our downtown is on the cusp of re-birth.

So what does future momentum and success look like? Where should we be headed in the next 10 years?

The vision for our downtown is clear because it’s based on the roots, which are taking hold today. Our downtown will be series of dense, pedestrian-friendly interconnected neighbourhoods where people of all ages and incomes can love, work, and shop. The Exchange District, Waterfront Drive, Chinatown, SHED, the University of Winnipeg Campus, Broadway, Graham Mall, The Forks and Main Street, will become vibrant at all days of the week. To get there, we will have clear long-term redevelopment plans that will attract investment for both new and refurbished older buildings. And in-between these neighbourhoods, where today we find parking lots or eight-lane highways, tomorrow will be well designed storefronts and public spaces ensuring as people walk, bike, take a streetcar, freely from place to place their senses come alive with the opportunities to shop, eat, hang out and relax, stroll and safely.

Private/public financing tools such as TIFs are readily available to stimulate this development, in particular to create for affordable housing and new commercial spaces to support to young people wanting to invest, live and/or work downtown.

The substance abuse and homelessness we witness today and the harms it creates for people will be better managed. The 10-Year Plan to End Homeless will be fully supported and funded by government and the private sector, and hundreds of more homes will be built. Social workers from agencies on the front lines are all working together to rapidly house and surround people in need with supports. Our downtown will be safer, more tolerant, and for everyone.

Downtown is a place where the culture, music, art and history strengths of our ingenious community resides and is proudly displayed, alongside that of our immigrants which call downtown their neighbourhood of choice. This is an awakening period for the City of Winnipeg, a time when the heart of our city fully became alive. While the 80s and 90s showed signs of resuscitation, the failure of deep-rooted policy and the lack of focus to stimulate sustained private sector development and business growth have also already been written about. While the winds of provincial government will always, the priority of ensuring this new found heart beat continues will now fall upon our next elected government. Downtown Winnipeg belongs to Manitobans. Momentum must continue forward.

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