Winnipeg’s downtown is in trouble. Here’s what some key stakeholders want to see

The corporations behind downtown Winnipeg’s internationally recognized art gallery, major sports and entertainment venue, and convention centre are calling on all levels of government to renew their focus on the core of the city.

Three of the biggest private stakeholders in the core want governments to partner with them, show leadership to create a road map for the future of the downtown and put up the money to address ongoing gaps affecting the people who live, work and visit the area.

“We’ve always felt that Winnipeg has good bones. It’s a great city,” Jim Ludlow, president of True North Real Estate Development, said in an interview last week.

“There’s opportunity here, but … for opportunity to be optimized, we have to have real alignment provincially, civically and in the private sector.”

Years ago, Winnipeg’s downtown was losing residents faster than it was gaining them, and prominent businesses closed their doors, including the Portage Avenue Eaton’s store in 1999.

In 2002, the True North development group began demolishing that building to create what’s now known as Canada Life Centre — one of the developments that helped spark changes for the downtown like the establishment of a sports, entertainment and hospitality district, or SHED.

The arena now known as the Canada Life Centre was built on the site of the former Eaton’s building. That store closed in 1999 and was demolished in 2002. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

But Ludlow says more work is needed on public services that would help support those developments, like rapid transit in the city, affordable housing downtown and access to addictions support.

Those issues could all be addressed by at least two levels of government if they came together to prioritize the downtown, 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 stalled the economy, it crushed small businesses, it crushed the entrepreneur that was starting a new business, launching a new restaurant or bar,” he said. 

“It upended the patterns of coming to the downtown and enjoying an evening beyond just a sporting event.”

University of Winnipeg urban geographer Jino Distasio says the city lost some of the progress it made in recent years during the pandemic. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

The head of the Winnipeg Art Gallery and the Inuit art centre Qaumajuq says the gallery is committed to that recovery, but agrees there are barriers preventing some people from coming and spending time downtown.

Stephen Borys says it’s critical that all levels of government get on board with a plan to revitalize the area.

“We want people to feel good, to feel safe, to feel energized about being here. And right now, there are just too many gaps that are not connecting the dots,” he said.

Things like better lighting, active transportation routes and more safety initiatives could go a long way to bridging those gaps, Borys said.

He wants the Winnipeg Art Gallery and other downtown stakeholders to be involved in creating a road map to do that.

“We play a huge role in ensuring people come downtown, stay downtown, spend money downtown and feel good about being downtown, regardless of where they live in the city,” he said.

Qaumajuq, the Inuit art gallery at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, is one of the newer draws to downtown. But WAG director Stephen Borys says there are challenges to getting people to come and spend time in the area. (John Einarson/CBC)

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 president and CEO of the centre, says work has already been done toward a master plan for the downtown, but now that plan has to be put into action.

“It’s obviously going to require an all-hands-on-deck approach to accomplish them,” he said.

Fisher has witnessed the growth in other urban centres like Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary, and says their downtowns thrived when housing was prioritized.

“That urban growth really organically contributed to making the downtown cores of those areas more vibrant, and I’m confident it’s going to do the same for Winnipeg,” Fisher said.

Supports for people with addictions

An up-and-coming player in the downtown is the Southern Chiefs’ Organization, which recently took over the former Hudson’s Bay building on Portage Avenue.

The organization plans to overhaul the historic building to include 300 affordable housing units, two restaurants, a public atrium, a rooftop garden, a museum and an art gallery. 

SCO Grand Chief Jerry Daniels is on board with the idea of a master plan with support from all levels of government, but says it can’t just be about development.

It also has to include a plan to address the social issues people downtown face.

“We really have to stop the flow of our people into addiction. We really have to try to get in front of that,” he said.

Jerry Daniels, the Grand Chief of the Southern Chiefs’ organization, said he hopes all levels of government come together to prioritize addictions supports and wellness in a downtown master plan. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

The City of Winnipeg’s website includes numerous documents on the future of downtown, including a residential development plan, a parking strategy and urban design guidelines.

The Downtown Winnipeg Business Improvement Zone also has its own recovery plan for the area.

But there isn’t one agreed upon strategy that everyone is following together.

A spokesperson said Manitoba’s government will work with other levels to make Winnipeg safe, accessible, vibrant and affordable, adding that the province spent $2.5 million this summer helping downtown businesses recover from the pandemic.

Kalen Qually, a communications officer with the city, says the municipal government is developing a downtown plan called CentrePlan 2050, which will help guide long-term development and municipal investment “to ensure downtown’s success, vibrancy, and health for years to come.”

He didn’t say if the province or federal government is involved in it.

Although Winnipeg’s businesses face the challenge of overcoming the economic hole the pandemic put them in, Distasio says he’s optimistic about the city’s future.

“My hope is that we begin to see some recovery,” he said.

“But it’s going to take a collective effort, likely including the three levels of government, but also led by the private sector to really come back and also invest in ideas and in new kinds of ways of really experiencing the city.”