‘Lots of lessons’: Winnipeg learns how to revitalize downtown from former American mayor

WINNIPEG –

Winnipeg’s business community, along with several mayoral candidates, received a lesson Tuesday on how to transform the city’s downtown.

Mick Cornett, a four-term mayor of Oklahoma City, was a guest speaker at a downtown luncheon.

He was able to transform Oklahoma City’s downtown, describing it as once neglected to now vibrant and prospering.

He said to succeed, cities need to be able to attract young educated people to the core, and they will drive the economy.

In Winnipeg right now, it’s not hard to find empty storefronts, addictions and homelessness front and centre — something the city is trying to get back on track.

“Businesses do continue to struggle as they pull themselves out of pandemic survival debt,” said David Pensato, the executive director of Exchange District BIZ.

“The quality of life in the suburbs is directly related to the energy of the core,” said Cornett.

Cornett said after the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City, the core was pretty vacant, but a program that included a one per cent sales tax to pay for schools, libraries and an arena helped turn things around.

“The core of Oklahoma City had died. They had to reinvest in downtown.”

He added the city also had an obesity problem, so they made an effort to make downtown healthier by adding bike paths, sidewalks and parks, as well as a rail system.

“We had built this city around the automobile, from now on, let’s build it around people.”

These changes, Cornett said, will help bring younger, educated people to smaller markets like Winnipeg as long as the downtown suits their lifestyle.

“They want to live in a place where life is affordable, housing costs aren’t extraordinary. They want little traffic congestion.”

The luncheon was put on by the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown and Exchange BIZs.

“There’s lots of lessons that we can take from Oklahoma City given that it is a smaller size,” said Pam Hardman, the director of marketing, engagement and communications for Downtown Winnipeg BIZ.

Cornett also had advice for the mayoral hopefuls who were in attendance, downtown needs to be vibrant to attract jobs and people.

“I’d be very leery of a mayoral candidate who didn’t understand that,” said Cornett.

Cornett added he is in favour of a pedestrian-friendly downtown experience, referencing the debate again about Portage and Main, but noted the culture and safety are the most important things to be focused on instead of just one intersection.

According to a 2021 census, Oklahoma City is the 22nd largest city in the United States.

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