Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

City reborn after NHL

Downtown energized, citizens revitalized one year later

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It was the day that sent hockey fans to the streets singing -- and cash registers ringing.

The announcement May 31, 2011 that the NHL was returning to Winnipeg after a 15-year absence -- a milestone in the city's history -- immediately sent shock waves through the local economy. Restaurants and bars in and around the MTS Centre, the home of the reborn Winnipeg Jets, braced for an onslaught of fans going to the 41 regular-season games and those who couldn't get tickets but wanted to be close to the action in a place that served chicken wings and beer.

The value of downtown real estate shot through the roof, too, as entrepreneurs who hadn't seen the return of the Jets in their crystal balls scrambled to get a piece of the action. Property owners were only too happy to oblige, provided another zero or two were added to their cheques.

Nobody has crunched the precise financial impact on businesses in downtown Winnipeg but it's safe to say, with more than 650,000 fans shoehorning themselves into the MTS Centre for exhibition and regular-season games last season -- not to mention the many thousands more who hit their favourite watering hole for away games -- it's well into the many millions of dollars.

"I was amazed how many places were busy on nights when people just wanted to go watch the game (somewhere). Jets games used to be on TV once a month (with the team that left in 1996). Now, if you can't go to the game, you can go to a lounge and eat great food and watch it. There are lots of people wanting to do that," said Scott Jocelyn, executive director of the Manitoba Restaurant and Foodservices Association.

The True North Sports & Entertainment news conference featuring Mark Chipman, David Thomson and Gary Bettman was a momentous occasion -- but an even more crucial event happened seven years earlier, says Dave Angus, CEO of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce.

"We were blessed back in 2004 when the MTS Centre was built. Now we're seeing the benefits of that," he said.

"The next generation is rediscovering their downtown and the Jets are the single biggest reason. With that comes opportunities for more restaurants and bars and it also increases the demand for residential development. Maybe the downtown isn't as unsafe as people thought," he said.

True North, the company that owns the Jets, is responsible for injecting many more millions of dollars into the local economy. First of all, it has a payroll of 20-plus players earning north of $50 million annually, some of which is spent on local real estate and goods and services. The companies that supply True North with everything from napkins to plastic cups to security services have seen unprecedented demand for their wares, too.

Quite simply, the change in downtown Winnipeg since the MTS Centre was christened has been momentous and the return of the Jets ensures the pace will continue, according to Stefano Grande, executive director of the Downtown Business Improvement Zone (BIZ).

"It's night and day," he said.

Back in 2004, the new Manitoba Hydro building and the expansions at the University of Winnipeg and Red River College, for example, were still years away from construction.

And with the increased confidence that comes with the knowledge downtown will be a long-term destination for countless Winnipeggers for years to come, developers have been mobilizing their cranes for months.

Easily the biggest offshoot is the Sports Hospitality and Entertainment District (SHED), a more than $600-million overhaul of 11 blocks in Winnipeg's central business district over the next five years.

The first of the projects, a 22-storey building that will feature an ALT hotel and office space, will soon rise up from the ashes of what used to be the A&B Sound and Wild Planet buildings.

Other megaprojects, including an expansion of the Winnipeg Convention Centre and development of a parking lot behind the MTS Centre, are in the pipeline.

The hornets' nest of activity has many Winnipeggers wondering if they've ever had it so good. Just as important as the return of the Jets and new construction, the reputation of the Manitoba capital as a dead-end, mosquito-ridden iceberg has melted away.

The psyche of Winnipeggers has undergone a massive shift over the last year, in particular, Grande said.

"Whenever (the BIZ) has guests in from out of town, our counterparts are always amazed at the progress being made in the downtown. We might be oblivious to it because we're around it every day. That's the litmus test, when other people are telling you your downtown is changing," he said.

geoff.kirbyson@freepress.mb.ca

 

 

 

City-wide impact

 

YOU don't need to be within a stone's throw of the MTS Centre to benefit from the return of the Winnipeg Jets -- a bus ride will do.

While the majority of the economic impact from the return of the Winnipeg Jets was felt downtown, restaurateurs for miles around saw spikes in their business, too.

"When a lot of people couldn't get tickets to the games, they'd come down and watch it in our cocktail lounge," said Steve Hrousalas, owner of Rae & Jerry's steak house.

For those who did have tickets, they could go to Rae & Jerry's, park their car, eat dinner and then board a 40-seat bus for the eight-kilometre ride downtown.

Hrousalas knows there is only so much discretionary spending to be had in a city of 700,000 but he's confident many wallets will open up just as quickly this coming hockey season.

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 31, 2012 A3

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