Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

City's economic-development agency on a roll

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About 10 years ago, a very successful hospitality-industry professional in Winnipeg told me the travel industry in Winnipeg never changes.

The same number of people came to the city every year to do whatever business they have to do, then they leave.

Sure, some people came to visit family and friends, but the point the industry professional was making was no matter how aggressively the city promoted and marketed itself, it wasn't going to make a difference in the traveller head count.

But the dynamic has changed.

This year, the $350-million Canadian Museum for Human Rights is opening, as is Assiniboine Park Zoo's $90-million Journey to Churchill exhibit.

A massive and long-overdue expansion to the RBC Convention Centre Winnipeg is underway and a new airport terminal recently opened.

There are more reasons to come to Winnipeg and it's easier to get here.

Not so long ago, Economic Development Winnipeg, the organization that shakes the bushes to develop business opportunities and does the tourism marketing for the city, had a thankless job.

Not only did it have to beg and plead for adequate funding from the city and province to make a proper showing on behalf of the city, but let's be honest, it didn't really have much raw material to work with back in the day.

As if to understate its new-found status as the development agent for a city on the rise, this year's annual meeting was held in a stylishly renovated ballroom at the Delta Winnipeg Hotel, which still has another $8 million worth of renovations yet to complete.

Across the street, the formerly unremarkable Carlton Inn is in the process of being demolished, and a couple of blocks away a brand-new 15-storey Alt Hotel is rising at the intersection of Portage Avenue and Donald Street.

Befitting the development arm of a city that's feeling a little rejuvenated, EDW has become a thoroughly professional organization.

A new website was launched on Tuesday -- economicdevelopmentwinnipeg.com -- and travel metrics and direct-spending models relative to meetings and conventions have now become meaningful to the scorecard.

Third-party analysts -- the source of objective information potential greenfield investors would turn to -- are taking notice.

The Intelligent Community Forum has placed Winnipeg on the short list for the world's top seven "intelligent cities" of 2014; KPMG ranked Winnipeg the most cost-competitive city in the North American mid-west region; and Development Counsellors International ranked EDW as the second-most-effective agency in Canada when it comes to marketing their metro regions.

The EDW event on Tuesday was taking place at exactly the same time as the grand opening of Canadian Tire's Cloud Nine Digital Innovation Centre, arguably the biggest single success in EDW's Yes! Winnipeg initiative to attract, retain and expand businesses in the city.

Never the top choice for national or multinational companies to move to, the Canadian Tire computing centre sets an interesting precedent for business's confidence in being able to establish high-tech greenfield operations in Winnipeg.

At the annual meeting, Marina James, the chief executive officer of EDW, spoke about the intersection between confidence and optimism. That, along with Winnipeg's reputation for collaboration, is starting to get some payoffs.

"Our role has been in pulling people in to sit down together," she said. "It's really important to talk together. You walk away with a better perspective of what you can do."

Ron Lemieux, the provincial minister in charge of tourism, among other things, said there's so much happening in Winnipeg it's almost taken for granted.

"But these things don't just happen," he said. "It takes a lot of partnerships."

EDW now has a lot of shiny new assets to work with.

Now its challenge is to try to keep up the momentum.

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 23, 2014 B4

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