Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Changing of the guard downtown

Those who guide development must share vision

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If the people in charge of downtown's revitalization were a hockey team, it's almost like the general manager decided to completely overhaul the roster this season.

At The Forks-North Portage Partnership, president and CEO Jim August stepped down after 14 years and handed the reins to Paul Jordan, the longtime chief operating officer.

At city hall, a new mayor will be elected in October to replace Sam Katz, who wore the chain of office for a decade.

And at downtown development agency CentreVenture, seven-year president and CEO Ross McGowan is resigning at the end of the year and will help choose his successor.

Don't dismiss this turnover as just retirements by three middle-aged, upper-middle-class white guys.

How well the new mayor, the new CentreVenture CEO and Jordan get along will play a large role in determining how downtown development unfolds in the next decade -- a density-increasing effort that will, in turn, decide Winnipeg's financial future.

Right now, the responsibility for downtown revitalization is fragmented among three levels of government, three business improvement zones (Downtown, the Exchange and the West End) and two quasi-governmental organizations -- The Forks-North Portage (which generally sticks to Portage Place and The Forks) and CentreVenture (whose mandate covers all of downtown).

The three new amigos must wind up on the same page to ensure development priorities are co-ordinated and nobody works at cross purposes when it comes to planning. Generally, McGowan and August worked well together, roughly divvying up responsibility for development and operations between CentreVenture and The Forks.

"Neither one of us was interested in building up an empire. We were interested in improving downtown," McGowan said Thursday in an interview.

CentreVenture was nearly dormant in 2007 when McGowan stepped in from the private sector. He embarked upon an ambitious, but controversial, makeover of the Main Street's north strip, prepared two packages of tax incentives to stimulate downtown-housing construction and created a Portage Avenue planning framework that resulted in the creation of a tax-increment-financing zone known as SHED, or sports, hospitality and entertainment district.

August, whose tenure with The Forks-North Portage Partnership began in the 1980s, was involved in almost every facet of what was once called the Core Area Initiative, from the creation of Portage Place to the reclamation of the former industrial site now known as The Forks.

In contrast to McGowan, a deal-maker and developer, August was a careful administrator who preferred incremental development over quick decision-making. Only now is The Forks contemplating a complete build-out, with the pending development of the Railside land and Parcel Four.

Jordan worked closely alongside August and holds similar views about planning and development. He's expected to maintain his organization's focus on the waterfront, where Point Douglas is an unrealized opportunity.

At CentreVenture, a much smaller organization, there's no identifiable person to serve as McGowan's successor. Whoever steps in will have to ensure CentreVenture's forthcoming Main Street south makeover dovetails with new developments at The Forks, right across the railway tracks.

"We're 100 metres apart," said Jordan in an interview. "That's what's really great about right now. There's an opportunity where we can build on what Jim and Ross have done."

The unknown factor is the new mayor, who may not continue Katz's penchant for supporting the initiatives of both organizations without telling them what to do.

Aside from new developments at The Forks and along Main Street south, downtown challenges remain in the form of providing more amenities for the East Exchange residential area, the potential reopening of Portage & Main to pedestrians and ensuring the SHED doesn't just become a theme park for inebriated NHL fans.

CentreVenture must also retire $12.4 million worth of debt, most of which stems from purchasing the Carlton Inn and the St. Regis Hotel. McGowan remains confident his agency will break even on both transactions, though efforts to ensure a name-brand hotel rises on the former Carlton site have been unsuccessful.

In the long term, a more densely populated downtown means less per capita city spending on infrastructure. That means what happens downtown matters to all Winnipeggers.

That's also why it matters who succeeded August, who will follow McGowan and of course, who winds up winning the mayoral race Oct. 22.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 29, 2014 A4


Updated on Friday, August 29, 2014 at 7:13 AM CDT: Replaces photo

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