Central Park has come a long way, baby.
But until an economic development organization for one of Canada's most ethnically diverse neighbourhoods is put in place, proponents say it won't be able to reach its full potential.
For years, the downtown park's reputation as a hub for crime and drug use was well deserved, but that's changed since a $5.5-million overhaul added a soccer pitch, a giant toboggan slide and the largest spray park in the city a couple of years ago.
Raymond Ngarboui, a neighbourhood volunteer and one-time resident who immigrated to Canada from Chad seven years ago, said new Canadians who move to the area -- many of whom come from countries such as Nepal, Sudan, Ivory Coast, Togo and Cameroon -- need entrepreneurial training so they can set up shops and reduce the number of boarded-up storefronts.
Ngarboui would like to see community consultations on the Central Park area's economic development take place, just as they did prior to the overhaul. One possibility is having collectively owned stores, he said.
"If we can do a consumer co-op, then we could have mixed multi-purpose businesses. We could have a restaurant where food and meals would be made by member-owners. We could also have some community members get hands-on training in catering, which would help families with cooking and nutrition. Some of those families will likely become entrepreneurs," he said.
"It's meaningless to have people with nice infrastructure but with empty stomachs."
Ngarboui was one of the panelists at a Manitoba Professional Planners Institute breakfast held Thursday at the Winnipeg Free Press News Café to commemorate World Town Planning Day. He was joined by Bob Somers, a principal with the landscape architectural firm Scatliff+Miller+Murray Inc., and Ross McGowan, president and CEO of CentreVenture, the city's downtown redevelopment agency.
Somers said because Central Park is insular and "very local," the best thing that can be done to spur activity is to fund programming to get "eyes and ears into the space."
The more people are out and about, the more local stores, such as a parlour coffee shop, could thrive. Ultimately, local residents have to take on the risk and drive to get businesses off the ground, he said.
"People won't go there if they live in Lindenwoods or Wolseley. It's about getting the right-scaled businesses (to open). I'm not talking about an Earls. I'm sure that Mac's store (on Carlton Street) does gangbusters," said Somers.
McGowan pointed to the public-private partnership in the rebirth of Central Park, which he said is the oldest park in Winnipeg, as a model for redevelopment elsewhere.
"We can get a lot of mileage out of cobbling (the money) together and minimizing the pain," he said.
"We have a new park but also a new attitude and a new sense of ownership. Five years ago, nobody wanted to set foot in that park. Crime is down 50 per cent (in the last couple of years). We still have issues there but there's a strong sense of community growing there."