Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

All roads leading to downtown Winnipeg -- again?

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Over the last eight years, Winnipeg's downtown has undergone a period of growth that has not been seen in perhaps 100 years. During this boom, 100 major projects have resulted in over $2 billion in investment.

This has radically changed our downtown, which is increasingly becoming a destination for education, arts, culture, sports and entertainment.

As well, downtown is becoming home to more people, with nearly 1,800 units of housing added and nearly 700 proposed to come on board. With all this growth and change, it is hard to not sound like a booster.

What has changed in Winnipeg, and why have we seen such growth? To understand what is happening today, it's important to reflect back to more than 100 years ago.

In 1911, a Chicago Tribune story heralded "all roads lead to Winnipeg" and that the city was "destined to become one of the greatest distributing and commercial centers of the continent." At the time, Winnipeg's rise was nothing less than spectacular, land values were skyrocketing and our population had gone from 42,000 in 1901 to 136,000 a decade later.

It was during that period Winnipeg would be seen as an emerging metropolitan powerhouse, with a global reach in both trade and commerce.

It was during that time our downtown would see an intense period of growth that resulted in many of our finest buildings constructed by leading architects, many of whom left Chicago to take up practice in a bustling Prairie city.

However, while Winnipeg's early growth seemed to set us on a course for greatness, the post-1920s would see change.

Many point to events such as the 1919 strike, the opening of the Panama Canal and the rise of Western Canadian cities such as Edmonton, Calgary and certainly Vancouver that chipped away at Winnipeg's distribution prowess.

While a baby boom and post-Second World War economy would bolster our outlook, the population dropped from 265,000 in 1961 to 246,000 in 1971.

Through the 1970s, Winnipeg's downtown and surrounding neighbourhoods would see dramatic change and an increasing concentration of poverty.

On the once-fabled Portage Avenue, stores were closing and people were leaving.

By the early 1980s, Winnipeg would become the poster child for massive urban intervention projects that began with the Core Area Initiative.

It was the CAI that would lay a foundation for nearly 30 years of sustained governmental intervention that would see billions invested in numerous attempts to stimulate, revitalize, redevelop, reimage and certainly redevelop a beleaguered downtown.

This period of heavy government subsidization did result in some successes such as The Forks as well as seeding many projects throughout the downtown and surrounding inner-city neighbourhoods, but it did not necessarily draw in substantive private investment.

It is not until more recently we began to see the private sector invest in Winnipeg's downtown.

In a University of Winnipeg Institute for Urban Studies report released today, we track and map development over the last eight years, a period we believe to be one of the most intensive in perhaps a century.

It is during this time we see a spike in population, which is quickly approaching 17,000 (up from 13,500 in 2006). As well, we also have a more diverse downtown, with increasing numbers of jobs in the emerging creative sector and more entrepreneurs locating centrally.

As well, with a student population of more than 20,000 students, education is a key catalyst for change not only in the $200 million in investment, but more so in the millions students spend throughout the downtown on a monthly basis.

Perhaps it's time we celebrate the growth occurring and look for ways to ensure the outlook remains on solid ground. We need visionary leaders from both business and government to work hard to ensure Winnipeg's downtown remains attractive for investment.

With major projects like the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and the convention centre expansion nearing completion, Winnipeg just might find more tourists and visitors noting something we already have: Many roads do lead to downtown.


Jino Distasio is the associate vice-president, research and innovation, the University of Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 23, 2013 A9

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