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Downtowns key to prosperity in our cities, study confirms

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While many people have known downtowns are essential for a sustainable and vibrant city -- this viewpoint is now validated in an unprecedented and groundbreaking Canadian research study: The Value of Investing in Canadian Downtowns, commissioned by the International Downtown Association.

This report, presented in Ottawa by 10 Canadian downtowns, was co-ordinated through the Canadian Task Force, representing corresponding business improvement zones (BIZ). This innovative collaboration examined 10 Canadian cities, including Winnipeg, to assess changes in attitudes, perceptions, functionality and performance of our Canadian downtowns over time.

One of the many important findings is Canadian downtowns often take up as little as one per cent of city-wide land area, yet attract 10 to 20 times more than that in terms of contributions to the city's tax base.

But a worrisome national trend is identified in the report -- over the last decade, downtowns represent a declining portion of the city's assessment base, even though Canadian downtowns show an increase in assessment value.

The report also articulates how suburban investments shift cities' efforts from intensifying urban cores. Even though it makes economic sense to further develop downtowns, suburban sprawl continues to be the land-use development model of choice of many municipal governments.

And as municipal governments across Canada struggle with balancing their budgets -- keeping community centres open, fixing countless roads and bridges on taxpayers' dime -- they should really take note of some of the lessons learned in this national research study and begin realigning their development patterns toward creating a more economically sustainable city.

Some cities have begun to adopt this balanced approach to renewal.

The study also identified a number of best practices or examples of innovative and successful approaches to downtown revitalization in the 10 participating Canadian cities. Cities are encouraged to implement some of these great ideas.

In Winnipeg, our approach in utilizing tax increment financing as a means to stimulate downtown housing is an example of a "best practice" other cities can replicate.

Also learned in the report is that every city is utilizing unique renewal approaches, but not a single downtown is doing everything particularly well, a situation complicated by elections and often quick political change.

For downtowns to thrive, there needs to be partnerships between different levels of governments and the private sector, whether it is in making key strategic investments or in tackling the challenge of urban poverty and homelessness. Silos need to be broken down and partnerships need to emerge.

In Winnipeg, for example, there is a need for the federal government to begin partnering again with other local governments who are spearheading our downtown revitalization efforts. This is appropriate, as all citizens and taxpayers reap the benefits of a vibrant downtown -- not just those who live and work in them. The federal government also derives much tax revenue from downtowns and some of the goals of our government pertaining to the environment, carbon emissions and rapid transit can only be achieved if they focus on renewing and redeveloping our older neighbourhoods, such as downtowns.

Healthy downtowns are critical to the lives of all Canadians and key to a sustainable and prosperous future. They are economic engines that create jobs and taxes that can be reinvented and reallocated for further development. National research conducted, such as The Value of Investing in Canadian Downtowns help remind us of this and urge us to move forward.

Stefano Grande is the executive director, Downtown Winnipeg BIZ.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 18, 2012 A13

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