Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

How the NHL could transform our downtown

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The impact of an NHL franchise coming to Winnipeg could be anything -- from ordinary and stimulating to some economic activity, to incredible and truly transformative. The difference? Vision and planning.

While some may believe the fight for the City of Glendale to keep the Phoenix Coyotes is all about pride, quality of life and branding of a city at the national and international level -- plus some property taxes and tourism dollars -- you'd only be partially right.

The real value of the Phoenix Coyotes has been the transformative effect it has had in anchoring one of the largest visitor destinations in the southwest. Westgate City Centre, a new sports and entertainment district, expects to attract up to 26 million people a year, not just to see an NHL game, but to visit a $2-billion urban district development initiative that consists of more than eight million square feet of shopping, dining, entertainment, hotel, residential and office space.

There is much downtown Winnipeg can learn in regards to how mega-projects, which bring millions of people downtown, are utilized to create vibrancy and economic development.

Westgate City Centre is a sophisticated, planned mixed-use sports and entertainment district. It is anchored by two mega projects: Jobing.com Arena, where the Coyotes play, and the University of Phoenix Stadium, which is the home of the NFL's Arizona Cardinals.

Although this entertainment district is labelled as an urban area, it is actually located in the suburbs where land was ample and affordable.

But much can be learned from this case about how sports arenas can be used as anchors to create synergy between the people attending them and the shops and services people expect to be nearby. This synergy is what transforms a district into a dynamic destination for local and international visitors. This synergy is how hundreds of direct jobs and hundreds of millions in economic spin-offs are generated annually.

Having visited Westgate on several occasions, I have seen first-hand how they have intentionally created a friendly, fun and well-designed pedestrian environment.

At the centre of it all is a mini Times Square, the WaterDance Plaza, a central gathering place with incredible LED signage. This open-air plaza also features a "Bellagio-inspired water attraction," combining water effects with music and video imagery. This stunning area attracts the community for outdoor concerts, pre-game tailgate parties, New Year's Eve bashes and anything celebrating community accomplishments. Sidewalks meander through picturesque park space, connecting unique retailers, and restaurants lead to a world-class movie theatre. Evenings are transformed into nocturnal showpieces of lit buildings and trees, while hundreds of people sit on patios waiting for the arena gates to open or to celebrate the win of their team. Only a few blocks away, thousands of people live in newly built condos. All that is missing is the vibe and the diversity that only a real downtown can create with its unique collection of people, sounds, buildings and fully integrated uses.

In essence, with the recent arrival of the world-class MTS Centre downtown, the stage is set for Winnipeg to create our own unique sports and entertainment facility to take advantage of the pedestrian volumes created by an AHL or possibly an NHL hockey team and the myriad of other event nights, and to create a real urban sports and entertainment district, which in fact has been identified as a goal by the City of Winnipeg.

Our sidewalks, transportation and parking infrastructure are basically in place and would need to be refreshed and perhaps even reconfigured. And the required buildings, both new and historical, are in essence waiting for a higher and mixed use. And with several vacant surface parking lots and vacant buildings surrounding the MTS Centre, the sky is the limit to apply the best principles we know about creating dense urban environments to attract the right mix of unique shops and services. With or without an NHL team, we need to act on the momentum created and support it with further development and programming.

Our limits are only our collective vision for creating such a new and unique district first and foremost for our own citizens, along with our ability to persuade property owners to believe in this vision to take a risk and lead this transformation.

Stefano Grande is the executive director of Downtown BIZ

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 28, 2011 A13

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