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Winnipeg must toot own horn

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Winnipeg, the Prairies' first metropolis, had a good summer.

My family and I gathered that from talking to people as we toured Western Canada. I'd tell people I was from Winnipeg, then let them babble, hoping to find out their top-of-the-mind impressions of the city. Many of them were along the lines of the following.

"I guess we're getting Winnipeg's flood water," said a gas pump jockey near the Trans-Canada, then went on to chat about the rampaging Souris River that raced through Saskatchewan and flooded 4,100 houses in Minot, N.D.

"Nice of you to send us those damn pests," said a woman batting away a cloud of mosquitoes at a kiosk near Edmonton, which had a lot of rain this year that helped make the city the Prairies' mosquito capital.

"Deadmonton got you beat this year on homicides," said a cheerful fellow in Prince Albert.

'Winterpeg' melting as it breaks temperature records, said a Globe and Mail headline last month.

You'll have noticed all these comments are clichés. When are Canadians going to realize that Winnipeg is more than floods, mosquitoes, homicides and winter winds? Never, as long as Winnipeg continues under-funding its communications budget.

The late Harold Buchwald, a well-known lawyer who worked diligently to promote the arts and his city, told me the most trouble he had selling Winnipeg was cold weather and mosquitoes. When I returned to Winnipeg, my native city, 12 years ago, the question I was most often asked was: Why did you return?

Winnipeg is a cultural capital of Canada. The cultural businesses are the city's most impressive characteristic. That became apparent this summer when some of our offerings reached or came close to reaching world-class.

Leading that group is the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, taking shape at The Forks. There will be nothing else like it in the world. A few arguments have broken out about floor space, but they are endemic to exhibit developments. Some commentators worry the museum will be controversial. If it's not controversial, then it's not doing its job. One eastern writer worried if Winnipeg would have enough hotels to accommodate tourists.

Also on the world-class list is the new Assiniboine Park. The Partners-in-the-Park's $200-million program has maintained the park's strengths -- the Leo Mol Sculpture Garden, the Lyric Theatre and the English Garden -- and added new ones such as a new tropical rain forest exhibit, a butterfly garden and a show on predatory birds. There's more to come including special digs for Manitoba's icon, the polar bear.

On the world-class list you can't leave out aboriginal singing and dancing, traditional and contemporary, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, the Winnipeg Folk Festival (recently included in a list of the Top 10 music festivals in the world in Delta Airlines' magazine), Folklorama (largest and longest running multicultural festival of its kind in the world) and the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.

Our sports teams have to be fitted in somewhere. Winnipeg's football team is playing well this season (usually) and is going to get a new stadium. The Goldeyes won a franchise-high 60 games in the regular season, but folded in the semifinals. And the Jets are back. For the active sports enthusiast, $40 million has been spent on trails in the last five years, $20 million in the last year alone.

Steve Allan, chair of the Canadian Tourism Commission, says Winnipeg has the most compelling tourism attractions in the works in Canada. These include a new airport and an improved convention centre.

If you think promoting sports and the arts is useless, consider Stratford. It was a brain-dead old railway town in 1953 when its Shakespearean Theatre opened. Last year, according to the Conference Board of Canada, the festival, now North America's largest not-for-profit theatre company, had an economic impact of $140 million and generated about 3,000 full-time jobs.

Here are some of the things the political pooh-bahs might consider if they want to make some money and correct Winnipeg's bugs and floods image.

First, draw up an integrated cultural plan including a map of the city's cultural assets. Glasgow, which was renowned for its slums in the '70s, was a pioneer in cultural planning and is now a European Capital of Culture.

Don't waste funds on general slogans; zero in on markets that may be interested in the events we have to offer.

Help set up an annual Winnipeg Festival that would highlight the best the city has to offer and would be heavily promoted in key markets. A major objective would be to break through all the talk about mosquitoes and floods.

And increase Travel Manitoba's core funding, the lowest of any province for the sector.

A good time to start improving the promotion of culture, Winnipeg's best marketing asset, would be 2012, the 200th anniversary of the arrival of the Selkirk settlers.

Tom Ford is editor of the Issues Network.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 12, 2011 A11

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