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And now, an economic analysis for Point Douglas

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We have heard from the developers, political leaders and inner-city activists about the future of Point Douglas. We even heard in the dead-tree FP from a roaving band of urban planners from other cities. (Wow, now that's a street gang. But I digress.) But what of the hard-core, business types? What is the economic analysis of what's best for Point Douglas?One source for such an analysis is Michael Porter, the Harvard Business School’s guru of inner city development, who has written extensively about how to revitalize inner cities. Porter's arguments were brought to my attention recently by Jino Distasio, director of the Institute of Urban Studies at the University of Winnipeg and one hip dude when it comes to the leading edge of thinking about inner cities and revitalization.Porter has organized the Institute for a Competitive Inner City, a think tank within the business school that studies various models for re-inventing the cores of the largest American cities. Porter argues that effective revitalization comes from the careful marriage of existing residents and businesses that need what those residents have to offer. Porter believes there is a competitive advantage for business in the inner city, if government looks to find the right partners instead of forcing the issue with unsustainable incentives.“A sustainable economic base can be created in the inner city," Porter writes, "but only as it has been created elsewhere: through private, for-profit initiatives and investment based on economic self-interest and genuine competitive advantage - not through artificial inducements, charity, or government mandates.”In his seminal treatise on revitalization, The Competitive Advantage of the Inner City, Porter describes a number of case studies to prove his point. In one, he examines how New York City offered substantial financial incentives to a multimedia computer manufacturer to relocate in particularly rundown parts of the South Bronx. The company moved to the Bronx with hopes that both it and the neighbourhood would benefit.Unfortunately, this company had no real connection to the neighbourhood in which it was located. None of the company’s suppliers or clients was located nearby. The company’s clients expressed concern about travelling to a “rough” neighbourhood to meet. After a few years, the company relocated.Porter counters this tale of failure with a number of examples of successful revitalization efforts. In more than one American city, Porter recorded how a grocery store chain started by a group of Cuban-American investors thrived in Boston by locating in neighbourhoods with a predominant Latino population and then offering an extensive selection of Latino foods not available in conventional supermarkets. The stores were not only popular shopping destinations, but they found a willing and motivated workforce within blocks of each location. By employing and catering to the local residents, the stores did a booming business, retained a motivated workforce and were less likely to be hit by vandals and thieves.Porter does not expressly pan the idea of mega projects in his article. He does describe one success story in Atlanta involving a company that made trade show displays and exhibits locating in a rougher neighbourhood to be closer to a new government-built convention centre. The combination of low overhead, a motivated local workforce and proximity to the principal convention facility spelled success for this one business.What would Porter make of Winnipeg, and the South Point Douglas plan? Competitive Advantage of the Inner City makes no reference to large, government-funded sports and recreation facilities, although his citing of the Atlanta example does seem to indicate that almost any kind of development could be justified if you could ensure that it matched up well with the neighbourhood in which it was located.In the case of South Point Douglas, the only ambitious plan unveiled to date is Asper’s stadium-hotel/water park proposal. It is so different from what exists now in Point Douglas, there are concerns it is incongruous. And no matter how you look at the Asper plan, it generally means eradicating some of the historic properties and converting the land into a bold, upscale vision the likes of which has never been seen in this city. Would this proposal achieve an affinity with the locals? Well, not with those people who chose to be in Point Douglas because it is the neighbourhood that time forgot. But, it might to others who see hotels, water parks and stadiums as places that provide employment. Even for those of us who kinda liked Asper's proposal, those are pretty long bows to draw. The fact is, these arguments are pretty academic until we see a firmer proposal.The Porter arguments frame the debate in Point Douglas in an interesting way. In Porter's world, you can see that the light industrial lands that exist in Point Douglas might continue to host light-industrial tenants, because of its central location and proximity to a wide range of other businesses. Could Point Douglas support and information/computer technology cluster? Or, how about bio-technology - could Point Douglas be located near enough to the Health Sciences Centre and National Microbiology Laboratories to be an off-shoot pod of BioMed City? According to Porter, the kind of development that might really work in Point Douglas might be something neither Asper nor the existing residents would relish.The one thing Porter does not discuss in his article is the creation of new residential neighbourhoods around struggling residential neighbourhoods as some think Point Douglas should embrace. Creating Fort Rouge or River Heights on the Point seems like an interesting idea, but it doesn't appear it would get done without massive government investment to acquire and prepare the land. Of course, that is the only thing that Porter believes government should be doing. No tax hand outs, no grants, no development incentives. Buy the land, remediate the land, and get it ready for development. Then sell it off and let people go do their thing.I will endeavour to track down the good Mr. Porter to see what he thinks about re-inventing residential neighbourhoods and mega projects. Until then, he's provided some interesting food for thought.-30-

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About Dan Lett

Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school.

Despite the fact that he’s originally from Toronto and has a fatal attraction to the Maple Leafs, Winnipeggers let him stay.

In the following years, he has worked at bureaus covering every level of government – from city hall to the national bureau in Ottawa.

He has had bricks thrown at him in riots following the 1995 Quebec referendum, wrote stories that helped in part to free three wrongly convicted men, met Fidel Castro, interviewed three Philippine presidents, crossed several borders in Africa illegally, chased Somali pirates in a Canadian warship and had several guns pointed at him.

In other words, he’s had every experience a journalist could even hope for. He has also been fortunate enough to be a two-time nominee for a National Newspaper Award, winning in 2003 for investigations.

Other awards include the B’Nai Brith National Human Rights Media Award and nominee for the Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism.

Now firmly rooted in Winnipeg, Dan visits Toronto often but no longer pines to live there.

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