This past weekend I was lucky enough to spend most of Saturday and part of Sunday in Winnipeg’s downtown.
As a belated anniversary present, my wife and I stayed overnight (sans enfants) at Inn at the Forks, toured the Forks market and ate at a new downtown restaurant. If not for the horrendous weather, our plans had included trips to some of our favorite Exchange district galleries. Next time.
This is not the first time we have deliberately sampled downtown culture. We are reasonably frequent guests of the Inn at the Forks and try to, as many times as possible, eat and recreate downtown. I often pick up my kids early from daycare to meet my wife downtown, where she works, for dinner at the Wagon Wheel restaurant. We do many birthday and other special event meals in downtown restaurants. I try to shop at downtown stores when I can.
During this most recent downtown adventure, I had pause to recall an email from a reader sent to me earlier that week. I had written a column criticizing city council for its lack of initiative in dealing with Winnipeg’s infrastructure deficit. I suggested that more could and should be done by the city itself, and that Mayor Sam Katz should dial down the whining to a more manageable level. Finally, I suggested the city’s property tax freeze was an unwise policy, and that council should look at justifiable tax increases to get a handle on infrastructure.
The response to the column was robust, with many people supporting my position and many others criticizing it. One response stood out.
"Your article is probably one of a hundred that has been written about Winnipeg's property taxes in the last five years that depicts a basic conversation without any solid facts and just more opinions of what should be done in this city to cure the many ills in this city," wrote one life-long Winnipegger.
"As an individual that has crossed this Country a hundred times and has visited every major city enough times to evaluate just how pathetic this city has become over the last 25 + years. For example, a billion + taxpayer's dollars has been tossed into the Downtown core with out any tangible results. We, after 20 +years can still debate the opening up of Portage & Main to pedestrian traffic for hours on end, why? It is literally impossible to do anything that will truly make us an outstanding or at least equal to other cities without some special interest group with no skin in a project other than to grab some headlines and then regress into name calling and then put any project into years of delays and debates.
"As for property taxes, despite having freezes for 10 + years, then I ask you why do we still have some of the highest property taxes in this Country and where has all the money gone?"
I responded in kind, and indicated that there were some aspects of this commentary I agreed with. I think that it is difficult to get things done in this city. Personally, I think city hall has become a place good ideas go to die. However, I felt the need to point out the following facts:
• First, Winnipeg no longer has among the highest property taxes in Canada. In the Edmonton Survey of tax and utility charges (the bible for comparison of municipal tax burdens) Winnipeg is now in the bottom 25 per cent of urban centres when it comes to property tax levels. Not a surprise after a decade of tax freezes.
• Second, that while not everyone will agree, I actually think that downtown has undergone quite a transformation in the last 20 plus years. Although I have written in favor of more aggressive policies to encourage downtown development, the core of the city is in many respects much different. My theory is that student residences now being established for the U of W and Red River College, additional Waterfront Drive residential development, and additional small business openings in the core will continue that positive trend.
• That if there is a concern here, it is that Winnipeg spent more money per capita on municipal services and infrastructure 10 years ago than it does now. This is a disastrous trend that will continue to erode both our services and hard infrastructure.
I acknowledge that many people do not know these facts, or do not agree with my perspective. In general, I find the people who object most vociferously do not actually spend much time downtown. I continue to spend as much time as possible downtown, and at the very least that gives me some evidence on which to base my opinions. I only wish more people traveled downtown, even if it was in an attempt to prove me wrong.
The debate over the state of downtown will forever be a struggle between the glass-half-full crowd, and the glass-half-empty crowd. But surely we should acknowledge that Winnipeg now – whether we’re talking about downtown development or property tax levels – is much different than it was 20 years ago. It still has many problems, and there should be no abatement in work to make it a better place to live and work. But on a go-forward basis, perhaps we should ask ourselves an important question:
Is bad mouthing downtown the best way to make it better?