There is something unseemly about giving $10,000 to wealthy people to entice them to buy a condo in the Exchange District. The new policy approved by city council Wednesday, however, highlights the ongoing challenge in converting the old warehouse district into a mixed-used residential neighbourhood.
Unlike places such as Toronto and Vancouver, where people pay a hefty premium for the privilege of living downtown, Winnipeg's downtown is still a bit of a welfare case, at least when it comes to living.
Many people want to live downtown, particularly in the historic area, but most of those who can afford a $300,000 condominium still prefer more traditional neighbourhoods, with lower crime rates, attached parking, grocery stores and other amenities.
Developers have already benefited from a $20,000-per-door grant to bridge the significant gap between building in the suburbs and downtown, but even that significant benefit wasn't enough to close the gap completely.
The $7.8 million revitalization program approved by the city will be cost-shared with the province, although the NDP government has wisely refused to allow a single dime of its money to be spent on subsidizing the well off. With social housing in short supply, the province had no other choice.
Instead, the province's share of the cash will be spent solely on neighbourhood improvements, such as boosting safety, infrastructure and incentives for certain businesses, such as grocery stores.
About $2.3 million is to be used to provide incentives for buyers of condos under $400,000 in value. The goal is to sell about half the inventory of 460 units. Of these, only 166 have been built, while the rest are in the process of being built or still in the planning stage, awaiting sales.
The problem with the incentive program, beyond the really awful optics, is no one knows if it will work, or if it will merely enrich people who were going to buy anyway.
The program is being managed by CentreVenture Development Corp., which says it might "test" the incentive program for one year to determine its impact. If the promise of a $10,000 forgivable loan doesn't lure buyers, then CentreVenture will consider shifting directions and invest the cash elsewhere.
The city needs to be innovative if it wants to achieve its goal of revitalizing Winnipeg's large downtown, but unless CentreVenture demonstrates fairly quickly its welfare-for-the-rich program is actually making a difference, then it should be cancelled immediately and the money invested in concrete solutions.