At the core of COVID-19 victims

City leaders develop wide-ranging plan to help Winnipeg's downtown through, and after, the pandemic


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Downtown used to be a place where thousands of people went to work, grabbed lunch, shopped, then headed home at the end of the day.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/02/2021 (580 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Downtown used to be a place where thousands of people went to work, grabbed lunch, shopped, then headed home at the end of the day.

For others, it was a place to visit for some culture: to see a play, cheer on the Winnipeg Jets, or meet friends at a bar or restaurant.

Now ask yourself: when was the last time that happened?

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS A nearly empty intersection at Donald Street and Graham Avenue serves as a metaphor for a downtown emptied by COVID-19 as stores closed and workers stayed home to work.

Just add downtown to the list of victims of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As empty storefronts and “for lease” signs dot shops throughout the city centre, a desperately needed shot in the arm could be on its way for the struggling core.

Three city councillors representing downtown have spearheaded a motion going to council on Feb. 25 that requests $36,000 from the Community Incentive Grant program for the Downtown Winnipeg Business Improvement Zone to create a multi-faceted plan, which would be used to steer the downtown out of the pandemic and beyond.

CentreVenture Development Corp. has agreed to pump an additional $35,000 into the project, as well as lend its expertise to the plan’s development.

The motion, put forward by Couns. Sherri Rollins (Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry), Cindy Gilroy (Daniel McIntyre) and Vivian Santos (Point Douglas), passed unanimously at the civic executive policy committee last week.

“Time is of the essence if we are going to build our city back up following COVID, a situation that saw over 40,000 workers leave the downtown to work from home,” said Rollins. “We need to start the conversation sooner rather than later on economic recovery, one that prioritizes human dignity, public health, and that will benefit our existing and future residents in the downtown… This funding will be used to partner and plan for economic and social recovery.

“This is necessary leadership for Winnipeg’s downtown critical to the economy of the city (and) of the province.”

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Councillor Sherri Rollins: time is of the essence.

For the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, it’s been a tough year. Its seats — and stage — have been empty for months.

Camilla Holland, executive director of RMTC, said help for downtown is about more than the theatre company.

“It is so important for us to have wonderful restaurants around us,” Holland said. “This is recognizing we need a recovery plan, a plan for how to survive and a plan for how to strive through the next recovery period.

“This is a moment to speak about being the city we want to be.”

Kate Fenske, CEO of Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, said a new plan was already needed but “the pandemic has created a greater urgency for the downtown.”

Fenske said the plan would involve more than business; it would examine all components that make up the downtown, including housing, cultural organizations, retail, employment and infrastructure.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS For Lease, signs are posted on many retail and office buildings like this one on Hargrave next to the MTS Centre.

“How do all these work together to create a strong downtown, because a strong downtown makes a strong city,” she said.

“Yes, the downtown is the economic driver, but it is also the heart of the city. And without a plan in place we are leaving our downtown to fate and we can’t have that.”

Angela Mathieson, president and CEO of CentreVenture, said the money will go to hiring consultants, who will work with staff from Downtown BIZ and CentreVenture.

“We believe it’s critical this plan be based on research and new information,” Mathieson said. “For example we know market demand has been impacted by the pandemic, but we don’t know by how much and how we can mitigate what’s happening… we need better data.

“This will be an all-hands-on-deck and everybody is up for it.”

Loren Remillard, president and CEO of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, said a new plan is needed for downtown’s present and future.

“Without a comprehensive downtown plan you get too many ad-hoc and one-off developments,” said Remillard. “That’s why it is so critical to our downtown. It is an area of the city that needs to succeed.”

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Loren Remillard, President and CEO of The Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce.

But Remillard said any initiative can’t be set in stone.

“It needs to be flexible,” he said. “Every business has a business plan and you work the plan as new innovations come to light.

“We will have to adjust and re-focus.”

Amie Seier, owner of The Community Gym on Main Street, said she believes in downtown and that’s why she located her business there.

Then the pandemic hit.

“When we are allowed to (fully) reopen it will be the second time we’ve reopened,” Seier said.

Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press Kate Fenske, CEO of the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ.

“I would tell them businesses in the Exchange need more support. I always wanted my business to be downtown because I want to have a thriving downtown. Having a driving, healthy downtown is such a need for this city.

“There is just so much opportunity downtown.”

Kevin Rollason

Kevin Rollason

Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.


Updated on Monday, February 22, 2021 8:00 AM CST: Minor copy editing changes

Updated on Monday, February 22, 2021 10:25 AM CST: Adds that motion goes to council on Feb. 25

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