No beacons of light but plenty of smaller stars on Manitoba business horizon


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With an election looming in April, there's a rush by the government to broadcast every last bit of good news about public-sector programming before the 90-day statutory blackout kicks in.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 02/01/2016 (2532 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

With an election looming in April, there’s a rush by the government to broadcast every last bit of good news about public-sector programming before the 90-day statutory blackout kicks in.

Among other things, that means there will be plenty of hype about how strong the Manitoba economy is expected to be in 2016. But it’s not as if the economic dynamic is changing in Manitoba — growth in this province typically occurs in the two per cent to three per cent range, and that’s what’s being forecast for 2016.

Meanwhile, it almost feels like there’s a bit of a holding pattern emerging in the local business scene.

Supplied rendering Construction equipment is on the site of the proposed True North Square tower project in downtown Winnipeg. If it comes to fruition, the project will alter the city’s skyline.

A bunch of major developments have already shaken out: MTS’s troubled stepson, Allstream, has finally moved out of the house; the Canadian Wheat Board isn’t called the CWB anymore; the Winnipeg Jets are still here (and now they’re lousy again); the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is a reality.

But of course, there’s plenty to look for in 2016. Here are a few things I’ll be watching.

Tearing up the parking lots – Developers of two massive developments south of Portage Avenue insist they are committed to building on downtown Winnipeg’s far-too-many surface parking lots. SkyCity Centre is a proposed 45-storey condo/office/retail tower, and True North Square is touting three towers of office, hotel and condos. They do seem serious. SkyCity has opened a high-profile sales office, and True North has construction equipment on site. And with the RBC Convention Centre expansion now complete, if those new projects start in 2016, visitors won’t even believe this is still Winnipeg.

Winnipeg is FibreCity – If it is really going to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the world is going to have to figure out how to make stuff with materials that do not require refining metals. Bio-fibres can work; scientists just have to figure out the right fibres for the right products. Winnipeg’s Composites Innovation Centre is creating a tool to do just that. Its FibreCity project will be ramping up in 2016, and is already getting attention from around the world. It will eventually become the go-to datbase that will keep track of different fibre properties for everything from flax grown in southern Manitoba compared to flax from the south of France and thousands of other varieties of bio-fibres.

Leading the cheerleaders – The baton will be passed in 2016 for the thankless job of doing the heavy lifting to promote economic development in the city. Economic Development Winnipeg will hire a new chief executive officer after the announced departure of Marina James late in 2015. That person will team up with Vince Barletta, who recently took over leadership of Yes! Winnipeg. Regardless of how great we all believe Winnipeg is, they have a tough job ahead, because… well, this is Winnipeg.

Bringing the world to our doorstep – The third international Centrallia event is scheduled for May, and this one promises to be the best one yet. For one thing, it’ll be the third go at it for organizer Mariette Mulaire and her team. This time, she’ll have the support of the 300-location World Trade Centers Association. (Winnipeg acquired a WTC franchise in 2012). The business-to-business speed-dating event works best when participants know what to expect. The crowd will be that much more experienced and they’ll be here for a purpose. Business is bound to get done.

Wayne Glowacki / Winnipeg Free Press files Simon Potter of the Composites Innovation Centre helps lead the FibreCity project.

Innovation lives here – Winnipeg’s startup scene has been lucky enough to have its own clubhouse for a couple of years — the AssentWorks maker-space. Last year, Michael Legary, one of the founders and the original financial backer of AssentWorks, sold his cyber-security business, Seccuris Inc., and served a year as chairman of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce. Now, he’s about to become the de facto mayor of Innovation Alley. Funding is already in place to redevelop space along Adelaide Street for all sorts of co-location efforts for the latest crop of young entrepreneurs. With Legary’s visionary leadership, expect things to happen.

Startups to watch – This year could be a breakout year for a few young Winnipeg enterprises. One of the most anticipated additions to the business scene is Sightline Innovation Inc. — a company that left Toronto to set up here to develop its machine-learning applications. Many observers believe Exigence Technologies Inc. has staying power and global-scale developing technology licensed from the University of Manitoba. Another new U of M spinoff, Comfort Wave Mobile Imaging, has a dynamic young entrepreneur marshalling it into the marketplace. Permission Click has been gaining users and could become a mainstay in the education fees-paying space and Pricerazzi’s tool (that helps people get money back from retailers’ lowest-price guarantees) will have a whole year under its belt.

CentrePort: Year 6 – There is a general misconception about the actual physical presence of CentrePort Canada… like you’d know you were there as you’re arriving at the Red River Ex grounds. But the multi-decade development concept sprawls across 20,000 acres, and there’s no “Welcome to CentrePort” signage. This year — CentrePort is six years old — a significant common-use rail facility may break ground, making management’s claims of tri-modal transportation access a reality. As well, two new industrial parks may be ready to market new development land that will feature full sewer and water services.

Disrupting traffic – Digital economy aficionados love to talk about disruption as if it’s some kind of virtuous dynamic. It sometimes means consumers can get stuff cheaper, but it always also means secure, middle-class jobs fall away into oblivion. No surprise then cabbies are losing their minds over the imminent arrival of ride-sharing services such as Uber. The Manitoba Taxicab Board has commissioned its first comprehensive review of the industry in Winnipeg since 2009. It will likely make some sort of recommendation to pave the way for a dose of job-wrecking competition for the taxi business.

The future is now – In the last days of the Harper government, it seemed the National Research Council was being decommissioned before our eyes. It certainly pulled out of Winnipeg to a significant degree. But, last year, a very specific allocation was announced to set up a $60-million facility in Winnipeg that is part of the NRC’s Factory of the Future program. The enterprising, but hard hit, manufacturing sector in Manitoba ought to be able to leverage some kind of support from the facility, whose location and details have yet to be disclosed.

Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press files The proposed SkyCity Centre condo-business tower project is one to watch in 2016.

How may I direct your call? – MTS management does not have to wring its hands about Allstream anymore after selling it in late 2015. New CEO Jay Forbes says MTS is doubling down on customer service (as well as paring back its Manitoba workforce, however that’s supposed to work). But now that Shaw has bought its way into the wireless business with its acquisition of Wind Mobile, MTS’s longtime competitor on the television broadcast distribution business might try to go after some of its gaudy wireless market share at home. Wind has no spectrum here and does not operate in this province yet. But with the sunset in sight on the TV business, it would not be surprising to see Shaw leverage its existing Manitoba infrastructure and give MTS that much more incentive to coddle its customers.

Martin Cash

Martin Cash

Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.

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