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‘Your city gets its identity from the core’: Big Friendly advice for Peg downtown leaders

When Mick Cornett took office as mayor of Oklahoma City in 2004, he had a mission: liven up the downtown.

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When Mick Cornett took office as mayor of Oklahoma City in 2004, he had a mission: liven up the downtown.

His predecessors had already begun revitalizing the Oklahoma state capital — updating inner-city schools, fixing infrastructure, and so on.

Previously, the U.S. city was pretty much populated by inmates at the city’s jail — it was dead otherwise, Cornett told a business crowd Tuesday at the Winnipeg RBC Convention Centre.

“Your city gets its identity from the core of the city,” Cornett later told reporters. “Downtown has to take priority over any one area.”

Such was his lens as mayor from 2004-18. Cornett relayed his journey — investing in bike paths, courting high-level sports teams, redesigning street grids — to Winnipeggers during the city’s first “State of Downtown” event.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

“At the end of the day, the future of the economy is about attracting highly educated young people,” said Mick Cornett, former mayor of Oklahoma City.

“I think there’s a lot of similarities that we can draw between Oklahoma City and Winnipeg,” said Pamela Hardman, communications director for the Downtown Winnipeg Business Improvement Zone, who was among the crowd listening to the Fortune magazine-recognized speaker’s message.

“At the end of the day, the future of the economy is about attracting highly educated young people,” Cornett said. “It’s going to be a tech-driven world.”

Downtown housing is key, he noted.

“Look for the things that (young people) are looking for in a city,” Cornett said. “It’s walkability, it’s affordability, it’s a lack of traffic congestion, it’s fresh water, it’s clean air.”

A walkable culture and good street life are important — so is tackling homelessness, poverty and mental illness in the community, he added.

Oklahoma City (which had a population of roughly 650,000 in 2020, and carries among its nicknames “the Big Friendly”) added a one per cent sales tax to gather revenue for its revitalization, Cornett said.

“Look for the things that (young people) are looking for in a city… It’s walkability, it’s affordability, it’s a lack of traffic congestion, it’s fresh water, it’s clean air.”–Mick Cornett

Downtown Winnipeg comprises less than one per cent of the Manitoba capital’s land area. However, it accounts for around 17 per cent of Winnipeg’s commercial property tax base, said David Pensato, Exchange District BIZ executive director.

The improvement zones, along with stakeholders, have been striving for a vibrant downtown after years of quiet linked to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re not where we were in 2019, but we are moving in the right direction,” Hardman said.

Around 118,230 people visited downtown daily during the week ending Sept. 4, according to Downtown Winnipeg data. It’s down from the 140,899 average from the same week in 2019, but it’s an increase from last year’s count of 112,015.

One-third of Winnipeggers reported visiting downtown at least a few times a week in a new Probe survey the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ commissioned.

“We’re anticipating that (surging traffic levels are) going to keep going,” Hardman said.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Mick Cornett, former mayor of Oklahoma City (left), chats with David Pensato, executive director of the Exchange District BIZ, and Pamela Hardman, director of marketing, engagement and communications at Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, at the first-ever State of Downtown at the RBC Convention Centre in Winnipeg.

Leaders in downtown revival are leaning on the Downtown Recovery Framework, a plan released in October highlighting areas to tackle, including infrastructure, homelessness, housing, arts and culture events, and business growth.

Government has provided about half of the $90 million in funding the strategy asks for, Hardman said.

There was also $10 million from the City of Winnipeg for infrastructure projects downtown, Pensato added.

“Over the next two years, you’ll see major investments in key parks, corridors and public spaces downtown,” he told the audience Tuesday.

Air Canada Window Park and Broadway improvements (think new benches, public garbage containers) are near the top of the agenda, Hardman said.

Indigenous groups are helping transform downtown, she noted. The Southern Chiefs’ Organization is converting the former Hudson’s Bay flagship building, and the Manitoba Métis Federation is restoring the old Bank of Montreal site.

“Over the next two years, you’ll see major investments in key parks, corridors and public spaces downtown.”–David Pensato

Roughly $400 million in new projects are in the works downtown, Hardman said.

There’s $30 million in tax increment financing the City of Winnipeg and Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. committed for housing, Hardman noted.

The Downtown Recovery Strategy outlines creating 1,500 mixed-income housing units over three years. There’s been interest and applications for more than 500 to be built so far, Hardman said.

Organizers are planning Culture Days and a new business program to connect entrepreneurs with downtown storefronts and mentorship.

“There’s still a long way to go, and I think part of that is getting workers back (after work-from-home became widespread during the pandemic), building up that residential growth,” Hardman said. “There’s still some gaps that need to be addressed, particularly when it comes to… having the supports for the vulnerable individuals in our downtown community.”

“There’s still a long way to go, and I think part of that is getting workers back (after work-from-home became widespread during the pandemic), building up that residential growth.”–Pamela Hardman

The recovery strategy outlines expanding community outreach on streets and getting funding for 24-hour safe spaces, among other things.

Sixty-four per cent of downtown workers are back in office towers in some capacity, according to Probe’s findings. In March, 47 per cent of workers reported commuting to their job.

College students are also back and “bringing an energy to our city core that we’ve been sorely missing,” Hardman said.

gabrielle.piche@freepress.mb.ca

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Mick Cornett, former mayor of Oklahoma City, relayed his journey — investing in bike paths, courting high-level sports teams, redesigning street grids — to Winnipeggers during the city’s first “State of Downtown” event.

Gabrielle Piché

Gabrielle Piché
Reporter

Gabby is a big fan of people, writing and learning. She graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in the spring of 2020.

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