September 24, 2018

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Remove barriers, coalition says

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>A coalition of downtown business and land owners, architects and marketing firms will campaign for Mayor Brian Bowman’s vision of a barrier-free Portage and Main.</p>

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

A coalition of downtown business and land owners, architects and marketing firms will campaign for Mayor Brian Bowman’s vision of a barrier-free Portage and Main.

Game on.

Just two weeks after city council approved a referendum on whether to open Winnipeg’s landmark intersection, an official ‘Yes’ campaign in support of tearing down the barriers has formed.

A coalition of downtown business and land owners, planners, architects and advertising and marketing firms — with the support of organizations such as the Exchange District and Downtown BIZ organizations — has taken up the challenge to defend Mayor Brian Bowman’s vision of a barrier-free Portage and Main.

Organizers said the campaign in favour of re-opening the intersection will be funded by an online crowd-sourcing campaign and will open a storefront headquarters in the shadow of the historic intersection. Lawn signs, promotional videos and mass mail will all be part of the drive to remove pedestrian barriers once and for all.

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Game on.

Just two weeks after city council approved a referendum on whether to open Winnipeg’s landmark intersection, an official ‘Yes’ campaign in support of tearing down the barriers has formed.

A coalition of downtown business and land owners, planners, architects and advertising and marketing firms — with the support of organizations such as the Exchange District and Downtown BIZ organizations — has taken up the challenge to defend Mayor Brian Bowman’s vision of a barrier-free Portage and Main.

Organizers said the campaign in favour of re-opening the intersection will be funded by an online crowd-sourcing campaign and will open a storefront headquarters in the shadow of the historic intersection. Lawn signs, promotional videos and mass mail will all be part of the drive to remove pedestrian barriers once and for all.

Winnipeg architect Brent Bellamy, one of the organizers, said the campaign will be dedicated to dispelling many of the myths surrounding the Portage and Main debate, while also underlining a more complete list of the benefits.

Too many Winnipeggers simply do not know that even if pedestrians are not allowed into the intersection, the city will still be on the hook for millions of dollars in repairs to the existing barriers, which are in desperate need of repair or replacement.

"We’re trying to cobble together a group that represents all of the stakeholders in this debate," said Bellamy. "My hope is that we can present our side as progressive and forward thinking. It’s important because even though people have been talking about this for decades, most people haven’t really heard both sides."

Adam Dooley, owner of Dooley Communications and a tireless champion of downtown issues, said he has decided to donate his time alongside other communication and marketing firms to forge a powerful message in favour of re-opening the intersection. "We’ve got a powerhouse advertising and marketing team that is going to work pro-bono on this campaign. No one is going to make a dime off this. We’re doing it because we think it’s important for the future of Winnipeg."

The emergence of a ‘Yes’ campaign will no doubt come as a bit of shock to the two suburban councillors who spearheaded the referendum vote, Jeff Browaty (North Kildonan) and Janice Lukes (South Winnipeg-St. Norbert).

Although the possibility of a referendum had been talked about for some months, the sponsoring councillors held off until the July 18 council meeting to hold a vote on the referendum, the last before councillors go on a nearly two-month summer hiatus.

The timing was designed, it appears, to accomplish two main goals.

First, to blindside Bowman on one of his signature issues and put him on the defensive during the mayoral campaign.

And second, to make it nearly impossible for anyone to organize an effective campaign in support of re-opening the intersection.

Normally, it takes months and months of careful planning to pull together a referendum campaign. By approving the referendum in mid-July, council has given citizens for and against the referendum question just three months to form, raise money and make their cases.

Even though the deck was stacked on this referendum, there is some likelihood now that the strategy may backfire in spectacular fashion.

First off, Bowman turned the tables on his tormenters by supporting the motion for a referendum, and declaring that the result would be binding if he remained mayor. Although this disappointed supporters who believe he won a mandate to re-open the intersection in the 2014 election - during which he campaigned on removing the barriers - it did allow him to avoid having to campaign this fall as an enemy of democracy.

Had Bowman voted against the referendum, his critics would have made his opposition to a free vote the central issue of the fall election campaign. By supporting the referendum, and allowing others to carry the ‘Yes’ banner into battle, Bowman gets to step back from the issue and deny his enemies an opportunity to score easy political points.

It also puts mayoral challenger Jenny Motkaluk in a difficult spot.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, Motkaluk opposed the referendum, arguing that "we should not spend another minute talking about the issue." That was an odd assertion from a candidate who opened her campaign talking about her own promise to keep Portage and Main closed to pedestrians.

Most important of all, however, is that the fact that the referendum should help make this fall’s mayoral election a test of just how progressive and forward thinking the city has become in the last decade.

Change has come quickly to Winnipeg in recent years, fuelled largely by solid, steady economic and population growth that has consistently exceeded national averages.

Since Winnipeggers last visited the polls in 2014 to elect a mayor, the city has grown by more than 50,000 people. The city is younger and more diverse, trends that the ‘Yes’ campaign on Portage and Main believe will ultimately build support for removing the pedestrian barriers.

Bellamy said keeping the intersection closed is an expression of traditional, even outdated thinking about how to build a healthy city. In fact, in many ways the argument against opening the intersection to pedestrians is nearly identical to the arguments that were made in the past against public investments in the Forks Market, and the Bell-MTS Centre, home to the Winnipeg Jets. "People came up with the same arguments back then and if we were forced to hold a referendum on those projects, none of them would have been built," he added.

After decades of concentrating their efforts on building roads and bridges in a vain attempt to relieve traffic congestion, Bellamy said most progressive cities experiencing the kind of growth here in Winnipeg are focused on things like building greater density in core areas, developing more extensive rapid transit systems, investing in public amenities and - most importantly - walkability.

"This isn’t really about a stupid intersection," Bellamy noted. "I don’t even think Jeff Browaty thinks this is about an intersection. It’s about what kind of city we want to be in the future."

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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