September 30, 2020

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Vibrant downtown good for suburban voters, too

Downtown a frequent target for mayoral candidates

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 1/10/2018 (730 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.


True or false: the future of downtown has been a top issue in the civic election campaign?

Well, it’s true and false.

Thanks largely to a last-minute decision to hold a non-binding referendum on whether to remove pedestrian barriers at Portage and Main, this campaign started out with a focus on the city’s downtown that is quite rare.

Never before have pro-downtown forces — the people who live, work and own businesses in the core of the city — been so vocal and mobilized during a civic election campaign. The referendum offered an unprecedented opportunity to debate the future of downtown, and the Team Open forces have done their best to ensure that opportunity did not go unrealized.

Even with the focus on reopening the city’s famous intersection to pedestrians, other issues have crept into the discussion. What can be done to increase the number of people living downtown? How can we limit the number of cars that flood into downtown each day to create more space for walkers and cyclists? How can we improve transit links to streamline traffic in and out of the core?

And yet, during the campaign, downtown has slipped increasingly out of the day-to-day conversation. When downtown has come up, it has been as a backdrop for concerns about public safety.

This is not shocking. As Free Press reporter Ben Waldman explored in a feature this past weekend, the civic political debate is decidedly tilted to issues that affect outlying neighbourhoods, where most Winnipeggers live and where voter turnout is highest.

In 2014, voter turnout in the four wards that capture parts of downtown (Mynarski, Point Douglas, Daniel McIntyre and Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry) had a combined voter turnout of just over 41 per cent. Compare that with the nine remaining wards, which had a combined voter turnout of 50 per cent. You can see why candidates, particularly those in the mayoral race, spend more of their time focused on issues that resonate with suburban voters.

That dynamic is at play in the current mayoral race. Incumbent Mayor Brian Bowman has largely established his urbanist credentials. He campaigned in 2014 on reopening Portage and Main to pedestrians, and has generally been a champion of progressive downtown development.

And yet, apart from promising to vote "yes" in the Portage and Main referendum, his campaign has been light on new pledges for the core. He has, however, promised to channel an additional $4 million into a suburban community centre. Bowman’s love of downtown may become his dirty little secret for the remainder of the campaign.

The rest of the field is not any better. Of the seven challengers, only Umar Hyat has made a specific pledge for downtown with a promise to recruit a major grocery chain to build a store there. Other than that, whenever downtown has been mentioned, it has been connected to issues such as homelessness, drug-related street crime and expanded police resources.

Main challenger Jenny Motkaluk is the quintessential suburban candidate; her flagship infrastructure pledge has been a commitment to expedite a $400-million extension of the suburban Chief Peguis Trail.

Earlier in the campaign, Motkaluk released a video capturing her "downtown revitalization" policy. At just over two minutes, the video was a collection of images from the worst parts of downtown, evidence for Motkaluk that existing efforts to bring life to the core have been an utter failure. Downtown is a dangerous place and revitalization is impossible until it is safer, she argued.

Left out of the video were images that show downtown revitalization is a reality: the Princess Street Campus of Red River College, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and The Forks Market, festival-rich Old Market Square, the new Inuit Art Centre at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, the Bell MTS Place and last spring’s thunderous White Out street parties, or the massive True North Square development.

This video, in a nutshell, demonstrates how downtown is used during civic elections. In between election years, politicians clamour to be seen cutting ribbons and appearing at marquee downtown events. When the campaign starts, downtown is converted into a symbol of everything that is bad with our city.

It’s no wonder, then, that suburban voters would be either uninterested in, or skeptical of, anyone with a focus on downtown. It also suggests efforts to reopen Portage and Main to pedestrians could be doomed.

Forget that Team Open has proven most of the businesses downtown, all of the major business lobby groups and all of the owners of the properties at the intersection want to remove the barriers.

That’s compelling stuff. But in the ’burbs, where downtown is merely a daily commuting inconvenience, the barrier-removal dog doesn’t hunt.

In a perfect world, suburban and downtown voters would agree that a vibrant core is good for everybody regardless of where they live. That the downtown is the engine of the cultural, commercial and tourism activities of the city. That a beautiful, walkable, vibrant downtown Winnipeg is key to attracting private investment and giving young adults a reason to build their lives here.

In that same perfect world, we would stop abusing images of downtown to misrepresent it as a crime-infested, dysfunctional neighbourhood. That is intellectually dishonest, and an insult to the thousands of people who willingly choose to live there.

And most importantly, just as we wouldn’t want people living in the Exchange District to veto the extension of the Chief Peguis Trail, we would all agree it is unfair for suburban dwellers to use their superior numbers to quash things that are important to residents and business owners downtown.

That perfect world may be impractical. But when it comes time to vote, it is within our reach.

Dan Lett

Dan Lett

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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