Downtown is a continuing conversation


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We know how important it is for attracting talent, tourism and investment, so why haven’t candidates in this civic election talked more about downtown?

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/10/2022 (224 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

We know how important it is for attracting talent, tourism and investment, so why haven’t candidates in this civic election talked more about downtown?

Unfortunately, it’s not a topic that drives votes. But any serious candidate running for mayor or council knows the financial stability of a city isn’t based on how many kilometres of roads are built or how many potholes are fixed. They know a city can only be successful and financially stable if it has a strong, safe and vibrant downtown.

It’s basic math. But downtowns are anything but basic.

<p>Jessica Lee / Winnipeg Free Press files</p>
                                <p>Active transportation must be part of the downtown revitalization effort. </p>

Jessica Lee / Winnipeg Free Press files

Active transportation must be part of the downtown revitalization effort.

So, let’s talk about it.

Downtowns are complex, living, breathing ecosystems. They are where business, arts, culture and community all come together. Where people connect, share ideas and generate revenue that supports services and amenities across our entire city.

The issues that have been in the forefront in this campaign — roads, housing, transit and crime — are downtown issues, too. Safety concerns are back at the top of the list, but what we really need to make people feel safer is more people downtown. There are bike lanes and sidewalks that come to dead ends, waitlists for apartments that are truly affordable, and increased demands for low-barrier, safe spaces where people can find shelter 24 hours a day.

We should not be OK with people sleeping in transit shelters. We need to do better for everyone.

While the issues in Winnipeg are not just a downtown problem, COVID-19 impacted downtown more acutely than anywhere else in Winnipeg, and disproportionately affected Winnipeggers facing poverty and systemic barriers, many of whom reside downtown.

Ground-floor vacancy in the Downtown Winnipeg Business Improvement Zone (BIZ) sits at 32 per cent, and office vacancy downtown is at 16.1 per cent. These numbers should concern all Winnipeggers, because our downtown generates a far greater return on investment relative its area than any other part of the city. If our downtown is not successful, our city will struggle.

Cities with dense residential populations downtown have fared far better in the pandemic. Downtown Winnipeg’s population has grown from 14,000 to an estimated 18,000 in just five years, and if we can speed up this trend by providing more housing options for various income levels, not only could we solve our city’s housing crisis, but we can also increase safety and generate greater economic activity that supports our city’s bottom line.

We can’t expect recovery to happen overnight, and Winnipeg isn’t alone in that. It’s clear all major cities are trying to solve similar problems.

Competing with the home office isn’t easy, but workers are returning. We know many won’t all be here five days a week, and that’s OK. Thousands of students have returned to campuses, and visitors are returning, too. According to a Probe Research poll for the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, one-third of Winnipeggers are visiting downtown at least a few times a week. Almost three-quarters of Winnipeggers have supported downtown restaurants over the last year and they’re spending significantly more on sports, entertainment, arts and culture. But we’re not there yet.

As part of Winnipeg’s Downtown Recovery Strategy, Winnipeggers will see significant investment over the next two years in key parks, corridors and public spaces downtown. The city has committed $10 million to invest in high-impact infrastructure projects to improve destinations and better connect and sustain downtown’s distinct districts. This investment is a great start. But it should have been done long before the pandemic. Downtown infrastructure has been neglected, and we have a lot of catching up to do.

In consultations with Winnipeggers from every sector last year, one message was loud and clear: let’s take care of what we already have. We need to get back to the basics. But we need greater support from the city to take care of its downtown assets and to maintain and enhance its basic infrastructure.

We must remember that downtown is not just a business district. It is a series of distinct and unique neighbourhoods, a community for everyone including newcomer families, seniors, students, and young professionals. We must realize the opportunities our downtown presents for Winnipeg to become a resilient, thriving city for generations to come. What happens downtown directly impacts your quality of life no matter where you live in the city.

Let’s create a community that focuses on the quality of life for everyone by increasing shade trees and green space in our downtown so the next generations have a fighting chance against climate change. Let’s fast-track the Transit Master Plan and active transportation connections to move people more efficiently. Let’s get more people downtown more often, because that’s when people feel safe.

Every problem our city has is solvable. We need to be ambitious and make bold moves. Now is the time to redefine and reimagine our downtown. Our downtown needs to be more than a place where people work. We need to double down on it being the place people come to gather, to connect, to learn and be inspired.

To the next mayor and council: I hope you don’t just talk about downtown. Our city needs you to commit to it and invest in it. Let’s start with yes when it comes to our downtown.

Kate Fenske is the CEO of Downtown Winnipeg BIZ and serves on the board of the International Downtown Association.

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