For many years, Winnipeg has had an image problem. The popular depiction has been one of a city frozen in a never-ending winter with a downtown filled with nothing but dusty old buildings. Most tourists only recognize Winnipeg from the route map on the screen in the airplane seat in front of them as they pass by at 30,000 feet.
Something appears to be happening lately that is altering this perception. Winnipeg has begun to make regular appearances in international travel blogs and periodicals, including Vogue, Elle and Reader’s Digest, all celebrating the unique Winnipeg experience. Somehow, the city’s rough-around-the-edges character has become cool. To outsiders, our frozen city in the middle of nowhere seems oddly exotic, exemplified by its place alongside Seychelles, Bhutan and the Hawaiian volcanoes in a National Geographic list of the Best Trips of 2016.
The irony of this transition is that the very things that have for so long served as fodder for "Winterpeg" ridicule, are now being celebrated as unique attractions. Eating dinner on the frozen river, skating among artistic warming huts or wandering through a largely intact century-old warehouse district are hailed as must-see, uniquely Winnipeg experiences.
The world is becoming smaller, travel is becoming easier and globalization is making cities more homogenous. As a result, tourists have begun to look more often for unique stories and authentic, local experiences in non-traditional destinations.
In recognition of this changing trend, last Friday a new initiative was launched to further attract this evolving tourist market as well as provide Winnipeggers with a new experience in their own city.
Design Quarter Winnipeg is an organically organized, grassroots initiative hoping to position downtown Winnipeg's artistic community as a design and cultural tourism destination.
The idea hopes to bring together local, independent, design-focused events, shops, services and organizations under a single marketing umbrella, empowering them by establishing a broader collaborative network. It's modelled after existing programs in similarly isolated winter cities Reykjavik, Iceland and Helsinki, Finland, where the design district concept has strengthened their civic image as design centres and tapped into new opportunities in the growing trend of cultural tourism.
The name Design Quarter Winnipeg suggests a rebranding of a physical neighbourhood in downtown, but it would be more accurate to describe the initiative as creating a Winnipeg design experience. A walkable one-kilometre radius has been identified across several downtown neighbourhoods, and a curated walking tour has been developed. Visitors can navigate the area with digital or printed maps, social media and a website, guiding them through a series of destinations featuring local products and services, tailored to appeal to a design-conscious visitor.
With coordinated marketing and promotion, through partnerships with the Exchange District Biz, Travel Manitoba and Tourism Winnipeg, the intent of the Design Quarter is to build on the existing creative industries in downtown and attract new independent developments. The hope is a new energy is brought to downtown, putting more pedestrians on the sidewalks and establishing the area as a true destination for a unique local experience.
Design Quarter Winnipeg will operate as a non-profit organization funded through membership fees. To become part of the network, businesses and organizations must meet certain criteria, including such things as a sidewalk presence, a commitment to the local community and to quality design. The goal is to create a level of expectation that visitors can trust, becoming the go-to destination to learn about new design-focused events, shops and services in downtown Winnipeg.
The Design Quarter begins with 46 members and has set a goal of having 60 members after the first year and 100 in three to five years. Members currently include shops, hotels, fashion designers, restaurants, galleries and cultural events.
Helsinki’s Design District has been very successful because it reinforced the creative culture that already existed in that city. Nurturing this authenticity will be critical if Design Quarter Winnipeg is to find similar traction. Branding initiatives can unify and provide a strength in numbers for independent businesses, but they must look to build on what already exists without trying to create something that is not organically there.
In support of this concept, Winnipeg has established a long history as a creative and artistic community. With only two per cent of Canada’s population, the city has 12 per cent of its musicians. Winnipeg has the country's oldest civic art gallery, French-language theatre, English regional theatre, and dance company. It is home to a renowned symphony and iconic ballet company and holds more than 200 festivals each year. Winnipeg’s arts and creative industries represent six per cent of the city’s labour force and four per cent of its GDP.
Adding to this artistic undercurrent, the Exchange District and other areas of downtown have experienced momentum in the growth of local design-focused retailers, restaurants, studios and galleries over the last number of years. If the Design Quarter can successfully build on these existing creative networks, reinforcing, and celebrating a new, authentically Winnipeg experience, we might one day see "design" listed along with "winter" and "old buildings" in a magazine list of must-see reasons to come to Winnipeg.
Brent Bellamy is chairman of CentreVenture’s board and the creative director at Number Ten Architectural Group.