The Cart Before the Horse

June 14th, 2011 by Emma Durand-Wood

Referring to the recent spate of complimentary articles about Winnipeg’s downtown revitalization, One Man Committee (another new-to-me blog!) ponders:

“Considering that downtown Winnipeg is only now beginning to see its first significant amounts of residential development in nearly 20 years and retail growth remains slow outside of the Exchange District, articles like this latest in a series of Globe offerings are like getting hearty congratulations upon completing the first mile of a marathon. In other words, the praise might give one the warm fuzzies, but it also makes it easy to lose sight of all the work that remains.”

(emphasis mine)

I’m glad he wrote about this, because I’ve been thinking that people are putting all their eggs in the NHL return/Human Rights Museum basket. Some people think the moment these two businesses are up and running, there will be an outpouring of downtown love. Well, I hate to be a Debbie Downer (especially when it comes to Winnipeg!), but I really doubt it.

Don’t get me wrong, I think they’re going to be amazing assets. But they won’t come close to fixing it all, because regardless of how much good stuff surrounds Portage and Main, people don’t like coming downtown.

Why? Some of it is social – perception or reality. People are turned off by poverty and scared to be there, and that’s its own serious issue.  Some of it is consumer-based – ‘Peggers love their big box stores and rock bottom prices and they get them at “power centres” which are everywhere but downtown. But I think a huge factor is this bizarre parking issue.

The constant refrain of people who never spend any time downtown is “there’s no parking!”. This is incredibly naive (or ignorant?), because obviously, there is more than enough parking. What they don’t realize or can’t accept is that like in any big city, you might have to walk a block or two to your destination once you park.

I personally think that until folks get a reality check on this fact (or figure out that depending where you’re coming from, taking the bus is actually really convenient!), they’ll continue to resist going downtown, which is really a shame. Parking lots already have their own awards – maybe they need to start doing a little PR and advertising, too. Would a car-crazed city like ours respond to that? I think it might.

I place a lot of stock in the continued U of W and RRC expansions. These are the projects that will get people out on the streets during the day – regardless of how they got downtown. I think the Downtown Peggy project is really effective, and I’m impressed that the Downtown BIZ has been steadily increasing their efforts over the last couple of years. Stella’s, a taco truck and a poutine specialty shop are welcome new additions to the food scene, too. People continue to be nuts about the Exchange and more people are living, shopping, and recreating there.

I do believe that good things are happening in downtown Winnipeg, but nothing is going to create huge change overnight. In a dream world, I’d like to see Portage & Main reopened to pedestrians. I’d like to see big stores like H&M and Chapters open up downtown, and I wish like crazy Ikea would have opted for a downtown storefront. I hope the Bay is on its way to being restored to its former poshness. It’ll be very interesting to see what the next few years bring!

Everyone has their own ideas on what it will take to make our downtown a bustling, desirable, and profitable place to do business. Build it and they will come? Come, and then they will build it? It’s gotta be somewhere in between. But as someone clever once said, there is no reality, only perception. Perception will play a big role in changing people’s minds about downtown. So I don’t know…. maybe these “puff pieces” are, in fact, just what we need.

What do you like to do downtown? What would bring you downtown more often?

4 Responses to “The Cart Before the Horse”

  1. Jessica says:

    I think the RRC and U of W campuses have done more for downtown then the NHL will…

    I was one of the first graduating classes from the new RRC and the exchange district underwent an extreme revival in the few short years I was there. A lot more people are spending time in the area, however, in order for it to trickle down to say Portage, it’ll take some time, and some businesses of value to the community.

    The MTS center has done a lot of good for the bar and restaurant scene, as well as I think the parking misconception. As soon as you need to go down there for a concert or something, you discover lots of creative ways to get great parking that allow you to take skywalks only, for your walk there.

    I see improvements every time we come back to town to visit. But i believe its cannot be credited to the NHL/Human Rights, and will still take some time.

  2. Cheech says:

    Cart before the horse

    Standard operating for winnipeg

  3. cherenkov says:

    If the rumour of H&M locating downtown is true, I think that would be a huge boost — maybe even bigger than the Jets or the CMHR — because it brings a whole new demographic downtown. That would spill over to the Bay and other stores. It starts to reverse the long time trend of retail drifting to the ‘burbs from downtown, and would be really good to see.

  4. Emma says:

    Thanks for the comments, guys 🙂

    @Jessica — it’s true, people never seem to mind going downtown to go to the MTS Centre, and the skywalk system is being improved all the time, I think – which is really nice for winter!

    @cherenkov — let’s keep our fingers crossed for H&M! I mean, even Red Deer has one. It would be an incredible addition and definitely bring a new demographic to the area. I mean, I like their stuff, but I LOVE the idea of not having to go all the way to Polo Park to get there.

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