WINNIPEG’S downtown faces a difficult path forward in its economic and social recovery from the ongoing pandemic. The last 20 months have been devastating in terms of emptying out workers, students and visitors (domestic and international) from the downtown.


WINNIPEG’S downtown faces a difficult path forward in its economic and social recovery from the ongoing pandemic. The last 20 months have been devastating in terms of emptying out workers, students and visitors (domestic and international) from the downtown.

The fallout was swift, as businesses closed, with many never to reopen. It’s hard to imagine how any business could survive with perhaps 100,000 fewer people in the downtown on most days.

In considering recovery strategies, we might be inclined to look back at Winnipeg’s downtown circa 1980 and say we survived far worse urban decline and bounced back. Perhaps, too, the recent federal and provincial throne speeches issued encouraging signs of hope in the form of funding for targeted interventions.

But can downtown Winnipeg ease itself back into some sense of normalcy? I believe it can, and suggest five evidence-based considerations that might help:

First, forget the past. Not just the past 20 months, but the last 70 years. By this, I mean it’s time to turn the page on retail being the engine of downtown. That ship has long since sailed, and large retail anchors such as The Bay or Eaton’s are not coming back.

In fact, over the last 15 years, what our downtown has done well is recognize that small niche retail and commercial activities are a recipe for success. Without question, "buy local" fever took hold in Winnipeg and helped many withstand complete ruin.

The combination of buy- and support-local have been a strong part of recents successes, with The Forks, the Exchange and the SHED embracing local entrepreneurs who have been the face of a downtown cultural reawakening.

Second, plan with and for people. The ultimate success of downtown is based on people. We have done a great job in growing the mix of students, workers and visitors to the downtown. From Assiniboine Avenue to the Exchange District, Winnipeg has one of the most diverse housing stocks in Canada, including heritage walk-ups, warehouses, new towers and even converted office buildings.

What we need now is to keep growing the population living in the downtown to 20,000 and beyond, and to create a unique set of urban neighbourhoods. We also need to encourage and support workers coming back downtown. Like most who live and/or work downtown, I am happy to be back on Portage Avenue!

It’s time we support a safe transition back, but this might require government support for creating healthier building infrastructure through grants to improve air quality and safety.

The third factor government must recognize is that good urban policies matter. What government did well over the last two decades was support but not lead development. A harsh lesson learned about when government leads is the ongoing failure of Portage Place. When government supports, the results might look more like True North Square.

Plenty of opportunities for ribbon-cutting can be created by incentivizing development and providing core infrastructure (bikes, rapid transit and public amenities and healthy building funding). Government can continue to use Tax Incremental Financing as a means of support, as well as contributing to healthier building enhancement and retrofits through building-code changes and bylaws.

The fourth measure is to stop treating poverty and homelessness as a downtown issue. Nothing could be further from the truth. Persons experiencing poverty and/or homelessness may find themselves in the downtown and surrounding area to access services or amenities, but in reality addressing their needs is not about finding ways to push the problem elsewhere.

Tackling this issue requires a plan focused on the causes, not the geography. Yes we must end poverty, but as a city and province, not as a district.

And finally, let’s not get grandiose again! We don’t need another mall! Stay the course, and nurture what has worked well for the past 15 years. Let’s continue to leverage the competitive advantages of the downtown, which are more than just its central location. It’s also the unique history, rich diversity and stunning environment. Not many cities have two mighty rivers meeting in the centre of town, along with an amazing collection of heritage buildings and a vibrant and diverse population.

All of this is to say dumping tens of millions into mega-projects that we once heralded as panacea is not in the cards for the future; nor has it been overly effective in the past. We need to focus on curating an amazing set of unique experiences to help reignite a storied downtown that just 20 months ago was on the verge of a once-in-a-century turnaround.

It might be hard to discern all the good in the downtown within the context of the pandemic, but from my vantage point on Portage Avenue, I can see better days are just ahead.

Jino Distasio is a professor of geography at the University of Winnipeg.