No easy fix to build back Winnipeg’s downtown core, advocates say

Getting people back downtown is the biggest issue facing downtown Winnipeg.

That’s according to Loren Remillard, president of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, who says stepping up policing in the downtown core isn’t the answer to help people feel safer.

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“Recognizing that the safety issue goes hand-in-hand with underlying social challenges our community and communities across the country are facing,” he says. “It’s really going to require bringing a lot of groups together to say, ‘how do we address these underlying social issues that are really macro-issues,’ and respond to the need to create safe spaces for people.”

Remillard says he’s seeing a steady stream of office workers coming back downtown, which he says is going to help small downtown businesses recover.

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He says if there are more people downtown, especially working downtown, it helps boost the area, but it’s more than just office employees heading back to their desk.

“Going to restaurants, events and to enjoy parks in our downtown is definitely an issue. But one thing we know is more feet on the street creates both real and perceived feeling of safety.”

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Remillard says a persistent issue plaguing downtown is inadequate lighting, but there’s a lot more work if we want to create a safe and welcoming downtown Winnipeg.

“The downtown report released from the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ shows 69 per cent of those surveyed believe government should spend more money to help our downtown recover. Working with the Downtown BIZ and other members in the downtown to really pull together ideas and strategies to formulate a plan so that we can present to government, at all three levels.”

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Winnipeg Police Chief Danny Smyth says the force has stepped up their foot patrols in the past few years but ensuring your safety and the safety of others is about situational awareness no matter where you are in the city.

“We’re seeing evidence of people congregating in bus shelters and parks overnight. For people that have never really witnessed that before, it affects their perception of downtown.”

Smyth says the return of entertainment, such as the Winnipeg Jets, is going to bring a lot more people downtown, which in turn enhances public safety.

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In terms of what Mayor Brian Bowman believes the downtown core needs, he says it’s bringing more office workers back downtown.

Bowman says more foot traffic is going to help lower safety concerns but helping downtown businesses recover is going to take a few years.

“We know that disproportionately, this pandemic has hit certain demographics and communities very differently. There is absolutely more work that all levels of government need to do,” he says. “Municipal [government] isn’t the primary level of government for social services, mental health or housing, but we have a role to play, so we’re trying to do what we can with the levers that we have.”

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Bowman says the federal government has provided some financial support to recoup losses from running nearly empty buses throughout the pandemic so frontline workers always had a ride to work.

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The Downtown Winnipeg BIZ is looking to the future while focusing on the current recovery plan.

Famers markets and afternoon concerts are some of the events organized by Kate Fenske’s team.

Fenske is the CEO of the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ and says while the downtown recovery is looking up, there is still a lot more work to be done.

“We spent the summer talking with Winnipegers. We met with over 100 individuals from 100 organizations and 20 roundtables and one-on-one chats to really understand what is the current situation. We spent a lot more time talking about what is our future going to look like and what do we all need to do to help our downtown recover.”

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Fenske says the pandemic brought several downtown issues to the surface and rebuilding the area is going to take all of Winnipeg and that the city can’t afford another lockdown, especially in the downtown core.

“It’s about taking action. Some of these quick wins we can look at, whether that’s events like expanding or supporting existing or new events. What can we do around parks or greenspaces downtown? And also encourage people to consider downtown as an option to live because it’s great to walk around and have so many great things close by.”

Fenske says they’re planning to release the full Downtown Winnipeg BIZ recovery plan this fall.

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