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Where the action is.

The spirit of a city is not in its architecture nor winding streets; but in its people. Spirit fueled by imagination. Spirit of determination and diversity of individual dreams and objectives. A spirit of a genuine joie de vivre that cannot be easily suppressed, no matter what.

Winnipeg embodies all of that if you care to look beyond its surface to its people. We are a capital city whose wealth lives in multi-cultural, multi-racial citizenry which virtually celebrates diversity of experience. As Winnipeg grows and changes in the '90s, new life is being breathed into a downtown that is being rediscovered as a place to experience the exciting events that only a city atmosphere can generate.

Where else can one find one of Canada's most successful business executives dressed -- on his day off -- in a fashionable, three-quarter length denim jacket and blue jeans, walking down a backlane with a newspaper tucked under his arm, knowing he is safe.

Where, in another part of downtown, can one buy a fabulous hamburger and French fries on one side of the street, cooked by a woman, then cross the street to an upscale art gallery owned by her husband, to eat at table at a the Fleet Gallery, surrounded by fine art. Where? In Winnipeg. Do you know where that is? Head downtown. Someone will tell you about Albert St. Hamburgers.

Kent Smith, general manager of North Portage Development Corporation, knows well the value of people's individual pursuits.

Smith says, "People bring life to downtown. They come to learn, to eat, to attend special events and to work."

At last count, 68,438 people worked in the 2.2 acres (1.2 square miles) of Winnipeg's downtown. That's 26.7 per cent of Winnipeg's employment force. Most of them work in the nearly 17 million square feet of office space, the 7.2 square feet of commercial space or the nearly 3 million square feet of industrial space within the downtown boundaries.

The luckiest 21,773 occupy one of the 31 buildings connected to Winnipeg's protected walkway system. There are 465 company offices, 320 retail outlets, 91 personal service outlets and 19 financial institutions within the walkway system.

"Office vacancy rates are low within the system, especially at the corner of Portage and Main," adds Al Hamm, president of the Building Owners and Managers Association of Manitoba. This is in sharp contrast to the high vacancy rates on Broadway, which bring the overall downtown office vacancy rate to 9.8 per cent. "A relatively healthy number," says Hamm.

The number of vacant offices should decline slightly over the next three years, he predicts, "bringing office rentals up slightly." Right now, Class A office space rents stand at $8 to $16 per square foot. Downtown retail space is between $20 and $30 per square foot and industrial space downtown is $1 or $2 per square foot.

Trizec property manager, Frank Sherlock, whose portfolio includes the Trizec Building and Winnipeg Square at Portage and Main, says working downtown is very attractive for his tenants. Proximity to the city's largest law, brokerage and accounting firms is one reason. Temperature-controlled parking is another. "Winnipeg's downtown has the best parking rates in Western Canada as far as comparable cities go and certainly better than Toronto and Montreal." What's more, tenants who live in the suburbs and commute say the drive into work is never more than 20 minutes long, even from the furthest outskirts of the city."

The Livable City

There are 13,900 people living in the 8,490 occupied dwelling units of Winnipeg's downtown, according to Statistics Canada.

Reverend Fred Douglas and his wife, Marie, are two of those people. "I met Marie in United College (now University of Winnipeg) residence in 1933," remembers Douglas. Over the years the couple never lived anywhere but in a downtown setting. And they are proud of the evolution of their city's core.

The couple live in Fred Douglas Place, a seniors' high-rise that they helped develop. Like Kiwanis Chateau and Place Promenade, a market rental housing complex, the building is linked to Winnipeg's 1.2 miles of protected walkway. "How many other places allow you to go across town without feeling the severe weather and without being burdened by heavy overcoats?" asks Douglas rhetorically.

Both the seniors' blocks are full and the market rental housing complex also has a healthy occupancy rate. "Place Promenade has less than a two per cent vacancy rate," says Kent Smith, general manager of North Portage Development Corporation.

"There's a camaraderie in the three blocks," says Douglas, "that surpasses the average suburban neighborhood." With convenient shopping, entertainment and proximity to most medical offices, the downtown apartments give residents a sense of living within their own domed city. "And I feel perfectly safe inside or outside, because there are always people about, watching for each other," Douglas says.

John and Karen Buhr, residents of Fort Garry Place, love walking around downtown. "We don't even own a car," says Karen. The young married couple spend their leisure time window shopping, bargain hunting in second-hand book and record shops and walking the riverbanks to The Forks. "I'm a country girl by heart and if we ever buy a house it'll be in Stonewall or somewhere like that," says Karen. "But as long as we live in the city then I want to live in the city."

Shoppers' Heaven

Weather-proof shopping makes it a serious pursuit downtown as people can walk briskly from The Bay to Eaton's inside passing a wide array of services and at the same time getting their fill of people-watching.

With 250 retail outlets in The Shops of Winnipeg Square, Lombard Place, Portage Place and Eaton Place, the downtown covered walkway system is the largest combined indoor shopping area in Winnipeg. And the covered walkway system is only part of the 8.3 million square feet of commercial space in downtown Winnipeg. Smaller shopping malls within walking distance range from the Designer's Walk on Cumberland Street, to the Exchange District, to The Forks, and the independent stores which are free-standing on South Portage and Graham Avenues and the side streets. Some of Winnipeg's most unique treasures are found in the shops of downtown.

At Portage Place two teenage girls are scouting dresses. "We're here to check out grad fashions. We like to get a handle on style before we bring our mothers."

The girls head off just as an elderly couple in shirt-sleeves sit down in the nearby cinnamon bun concession. "What a treat!" she coos as he pays. They live in one of the two large seniors' residential blocks attached to the skywalk. He says the surprise treat should convince his wife to shop alone while he watches a chess tournament on the giant board in the basement of Eaton Place.

Three teenagers with spiked hair wander past. One of the trio has a safety pin piercing his nose.

Closer to The Bay, a woman in a fur coat comes out of Escada carrying a large package. She hands the package to a man in a tailored coat and they walk away debating the merits of lunch at upscale Old Swiss Inn or at Amici's.

Al Hamm, general manager of Eaton Place, says many of his tenants are just starting to see an increase in sales like everywhere else in Canada.

"The recession hit retailers hard," says Hamm. With a 12 per cent retail vacancy rate, Eaton Place is reasonably strong right now. December 1992 sales in the centre were up six per cent over December 1991 and seven per cent in January 1993 over the previous January.

"People are definitely spending a little more, but there is a shift toward personal and business services, and smaller ticket items. Clothing and footwear sales are flat, but books, pets and the like are up substantially," says Hamm.

More than half of Hamm's retail tenants are local businesses, not chains, he says. He is trying to lure more local retailers to the mall, as well as major chains (like The Gap) which usually put only one large store in each urban centre. His goal is a healthy retail vacancy rate of four to five per cent and he says it is within his grasp.

Most of the downtown retail landlords are in a similar position. At one time, everyone shopped on "the golden mile" of Portage Avenue between Eaton's and The Bay, explains Kent Smith, general manager of North Portage Development Corp. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, suburban development and a lack of physical upkeep took their toll on downtown. By 1981, downtown's retail share had dropped from 60 per cent to 20 per cent of the Winnipeg market.

The construction of Portage Place in the late 1980s brought more business downtown to the north side of Portage Avenue, but effectively killed almost all retail activity on the once-prosperous south side. Two years ago, there were 15 vacancies on the south side of the golden mile. Today, through the concerted efforts of the Downtown Winnipeg Business Improvement Zone (BIZ) and North Portage Development Corp., there are only four, "and I have a lease pending on one of them," says Smith.

Eamon Kelly, the new general manager of Portage Place, says "More than 181,000 people visit Portage Place weekly -- most of them on weekdays."

Unlike suburban malls, which are crowded on Saturdays, Portage Place experiences only half of its normal traffic load that day. In order to lure more weekenders to the mall, Kelly is bringing in entertainment and art displays and is planning to open a farmers' market in the mall come summer.

At Winnipeg Square under Portage and Main, Trizec property manager Frank Sherlock says most of his retail activity happens on Monday through Friday. "We have a thriving community for retail in our mall because we service the needs of people coming downtown to work." With the exception of Westin Hotel guests, most of the retail customers at Winnipeg Square work at the corner of Portage and Main and shop on their lunch hours.

"This target marketing has given Winnipeg Square the most sales per square foot in downtown," says Sherlock.

Future Vision

Winnipeg's downtown skyline has been refreshingly upgraded over the past 10 years. At the same time, 62 historic buildings in the neighboring 20-block Exchange District underwent, or are scheduled to undergo, refurbishing.

Chinatown was rejuvenated in the 1980s and 28 other historic buildings in the downtown area are undergoing or awaiting face lifts.

Kent Smith, general manager of North Portage Development Corporation says, "Since January 1984, about 40 per cent of Winnipeg's building activity has been through work done in partnership with the North Portage Development Corporation." These include Portage Place, One Canada Centre, the ISM Building, all the residential buildings, all the work on the south side of Portage Avenue, the Relax Plaza, the Air Canada Building.

The other 60 per cent include projects built since 1988 -- the $53.6-million Toronto-Dominion Bank Building, at Portage and Main, the $21-million provincial jail on Kennedy Street, a $14-million office building at 200 Graham and a $1.9-million hydro substation at 363 York.

Renovations to Canada's second-largest Eaton's department store, the historic Bank of Montreal Building on the south side of Portage, the Walker Theatre, Pantages Playhouse Theatre and The Bay are helping to make downtown a focal point for the city.

Harry Finnigan, executive director, Downtown Business Improvement Zone (BIZ), says, "But you cannot divorce the economic well-being of downtown from the social well-being. New building is not going to cover up the chronic problems facing any urban core area. We want people to feel comfortable downtown and we are not trying to move our problems to the suburbs."

Michael Menzies, chairman of the BIZ management Board, says, "In May 1990, BIZ created a team of students, the BIZ Patrol, to clean up the area, and to provide entertainment and tourist information." BIZ, whose budget is funded by a levy on business tax paid by downtown businesses, contributed $50,000 toward the opening of a store-front police station on Portage Avenue. The Winnipeg Police Department then set up a computerized voice messaging system that telephones business members to warn of frauds, robberies, counterfeiting and vandalism in the area.

Finnigan says, "The organization is working with the Alcoholism Foundation of Manitoba to connect with people in the street directly." It also helped created SKY, an acronym for Street Kids and Youth. SKY is a drop-in centre for the 300 homeless youth on downtown streets. Four trained staff counsel the kids, help them find work and direct them to various social agencies.

Finnigan says, "We want to make downtown an inviting place for everybody. We want everyone to feel comfortable and welcome."

Entertainment In The City

Dancing, stage shows and bands are among the treats promised for downtown this summer. European-style outdoor cafes with parties and carnivals as well as tables, chairs and strolling entertainment. Easy Streets tokens, with a value of $1 towards transit and taxi fares or parking, are another promotion to lure shoppers downtown.

"Young Artists on the Avenue," an exhibit of artwork and street banners by Winnipeg children is organized by BIZ, the Winnipeg Art Gallery, the Winnipeg School Division, and the Manitoba Association for Art Education. It features 140 banners along Portage Avenue between Spence and Main Streets. One side of each banner features the silk-screen logo designed by Theressa Kielhorn, a Grade 12 student at Tec-Voc High School. The other side features the drawings of students from across Winnipeg. There are also works of art by more than 900 Winnipeg students in storefront displays on downtown Portage Avenue.

Downtown is also a place to satisfy a hungry appetite. Denis Smith, executive director of the Manitoba Restaurant and Food Services Association, says, "Downtown workers can go out for lunch every day for a year and never eat at the same place twice."

Restaurants run the gamut from high-end, gourmet places like the business-oriented Amicis', the Velvet Glove and Dubrovnik's, to friendly lunch counters like the Wagon Wheel with its famous club sandwich or the hot-dog vendors whose carts turn Broadway into an outdoor cafe each summer.

"Nearly 20 per cent of the 250 downtown restaurants fall into 25 different ethnic categories, including the wonderful Asian restaurants in Chinatown," says Smith, and they include long-term traditional establishments as well as exotic and new.

Western Living Magazine's Manitoba restaurant reviewer, Marilyn MacKinnon, recommends the Sandpiper ("A roadhouse in heaven") and the Prairie Oyster ("comfort food, innovative and high quality") at The Forks. She praises the Persian Place, the Touch of Thai, Tokyo Joe's and Amatos in the Exchange District -- perfect places to visit after an evening at the Centennial Concert Hall, the Manitoba Theatre Centre, the Warehouse Theatre, the upbeat Walker Theatre or the Prairie Theatre Exchange in Portage Place.

Local residents often drop by the Asmarra Cafe, a little Ethiopian restaurant in Place Promenade, for a cappuccino after an Imax matinee.

All in, all why would anyone want to go to the country when you've got the city?
COPYRIGHT 1993 Manitoba Business Ltd.
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Title Annotation:Special Promotion: Rediscovering Downtown Winnipeg; Winnipeg, Manitoba
Author:Arnold, Cheryl
Publication:Manitoba Business
Date:May 1, 1993
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