Marcy Markusa: Will things be great when we're downtown?

Downtown Winnipeg: unsafe place or promising neighbourhood? Marcy Markusa, host of Information Radio on CBC Radio One, weighs in on the debate over the future of downtown.
The debate over downtown Winnipeg would have to include 'the elephant in the room,' Portage Place Shopping Centre, writes Marcy Markusa. (CBC)

Downtown Winnipeg: an unsafe place or an exciting neighbourhood? Marcy Markusa, host of Information Radio on CBC Radio One, weighs in on the debate over the city core's future.

This week on the show, we've been involved in a few discussions about the lack of grocery stores in downtown Winnipeg.

Two stores recently closed — the Zellers in the basement of The Bay and the Extra Foods on Notre Dame Avenue.

This week, community residents held a meeting to share their concerns about it. At the same time, the city is actively trying to attract grocers downtown.

But the grocer we spoke to on our show said, "No way."

Munther Zeid, who owns four Food Fares in Winnipeg — some close to downtown — says he won't open up right in the heart of our city.

He even considered taking over the Extra Foods on Notre Dame, until he said he heard that shoplifting at the location was reaching ten per cent of sales.

Zeid said if he were to locate downtown, he would want two police officers at the door so his customers could feel safe.

The same morning I spoke with Zeid, I also spoke with a developer who was announcing his plan to build a highrise development downtown — a place where people can live, work and shop without stepping foot outside.

The president of Fortress Real Developments compared our city to Toronto 15 years ago.  He said there didn't used to be much reason to go downtown, but he thinks that Winnipeg is changing.

He credited the City of Winnipeg and CentreVenture with giving us new reasons to go downtown.

So what are we missing here?  Whose view of our city's downtown matches the reality?

I think we aren't quite either of those visions. And in many ways, one relies on the other to come to fruition.

The developer needs the grocer and the grocer needs the residents. It's the good old "chicken and egg" scenario.

But they would both benefit from a downtown that's not just residential, but a place you would want to visit.

The elephant in the room

So between the chicken and the egg, we have the elephant in the room: Portage Place, the shopping mall that takes up three full city blocks from Colony to Carlton.

So why be so hard on Portage Place? It's in part because I can't get something out of my mind that Ross McGowan with CentreVenture said to me during an interview about downtown development.

He said it wouldn't take much to change the mall.  His description of the problem with Portage Place is that it "turns its back on the street." Literally.

You walk into the mall and you're stuck inside. You can't enter the stores from Portage Avenue.

The irony is that the doors already exsist. Door after door is locked up and used as storefront windows.

I don't know about you, but I've never understood that.

You know what it says to me? "We're in here, but use the main entrance and pass the security guard so we can keep tabs on you."

I long for our city to feel like the ones that I visit when I'm on vacation — the cities where I walk around downtowns that feel vibrant and busy and safe.

But honestly … I don't think it feels that way in our downtown. Not yet, anyway.

The foot traffic just isn't there. It empties out.

I'm going to be honest: When tourists ask me which mall to visit when they come to Winnipeg, I never say Portage Place. I point to Polo Park or St. Vital.

When they ask me about cool streets to visit for a bite to eat and a bit of shopping, I don't send them to Portage Avenue. I point to the Exchange District or St. Boniface, the Forks or Academy Road.

Downtown vs. 'the 'burbs'

The thing is, I want to point them to our downtown.

So how do we change that? 

Well, for starters, we keep doing what we're doing.  

There have been a number of developments in the downtown that I think are promising; more than we've seen in a generation.

There are new rental units on Portage Avenue, there's the renovation of The Met, and there are new restaurants and the new hotel that's being built across from MTS Centre. And yes, there are hockey games.

But something has to be done with that elephant.

Let's put tourists aside for a moment. If people who live in surburbia are going to come downtown for more than a two-hour event or a Jets game, then you have to create a "mood" on Portage Avenue.

It's especially important because people often forget to acknowledge that suburban Winnipeg has changed, too!

Big-box developments full of shopping and family-friendly eating options can now be found adjacent to most of the 'burbs.

And right in the 'burbs? It is clean. It is safe. And guess what? Some local businesses have started opening up quaint little shops and cafes that add just enough flavour to give an area some soul. There are more and more reasons not to leave.

Downtown has a long way to go to compete with that.

And we better giddy up, because if a shameless Winnipeg booster like me is concerned about it, then the clock must be ticking.