Jets' playoff success opens Winnipeg's downtown to the world

Has the return of the Jets helped turn around the downtown? Jino Distasio says there is no doubt that the return of the playoffs and the rebirth of the downtown are linked in many ways.

Downtown in a better place than it has been in years, thanks in no small part to Jets' success: Jino Distasio

Winnipeggers attend a whiteout street party in downtown Winnipeg on April 13. There is no doubt that the return of the playoffs and the rebirth of the downtown are linked in many ways, says Jino Distasio. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

Most Winnipeggers born before the 1980s can recall the highs and lows of the city's downtown with fondness and regret.

Many of us watched the once-storied retail mecca slowly wither over the 1970s and 1980s as people, businesses and even passion fled to the suburbs.

While many "last-ditch efforts" tried to save the area by injecting tens of millions into malls and gimmicks, most failed to turn around one of the most valuable retail corridors in Canada.

By the 1990s, the area was littered with vacant storefronts and a growing sense of despair. 

Fast forward to the present and downtown has become the epicentre of a Winnipeg whiteout.

A view of packed streets during the April 13 whiteout street party. The scene is a far cry from the mid-90s, when Jino Distasio says the downtown struggled to capture the hearts and wallets of Winnipeggers. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

The Winnipeg Jets' Stanley Cup playoff run, and the parties to celebrate them, have drawn tens of thousands of locals who have crammed the streets, the arena and local bars to cheer on the team.

Interestingly, millions more have shared an almost unheard of positive vibe that has drawn international attention.

So has the return of the Jets helped turn around the downtown, and can we build on the momentum?

A Jet-fuelled turnaround?

To answer those questions, we need to look back to the early 1990s, when the economy of the city and the downtown had been battered and bruised. For downtown, the impact was much more visible and painful.

Simply put, most had turned their backs on the area, despite efforts that saw the Exchange District reinventing itself and The Forks becoming one of the city's premier destinations.

However, it was on our doorstep that we took it on the chin as a chill like a cold Prairie wind set in on Portage Avenue development.

Perhaps we can look at the spring of 1996 as the low point in the city's recent past, when the Jets left for sunny Arizona. Maybe it is coincidental that for the next decade, the city and downtown struggled to find the right mix of amenities to recapture the hearts and wallets of Winnipeggers. 

A trip back to 2004

In terms of a turning point, November of 2004 is a good place to start. Momentum had been growing in the downtown as business leaders and government continued to invest.

As well, the $135-million MTS Centre (now Bell MTS Place) opened its doors, replacing the Eaton's building that had once stood as a symbol of what was both good and bad about downtown.

I recall doing a 360-degree walk around the MTS Centre in 2004 with the CBC on a story looking at potential development options around the arena. That walk included a string of empty buildings, surface parking lots and a Metropolitan Theatre that lay in rot. If you looked up to the sky, you would have also seen the paint peeling on the old smokestack from the Eaton's steam plant.

Above: the former downtown Eaton's building on Portage Avenue, as seen looking east from Carlton Street. Below: the view from the same spot in 2016. Winnipeg's downtown is in a much better place than it has been in decades, says Jino Distasio. (University of Manitoba Winnipeg Building Index)
(Jaison Empson/CBC)

It is easy to paint a dark picture of a faded downtown that struggled to regain a foothold in the economy of the city. Yet behind the scenes, many did not give up hope that change was possible — that the working-class city of Winnipeg could shift its trajectory upward.

The reimagination of a city

While many will recall the images of kids holding piggy banks on Portage and Main to save the Jets 1.0, it was that spirit that lived on, and as the 2010s rolled in, downtown finally witnessed not only the return of the Jets but the reimagination of a city.

Our economy began to pick up steam and people began to come not only downtown, but increasingly to the city and province. Our downtown population is quickly approaching 20,000, which is much higher than the 11,000 from the 1980s.

Fans at the April 11 whiteout party in downtown Winnipeg. 'The renaissance of the area also reminds me of the resiliency of this city's hard working-class background and sense of unwavering perseverance,' says Jino Distasio. (Mike Sudoma/Canadian Press)

Today, the same 360-degree walk around the MTS Centre/Bell MTS Place is remarkably different from 2004, with more than a billion dollars spent on the rink itself, True North Square, a hotel, condos, and new commercial and retail buildings (with most of this investment being private-sector led).

This infusion, and perhaps the $2 billion more downtown wide, came in the wake of an empty Eaton's building that had very little hope and darkened windows.

On the second floor of the arena, the statue of Timothy Eaton that often drew dreamers to the Eaton's store still stands close to the spot it once did. (Perhaps fans should stop by and make a wish as they rub Timothy's shoe — just don't share it!)

Winnipeg's downtown is in a much better place than it has been in decades.

Did the Jets impact this turnaround? It's hard not to be swept up in the excitement of a record season, but there is simply no doubt that the return of the playoffs and the rebirth of the downtown are linked in a great many ways. 

The renaissance of the area also reminds me of the resiliency in this city's hard-working background and its sense of unwavering perseverance.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Jino Distasio is an expert advisor with, an associate professor of geography at the University of Winnipeg and director of the Institute of Urban Studies.