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2019 AGM Executive Director’s Address

Vision, Investment, and Hard Work

Old Market Square - Nuit Blanche 2019

Going by an official date, according to the City of Winnipeg, the Exchange District BIZ just completed its 30th year.

And sure, as an official Business Improvement Zone constituted by the City of Winnipeg Bylaw NO. 8111, we have existed since 1989. But as we all know, the City can occasionally be a little slow on the uptake. Really, we stretch back to the late 70’s. I’ll come back to that shortly.

First, I’d like to ask all the staff to please stand up. Please give them a round of applause. This team is phenomenal. They work incredibly hard for you every single day, and I feel incredibly thankful to work with them.

We’ve done a lot this past year. I won’t go into all of it— “2019 in the Exchange” gets into most of it, so instead, I’m going to talk about our recent past and how it relates to our future.

Last year, I had the pleasure of meeting the guy who gave the Exchange District its name. He was also directly responsible for the conversion of the Galt building into Artspace and for putting together the right partnerships to do the Exchange District’s first residential conversion— the Ashdown Warehouses on Bannatyne.

See, we’re really good at the BIZ at telling the early, turn-of-the-20th Century history of the area. This year, we gave a record-breaking 388 walking tours to nearly 4000 people. With the commemoration of the 1919 General Strike, our already popular tours got special attention, appearing on CBC’s the National, and basically every local media outlet.

But what we haven’t done a great job of is telling the story of how we went from an abandoned warehouse district to the vibrant community we are today.

How the Late 1970’s Created the Exchange District

That story is what begins in the late 1970’s. By that point, the Exchange District had seen it all. From the boom of the early 20th century as the heart of one of North America’s up and coming cities to a bust during the depression through the dramatic decline and urban decay of the 1960s and early 70s as Winnipeg spread itself out.

Infamously, the renewal plan for the area was to bulldoze everything and build freeways and superstructures. Some people in this room will know all of this. I started learning about it when I met Ken Kelly— who also happens to be the guy that named the Exchange District.

Ken was the heritage planner for the Core Area Initiative, and the first time I met him, he told me the story of how the Ashdown warehouse conversion almost didn’t happen. How he had managed to put together the building owners and the right investors and convinced everyone, including the City, that it was a good idea— in 1984— to convert a mostly empty heritage warehouse building into condos.

The last piece to get in place was for CMHC to insure the building. So they came and did their assessment and reported back that the best and highest use for the building was to convert it into a parkade. Never mind that the building had recently sold for nearly 3 times what the assessor claimed it was worth. Thankfully, that assessor was overruled.

So why am I talking about this? We have done a lot this year.

We expanded our Community Safety program, extending our foot patrols to 6 days a week, offering more safety presentations to members, residents, and others in the community than ever before.

We partnered with the Forks on spreading Canada Day celebrations into the East Exchange. First Fridays got more media coverage than ever, and Culture Days and Nuit Blanche brought tens of thousands of people into the area. Our brown bag bocce series in the summer and our curling in the winter picked up momentum, as did our First Fridays bike-ins, Alleyways, and Concert Movies at the Cube.

We also won a Governor’s Award from the National Trust of Canada for our programming.

Which brings me back to the 1970’s. The National Trust is the organization dealing with Heritage buildings and districts and museums and so on, and this past October, they hosted their annual conference here in the Exchange District. That gave us the opportunity to put together a panel of people who have been involved in pivotal moments in the Exchange District over the last 40 years and to begin telling that story.

The panel was made up of Ken Kelly, who I already mentioned was part of the Core Area Initiative in the Early 80’s, Steve Barber, who was a heritage planner with the City at that same time, Susan Algie, who in her time at Parks Canada was instrumental in the designation of the Exchange District as a National Historic Site, Glen Murray, our former mayor (and current Exchange District BIZ board member), who mobilized City resources to see not only Waterfront Drive, but also Red River College’s Exchange District Campus come to life, and Mike Scatliff, who’s firm moved into the area in the early 80’s and has been actively involved with the Exchange District’s evolution in one way or another from then until today.

And the timing of that panel couldn’t have been better.

Over the last year, the board has been guiding our efforts in developing a new strategic plan. It began with a ground-floor commercial space strategy that we produced in partnership with CentreVenture and concluded at the beginning of the year.

Our work continued this year with research into the various plans, initiatives and programs that have been undertaken in the Exchange over the previous decades.

We have looked into best practices and inspiring ideas from partner organizations throughout North America, Europe and beyond. We’ve met with members, conducted round-table discussion with sector-leaders and partner organizations and conducted surveys. And in that context, the panel discussion was especially illuminating. The real, oral history of the last 40 years is inspiring.

See. Going by an official date, according to the City of Winnipeg, the Exchange District BIZ just completed its 30th year.

But that story really does begin in the late 70’s.

The Old Market Square Association and Core Area Initiative

At that time, the Old Market Square Association played a similar role to the BIZ, but without any official mandate from the City. This scrappy group of business owners and community members were determined to revitalize Winnipeg’s historic district.

I can’t remember who it was that corrected the record first, whether it was Mike Scatliff or Ken Kelly, but everyone on that panel agreed that the revitalization of the area didn’t start with the Core Area Initiative as I had assumed.

It had actually started with the Old Market Square Association, and they named two people in particular: Ray England and Rod Sasaki, who they described as driving forces for bringing ground-floor retail to the area. The board is honouring them today with our first ever Community Builder Award.

The Old Market Square association didn’t just want to save the significant collection of heritage buildings from the wrecking ball. They believed— some said beyond all hope— that this area could become a vibrant, thriving commercial and residential neighbourhood in Winnipeg’s core. Thankfully, they persisted.

Working together with the City of Winnipeg and Heritage Canada, the group successfully transformed what was then the brownfield site of Winnipeg’s demolished Firehall #1 into what we know today as Old Market Square. As a centrepiece to begin revitalizing the area, it was highly successful, drawing 7 to 8 thousand people on the days when they operated a farmer’s market.

That drive and vision picked up steam and eventually the political will to create the Core Area Initiative, a new, unprecedented, tri-level governmental corporation.

The Core Area Initiative brought a unique and notable experiment in public policy, drawing considerable attention across North America and Europe. With $96 million dollars in public investment between 1981 and 1986, and another $100 million between 1986 and 1991, it drew $335 million in private investment and, as of yet, uncalculated ongoing tax revenues to the City.

It brought us Artspace, the Ashdown Warehouse condos, brought the Travellers Building back to life as a “vertical mall” and gave us our name— the Exchange District. It created an attractive public realm, encouraged activity and investment and became a model— internationally— for how various levels of government can work with the private sector and the community for urban renewal.

It moved the needle.

This stuff didn’t “just happen.” It took vision and determination. It often took fighting against the negative attitudes and bleak, weak- minded, timid perspectives that fuelled bad decisions and mealy- mouthed inaction.

It was a vibrant time that basically invented the Exchange District as we know it today.

That same pattern happened again starting in the late 90’s.

A Second Wave of Growth Begins in the Mid 1990s

The seeds for Waterfront Drive’s redevelopment had already been sown by 1996, when the Exchange District Strategic Action Plan was released. Produced by the Exchange District BIZ with funding from the Winnipeg Development Agreement, it set the stage for the next big push. The Exchange Partnership was the group behind it and included our members, together with the arts sector and the heritage community. They developed a vision that picked up steam and eventually, under Glen Murray, the political will to produce Centre Plan and Centre Venture.

Waterfront Drive transformed the East Exchange. Red River College brought additional life to the West Exchange. Again, like the Core Area Initiative— there was a vision. That vision was invested in, and the returns to the City in private investment and ongoing tax revenue have been tremendous.

And here we are today.

We’re watching a depressing spectacle of a budgeting processes. We’re watching proposals for cuts to the things that make a City a community. We seem to be watching a series of one-off, reactionary decisions that threaten the momentum that has been building the Exchange District up over the last 40 years. Rather than investing into projects that generate revenue, we seem to be fixated on nickel-and-diming key services.

It would be easy to fixate on that, and there’s no doubt that we need to object and push back on the most egregious. But we also need to remember how the Exchange District became the place we know and love today. It came through vision and hard work.

Over the past year, we’ve been working to produce our new strategic plan. We’re not quite ready to release it— we have a little more work to do on the details, and we have a few more questions to ask the community.

But the board has given me permission to tell you this much: the Exchange District BIZ is going to become actively involved in bringing its members and the rest of the community together around a vision for our next stage of growth.

We are determined. We have the drive. And with the help of the people in this room, we will create the political will. Thank you.