There is a famous Chinese folk saying that portends trouble. The phrase is “May you live in interesting times.” A detailed look at Canadian census figures suggests that Winnipeg is living in “interesting times.”
The 2001 census data confirm what many have known for some time. Over the last half-century, Winnipeg’s ranking in size has fallen behind other cities in Canada. In 1951, Winnipeg was the fourth-largest urban area, smaller than Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. As late as 1976, Winnipeg ranked fifth and had been passed by Ottawa-Hull. But 25 years later, Winnipeg has fallen to number eight, having been overtaken by Calgary, Edmonton, and even relatively slow-growing Québec City. From 1951 to 2001, Winnipeg had the lowest rate of population growth in the ten top metropolitan areas, more than one-quarter below ninth-ranking Montreal. Winnipeg gained 88 percent, while Montreal gained 122 percent.
Ominously, what little population growth we have is slowing down. In the 50s, the city grew by 122,000; in the 60s, by 61,000; in the 70s, by 45,000; and in the 80s, by 67,000. This was followed by a modest increase of 19,000 in the 90s. During the 90s, Calgary’s population increased by 197,000, more than 10 times Winnipeg’s.
If the growth rates of the last ten years continue, Hamilton will force Winnipeg into ninth place well before the 2006 census begins, in a few more censuses Winnipeg will fall out of the top ten, surpassed by Kitchener and London.
The reasons for the city’s bad performance are many and varied. However, it is safe to assume it is related to a low-growth policy mix that besets the entire province: a politicized economy, high taxes, a focus on wealth distribution, not creation, all propped up by outside transfers. The list goes on.
What is to be done?
Several months ago, the Frontier Centre began an ongoing project to offer new ideas to put our city back on a growth track. Our first effort, centred on fixing Winnipeg’s downtown, will be released in early December.
It doesn’t target government money or subsidies to “fix” the problem. Rather, it describes basic reforms to various policies that degrade the viability of the core. One, so timely after Winnipeg was identified on the front page of the National Post as the most regulated city in Canada, is to remove the barriers to enterprise that discourage normal investment. The other reforms involve varying degrees of political leadership and new thinking, a rare commodity in Manitoba these days.
A brief synopsis: Turning the downtown around involves getting governments out of the way; wholesale reform of interconnecting policy problems that penalize the downtown community. Getting serious about improved policing by putting police on the street, not behind desks or in two-person cruisers. Performance pay tied to reduced crime rates. Twenty-four-hour clean up of graffiti. Helping inner-city commerce and making the downtown more car-friendly by ending rush hour parking bans and turning restrictions, converting one-way streets to two way, and getting rid of low-use parking meters where possible.
The pattern in other cities undergoing dramatic revival should be recognized: The downtown’s future is as a place to live and play. To move forward, institute street-parking permits in low-use areas to reward residential “pioneers” who live in warehouse conversion areas. This would also promote a feeling of safety by filling up empty streets. To facilitate residential conversion, grandfather through old codes and implement quick permitting (say a two-week guarantee), and reward city employees with financial bonuses for fast turn arounds. End rent control and unlock the jobs, wealth creation, and stability that flow from a half-billion in “free” new construction in the core. Fix transit by cutting fares and improving service by shifting Winnipeg Transit to the competitive transit model found in all major European cities.
High property taxes should be attacked since they penalize the downtown’s economic and environmental advantage: density. Traditional funding sources found in other Canadian cities, primarily hotel taxes, and a much greater emphasis on user fees, should be used. Adopt cutting-edge service-delivery models that have produced big savings in places such as Phoenix and Indianapolis. Create an arts endowment fund and kick it off with a portion of the proceeds from asset sales, particularly land and other underutilized assets. Then get rid of the rinky-dink amusement tax.
The province should end property taxation to fund education as several Maritime Provinces have done, finding the new money with efficiencies in the province’s proportionately oversized budgets, particularly health care (see 2002 per capita health spending) . Shift the remaining property tax, vastly diminished, to emphasize the area of the land, not the improvements on it. This would reward owners who improve and build up their properties, while increasing density.
The definition of insanity is trying the same thing repeatedly, and expecting a different result. As the population stats head to a stall before a fall, in a city that has so much potential, the time is right to be bold and decisive. It’s time to stop mucking around the edges. Let’s move forward with some bold, but sane, policy reforms.