Downtown Winnipeg’s reputation is unflattering, to say the least. It is perceived as boring, and dangerous. Many establishments close early, leaving little reason for people to come downtown. This creates a vicious cycle. Since people choose not to stay downtown after hours, the streets are fairly empty. And empty streets create a perception of danger. After all, when the only people on the street are panhandlers, many people feel uncomfortable, and even unsafe. While many see more police as the answer, the real solution is to get more people downtown. Having more “eyes on the street” makes people feel more secure, and dissuades criminal activity (witnesses are anathema to crime). But getting people downtown is a bit of a chicken and egg problem: there need to be people and things to do downtown to lure others, but few want to be the first to jump on board. Businesses don’t want to lose money by staying open without customers, and most people don’t want to hang around by themselves. Creative solutions are required to jump start this process. Rather than focusing on one big answer (e.g. stadiums, convention centres, etc), Downtown Winnipeg needs a lot of little solutions. The new farmers market spearheaded by the Downtown Business Improvement Zone (BIZ) is exactly the type of small scale project that can help with this process.
The Downtown BIZ is an organization that represents 1400 downtown businesses. They focus on improving “downtown image, cleanliness, safety, transportation and parking.” Businesses in the zone pay a 1.67 percent levy based on rental assessment value. Since the member businesses themselves created and vote on the levy, they have an incentive to be very efficient and strategic in funding programs. Their commitments include an annual $100,000 over the next 10 years for the Downtown Cadet Patrol Program, which has taken over for its Outreach Program it estimated saved the city $6 million in emergency services between 2006 and 2012. Their ability to intelligently leverage private sector funds to ease the burden on public services is very encouraging, which gives reason for optimism about the new farmers market.
Inner-city Winnipeg has a serious problem with access to produce. This seems like a fringe issue, but many low income residents have a difficult time accessing fresh food, particularly in light of recent grocery store closures. This is a direct result of the failure to attract enough people downtown after business hours. City council recently rejected calls to provide incentives to lure a new grocery store downtown. Its tough to say whether that approach would have worked as intended, particularly given the poor track record of municipal governments using incentives to lure businesses. But whether or not the incentive approach would have been effective, the farmers market (open Thursdays 11:30am to 5:30pm July 4th to September 5th) will both fresh produce to people who might not live within walking distance of supermarkets, and will also encourage some people to stick around downtown after work. Granted, it is only one day a week, and isn’t open particularly late, but it is a start. Moreover, it will come at virtually no cost to taxpayers (Manitoba Hydro is allowing them to use their land and electricity, which is an imperceptibly low cost to provincial taxpayers). Any time you can put a dent in two separate problems without relying on the public treasury, is a small victory.
While the farmers market is a small scale initiative, it is precisely the type of small scale initiative that can help revitalize Downtown Winnipeg. It may not have the same economic impact as taxpayer financed stadiums and convention centres, but it will almost certainly have a greater impact per dollar spent (especially given that the cost to the treasury is zero). The Downtown BIZ should be lauded for this effort, and hopefully other such initiatives will follow. Downtown Winnipeg has a lot going for it, but it needs to attract more people. There are a lot of reasons to believe this will happen. It will require some patience, and a bit of creativity.