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Opportunity for Revitalization in Downtown Winnipeg

December 8, 2023

4 minute read
Post Contributed by Sara Lerner, Bilingual Underwriter, Johnston Group
Leadership Winnipeg Class of 2023-2024

Walking through Portage Place after a decade, the stark emptiness struck me. The second-floor walkways, once adorned with bustling stores, stood abandoned and shuttered, a once lively atmosphere given way to an eerie stillness.

Approaching the Downtown YMCA-YWCA (affectionately known as the Y) for our November Leadership Winnipeg session, my perspective shifted. Despite the early hour, the space greeted me with unexpected warmth and vibrancy.

The Downtown Y is navigating post-pandemic recovery. At its peak, the facility boasted over 12,000 members; presently, numbers have dwindled to approximately 25%, leading to an unsustainable operating deficit. With an estimated two-thirds of downtown workers adopting a hybrid schedule, the Y is shifting focus beyond downtown employees. President and CEO Cordella Friesen revealed a vision during our facility tour, emphasizing the need for more welcoming and inclusive spaces. This vision includes addressing accessibility challenges posed by the 110-year-old building and expanding services, such as childcare, newcomer and mental health services, adding an indoor splash pad, three community classrooms, and corporate relocation to the downtown—a comprehensive strategy to transform into a community hub.

Investing in the core’s development is crucial, it is central to tourism and economic activity, reflecting a noticeable dichotomy of economic disparities and cultural elements. Fortunately, enthusiastic downtown stakeholders like Downtown Winnipeg Biz and True North Real Estate Development are actively championing housing development initiatives. Their vision is to reshape the downtown area into an inclusive, vibrant space operating around the clock—a 24/7 environment welcoming to everyone. This initiative-taking approach is a commitment to not only preserving but enhancing the vitality of our downtown. This would include the repurposing of Portage Place.

True North Sports and Entertainment’s development arm would commit $550 million over three years to adaptively reuse Portage Place. This includes a 15-storey health-care tower medical facilities. Additionally, plans involve removing the mall’s glass atrium, a 16-storey residential tower with a ground-floor grocery store addressing the need for access to fresh food downtown and establishing a community center.

Crucially, the Downtown Y will stay connected and undergo development, improving visibility and space to further bolster the Heart of the City Campaign—an upcoming $15 million initiative aiming to transform the Downtown Y into a comprehensive community hub. There is a hope to collaborate with partners, such as the Southern Chiefs’ Organization, who are also involved in downtown development, reimagining the Hudson’s Bay Heritage Building for economic and social reconciliation.

My exploration of Portage Place and the Downtown YMCA-YWCA exposed the challenges and opportunities shaping downtown Winnipeg. Downtown is on the brink of revitalization, emphasizing the need for Winnipeggers to actively contribute to a dynamic and inclusive future. The interplay of economic disparities, cultural elements, and proactive development underscores the resilience and potential of downtown Winnipeg. Moving forward, collaborative efforts promise sustained growth and vitality, with a dedicated focus on advancing reconciliation.

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