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Downtown development gets kickstarted by return of NHL to Winnipeg

A Winnipeg Jets fan holds up a cowbell before the Jets inaugural game against the Montreal Canadiens at the MTS Centre in Winnipeg, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2011. The Jets are packing in the fans and sold out for years to come. But does the return of the NHL hold the benefits for the city's troubled downtown that boosters have always insisted would materialize? THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

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A Winnipeg Jets fan holds up a cowbell before the Jets inaugural game against the Montreal Canadiens at the MTS Centre in Winnipeg, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2011. The Jets are packing in the fans and sold out for years to come. But does the return of the NHL hold the benefits for the city's troubled downtown that boosters have always insisted would materialize? THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

WINNIPEG - The Winnipeg Jets are packing in the fans and sold out for years to come.

But does the return of the NHL hold the benefits for the city's troubled downtown boosters have always insisted would materialize?

There is no question True North Sports and Entertainment and its MTS Centre are a success, and that was true long before the NHL arrived. When company president Jim Ludlow announced the return of the Jets last summer, he noted that since the arena opened in late 2004 it had hosted more than 1,100 events that drew 6.4 million people through the doors.

"The MTS Centre has been a leading ranked venue in North America since the day it opened," he says.

But that success hasn't strayed far from the arena's doors.

That's something Ross McGowan, who heads CentreVenture, a City of Winnipeg agency trying to inject new life into the downtown, is hoping to help change.

He says a $75-million start is being made on what could be $600 million in development over the next three to five years, as a new sports, hospitality and entertainment district finally takes shape downtown.

He's the first to admit a downtown arena, even an NHL arena, can't solve all the problems of an area that has been getting dissed by locals and visitors for a very long time.

"One magaproject like that does not a downtown make," he says.

Boarded up windows, payday loan storefronts and dollar stores aren't going to draw tourists or suburb dwellers, who complain about panhandlers, drunks, litter and crime.

It doesn't help that Winnipeg set a new all-time record for murders this year, topping 34 for the first time. Most of those killings took place outside the main downtown area but shootings have happened a slapshot away from the MTS Centre, where the Jets play.

Air Canada put a lot of noses out of joint when it said this year it won't let its flight crews stay downtown because of safety concerns. The airline apologized but didn't move crews back.

Winnipeg has played the megaproject game before and lost. One costly failure was the North Portage project, which swept away small businesses that once dotted a two-block stretch west of the arena and replaced them with a mammoth indoor mall, Portage Place.

McGowan doesn't deny it. High vacancy rates have plagued the mall for years and it's one good place to beat the Christmas rush—there usually isn't any.

"I think it did fail," he said. "It was seen that that development was the panacea in itself. There was no supporting plan in place to protect that investment.

"We were almost running that risk with the MTS Centre, that it was to be the cureall for downtown."

The real challenge is changing the demographic of the people who frequent the area, a loaded issue but something that has to happen if new development is to work, says McGowan.

There will be new buildings but there will also be better policing, better lighting and a deal to ensure at least some of the additional tax revenue generated by all the new development gets pumped back into the area.

"This is in essence an investment attraction and protection plan. Everything that we do is intended to reinforce both public and private investment."

The redevelopment of old railyards at The Forks, where the Red and Assiniboine rivers meet, has been a success story but it's far from Portage Avenue, once the major artery that kept Winnipeg's downtown living and breathing.

Another block on Portage Avenue, right across from the arena, is being almost cleared for new construction, the first concrete sign of the new direction CentreVenture has mapped for the downtown. Some of the new redevelopment is also staying in the True North family.

Mark Chipman is chairman of True North and, with Toronto billionaire David Thomson, owner of the Jets. Longboat Development, involved in the work directly across from the arena, is also owned by the Chipman family.

The centrepiece is a 20-storey, 154-room Alt Hotel, to be built by Quebec-based Groupe Germain Hospitality. Demolition is starting this winter, with a partial opening date of 2013. CentreVenture snapped up the site when it heard a major discount chain wanted to lease it, even though the agency had no plans for it at the time.

Another Manitoba company, Canad Inns, has plans for the old Metropolitan Theatre next door to the arena. It wants to turn it into a dinner theatre and venue for special events. Originally built as the Allen Theatre in 1920, it has been boarded up for 24 years but saved from some of the depradations of time by its own fan club, Friends of the Met.

McGowan says part of the problem is simply the huge size of Winnipeg's downtown, about 365 hectares. To work, it has to become smaller.

So the plan focuses on the area from Main Street to the University of Winnipeg, about a 12-block stretch. Much of the downtown is connected through the skywalk system and McGowan wants to build a link to those 14,000 university students.

Like Toronto's Path, which funnels pedestrians underground where they can avoid bad weather, the skywalks let people move about Winnipeg's downtown at second-storey-level to escape winter's chill winds. But they have also been criticized for destroying the street-level ambience that make other downtowns work and McGowan says better access to and from the system is planned.

There is also surface parking north and south of Portage that is ripe for development and on CentreVenture's radar. And, fortunately for their plans, some of it is owned by Manitoba Public Insurance, a provincial Crown corporation willing to co-operate.

A major redevelopment of the Winnipeg Convention Centre is on the drawing board and again McGowan wants to ensure it faces north so when people leave they are headed towards Portage, not away from it as is now the case.

Fifteen years ago there were critics of plans to put public money into a downtown arena that would help keep the Jets from leaving, when there were so many pressing social problems that needed resources as well. In the end it was largely private money that built that arena and private money that brought the team back.

Those critics say the social problems still remain to be tackled but they're more reluctant now to publicly say anything to do with the return of NHL or development, for fear of the backlash.

"It detracts from the work we're doing here and we're doing it quietly and under the radar," said one activist working on homelessness issues.

"Low income people need housing. They should be housed downtown. . . They should not be displaced. But we're a million miles away from having governments ready to do that kind of thing."

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