President's Message - March 27, 2024

March 27, 2024

There has been more talk in recent weeks about the iconic corner of Portage and Main, with concerns being raised by some building owners and managers that the proposed closure of the downtown concourse would leave the buildings at Portage and Main cut off and isolated.

Portage and Main is the heart of Winnipeg's downtown - much like Winnipeg is the heart and birthplace of our Red River Métis Nation - and, in 2026, will be the home of the Red River Métis Heritage Centre.

Those who attended the Annual General Assembly last fall also saw a sneak peek of one of the major external features of your heritage centre. The outdoor display of chains, decorated with a vibrant floral beadwork design by master beadwork artist Jennine Krauchi, will honour the moment Louis Riel stepped on the surveyor's chain, symbolically informing Canada that they will not come into our Homeland without our consent. Of course, this display will be best viewed from street level, in a stunning visual that will become just as iconic as the corner itself.

The Red River Métis have many reasons to be invested in the revitalization of downtown - not only because of its historic significance as the centre of commerce, where all roads into the historic Red River of the Northwest began, but also because we will play an active role in its future.

For reasons that are both practical and innovative, we should embrace having Portage and Main open to foot traffic.

Changing needs in the downtown area

The concourse had a great purpose when it was originally established in 1979. There was a great deal of foot traffic, with busy, bustling offices downtown, and workers commuting downtown to work, eat, and shop.

COVID-19 changed a lot of things for our city, some of which are still to be counted. One clear outcome of it is that many more companies are offering work-from-home or hybrid models to employees, which created a sharp downturn in local foot traffic in the downtown area. Downtown vacancy rates hit a record high in 2023 coming in at 18.3 per cent, with the suburban office market having a better showing. This tells us that our downtown is dying. Today, more often than not, Portage and Main is now a place we drive through on our way to other places.

Fewer people are coming to work downtown. We need to provide other reasons to come downtown to stay and play. The same old ideas just won't do.

Combine this reality with the fact that tourism in Manitoba is slowly starting to recover from the pandemic, it becomes clear that now is the time to proactively create a welcoming space for people to visit. We need to bring locals back to the downtown area and we need to start sharing the exciting things coming to our downtown.

Tourists are seeking new experiences, not the beaten path

Tourist expectations have changed. Increasingly, they want authentic, unique, and one-of-a-kind experiences - this has been consistently observed by travel and tourism experts from across the globe. Travel is not about going to the same places and experiencing the same things as other travellers.

We expect that your heritage centre alone could attract hundreds of thousands of visitors per year.

Remember, from our future heritage centre, it's a short walk to the Forks, as well as the Manitoba Museum, the Winnipeg Art Gallery, and beyond. These are centrepieces of our beautiful downtown, and we need to promote these museums and galleries, along with our own heritage centre. We should also remember that our downtown offers stunning architectural sights that date back to over 100 years in some cases, but also includes the unique modern beauty of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

Winnipeg is also the staging location for many other amazing, Indigenous-led experiences in Manitoba. From Churchill to the Peace Gardens, and The Pas to West Hawk, we have a lot to offer anyone who wants to experience something unique and authentic. All it requires is our willingness to embrace who and what we are, and step into the global spotlight.

Counting the costs of keeping the concourse

The cost of keeping or repairing the concourse is significant. The City has made it clear that repairing the membrane of the concourse would be a large-scale project. The membrane is the component that prevents water leaking into the concourse, and also helps prevent the buildup of mould and other harmful substances. The City of Winnipeg has estimated that the cost would be approximately $73 million. That's a substantial amount of money for our city, which could be used to preserve other existing city assets like libraries and pools, or build new ones to meet new needs.

The City has also indicated that the cost to operate the concourse is approximately $1 million per year. There is some revenue received from vendors and businesses in the concourse, but that revenue is only about $111,000 per year. It's clear that the concourse is not cost efficient for the City or its taxpayers, which includes more than 50,000 Red River Métis.

The City further indicates that the intersection would have to be closed or disrupted for up to five years, just to fix the membrane. The damage done to businesses in the downtown area in the two years of the COVID-19 lockdown was awful. Driving through downtown today, you can clearly see that it has not yet recovered. That was two years - what would happen after five years of minimal traffic moving through the city centre? A five-year dormancy at Portage and Main would not help that recovery. If we do nothing, we run the risk of seeing tumbleweeds rolling through this once thriving corner.

Creating a welcoming environment for people to come back to our downtown is important, and foot traffic is key to this. It needs to be a place where people stop and shop, visit, and take pictures. People don't go to Times Square in New York or Piccadilly Circus in London, England to experience them from underground. We need to think bigger and find ways to make downtown somewhere people want to be.

Leading the change

We should be proud of the province Louis Riel brought into Canada's confederation. I know our people are proud of it, whether they live here, in British Columbia, the East Coast, or parts beyond - we all call it home with pride in our voices. We have been the leaders in Manitoba in the past; it's time for us to lead again - encouraging all to embrace what we have to offer the world. Our ability to stand united and share a vision of innovation is unmatched, and I know we can help others feel the pride that we feel.

Our story - the story of the Indigenous People who stood guard for the West of the country now called Canada, at our own peril - has yet to be fully embraced in the consciousness of Canadians and global travellers. Manitoba and our history are as much a part of the old "Wild West" as the more familiar locations. Tourists can be enticed by this idea, and I believe our heritage centre will be at the very heart of it, sharing our true history with the world.

Until we meet again, I offer my prayers to all our families, Citizens, friends, and neighbours, and my deepest condolences to those who have been caused to grieve.



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