Business, City & Politics, Planning

Manitobans should celebrate Exchange District business boom

The explosion of Saskatchewan as the largest and most fulsome provincial economy in the country has generated comparisons—both fair and unfair—between Manitoba and its Prairie cousin.

This is never more pronounced than in Manitoba’s business community, where many see Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall as a business-friendly conservative and conceive Manitoba premier Greg Selinger as a dry, social democrat leading a politically complacent province.

Perception may not be reality. After all, Saskatchewan’s economic boom is generated largely by natural resources development, not small business. But the perception—the feeling – that Manitoba business development happens at the margins, while Saskatchewan thrives, is palatable.

In Winnipeg, it is clear city and provincial governments don’t celebrate business so much as take credit for it. A neighbourhood lifting itself out of stagnation is seen as the work of a public development firm, a provincial grant or a property tax freeze.

When private businesses and individuals come together independently, it goes largely ignored by the powers that be in Manitoba.

In Winnipeg’s historic Exchange District, they are repeating the pattern.

When I was younger, I was fascinated and enthralled by the neighbourhood. The cobblestone sidewalks, the pedestrian friendly streets and the old buildings illuminated my imagination, and so I got a job in the area straight out of high school.

For the past five years, I’ve been putting myself through university as a busboy in an area restaurant. During that time, I’ve keenly watched the neighbourhood grow and evolve and I’ve never felt more optimistic than I do today.

When I started working in 2007, the main storefronts facing Main Street were the seedy Woodbine Hotel and the violent Empire nightclub. McDermot Avenue was lined with empty stores and Bannatyne Avenue was largely vacant.

The neighbourhood felt stagnant.

If only by comparison, the Exchange District of 2012 is humming.

The Empire has been transformed into a new club, Whiskey Dix, which has avoided the violence of its predecessor while adding street life on weekends.

The Woodbine, still plagued by violence and a bad reputation, is now sandwiched between several vibrant businesses. Parlour Coffee, hair salon Berns & Black, and the recently opened Fox and Fiddle pub franchise have revitalized an important block of Main Street and have created an attractive entry point to Old Market Square.

The streets near the bustling Manitoba Theatre Centre have also been infused with new cash, largely from local entrepreneur Noel Bernier.

Over the course of just a few years, Bernier has opened two wildly successful South American restaurants—Hermanos steakhouse and wine bar and Corrientes Pizzeria—within a block of Bannatyne Avenue.

He’s now opening a third, Carnaval, a Brazilian barbeque on Waterfront Drive.

This is just a sampling of the new restaurants that have opened over the past few years, turning the Exchange into an area brimming with night life. And they co-exist with a counter-culture that has constituted the backbone of the Exchange since before I can remember.

Ragpickers clothing store, Mondragon cafe and bookstore, Into the Music and the Cre8ery art gallery have are among the cultural flagships that have stayed afloat; with varying degrees of success.

The Exchange District isn’t perfect. More residential development and essential services, like grocery stores, are needed and retaining commercial diversity will be a struggle. But the entrepreneurial spirit and intense innovation seen in the area shouldn’t be dismissed.

After extensive urban research, University of Manitoba sociology professor Sonia Bookman characterized a slow and lamentable “branding” of the Exchange District around the “most consumable” aspects of culture.

Her nuanced thesis has turned into populist paranoia among the many hipsters who wander the neighbourhood’s streets. “Capitalism is taking over!” they think to themselves.

Many people forget that these new businesses are essentially opening in a void—they aren’t driving anything away, but are adding to what was previously nothing. They forget that trendy night clubs in other cities can easily co-exist with galleries, book stores, housing and cultural venues.

These misconceptions stem directly from our political culture, which keeps the Manitoba NDP chugging along.

When Winnipeggers see new things cropping up downtown, they automatically point to government as the source. They celebrate the Forks, the Canadian Museum of Human Rights (still under construction) and the MTS Centre as civic icons.

But a Toronto-based pub franchise built into a beautiful historic building is a corporate invasion.

What is happening in the Exchange District would be openly celebrated in other Prairie cities, like Regina or Edmonton, but here in Winnipeg we often put more trust in government planners than entrepreneurs with expendable income.  


Ethan Cabel writes for the Spectator Tribune.

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