As candidates running to be Winnipeg’s next mayor debate ways to revitalize the city’s downtown, a recent convert to downtown living says before there can be meaningful change, more people need to follow his family’s path.
Jason Graveline and his wife moved from Winnipeg’s suburbs to the downtown area nearly two years ago.
“In our case, we had a very comfortable house in a blue collar neighborhood in Winnipeg, great neighbours, great, safe environment for us and our kids,” Graveline told 680 CJOB’s The Start Thursday.
“(But) as the kids were growing and leaving the house and aging, we decided … it was time to downsize and maybe simplify our lives.”
The couple made that change by selling their home in Tyndall Park and moving into an apartment “right in the heart of downtown.”
While there’s been adjustments to make, overall Graveline says the couple are thrilled to have made the move, and love being able to walk to Winnipeg Jets’ games, meet friends for events, and watch the sunset from their apartment’s rooftop.
“It actually makes life more pleasant,” he said. “We think less about the stuff and more about activities and events and and, you know, and enjoying and embracing downtown.”
Graveline’s story is music to Kate Fenske’s ears.
The Downtown Winnipeg BIZ CEO says the organization is working hard to attract more businesses and ultimately bring more people to the area.
She says currently there are roughly 18,000 Winnipeggers who call the downtown home.
The BIZ has been tracking vacancies to see the the impacts brought on by the pandemic and Fenske says ground floor vacancy rates in the Downtown Business Improvement Zone are currently up 32 per cent.
“We’re really putting a lot of focus on that ground floor — that’s what brings life to the street, that’s what brings people down there,” she said.
“It is about creating that community, but it all comes down to people. If we’re trying to get more people to live downtown, to visit downtown, it is about quality of life.
“We need more trees, more green spaces, more places that we can activate in terms of public spaces.”
Graveline says since they’ve moved, friends have expressed interest in joining them, but the relative safety of the suburbs can be hard to leave.
He said the end result is a “chicken and egg situation” that can see development stall.
“There are undeniably elements of downtown that are less safe … and there is no easy fix for that,” he said.
“We need to bring people downtown, which will bring services and safety, but people won’t come downtown until there’s services and safety.”
Fenske hopes programs like the BIZ’s downtown Winnipeg recovery strategy — which is offering new businesses grants to help set up shop downtown — will help bridge the gap between bringing services and people downtown.
“We’ve got the Winnipeg Art Gallery, arts, culture, theatre, music, sports — all of that happens downtown — but the thing is, we really do need to focus on our residential population,” she said.
“We know we can’t rely on downtown workers, you know, coming back five days a week.
“It’s about … how can we create a quality of life in our city and unique experiences that you can only find downtown.”
For Dan Huen, giving small businesses opportunities to thrive through incentives should be a top priority for elected officials.
Huen, who’s been living in the area for eight years, told Global News he’s seen a dramatic shift in his neighbourhood when it comes to safety.
Reviving downtown Winnipeg is something mayoral candidates should be taking seriously, Huen said.
“In the eight years that I’ve lived here, in the last four, my car has been broken into eight times and most recently, about a month ago,” Huen said.
“When that sort of thing happens, you can’t help but feel a bit violated and frustrated, and it makes you think seriously about moving out of the core.”
But Huen added he understands crime is linked to desperation and poverty and wants more community resources to help those who are struggling.
“People are trying to survive here, and I think we could do more as a city especially, to help those people survive.”
Downtown Community Safety Partnership is among many organizations working to alleviate those stresses.
Matthew Sanscartier told Global News calls for DCSP service have spiked in the last year with the top demands being addictions treatment and housing.
“The biggest challenge that we’re facing right now is there’s nowhere for people to go, right?” he said. “We need expansion of transitional housing. We need more beds for people who need to start their journey to recovery from addiction.”
The wait for addictions treatment and housing presents a serious obstacle for many in need.
“The life that they know … isn’t going to allow them to wait three to four weeks,” Sanscartier said.
“There’s this urgency that we really need to communicate and make sure that … we meet them where they’re at and get them where they need to go as soon as we possibly can.
DCSP is calling for more resources and continuously lobbying different groups to help people get their lives back on track, Sanscartier said, something the organization achieves in part through its 24/7 mobile van and day-time foot patrols.
Sanscartier understands governments and organizations are working to tackle these issues.
But, “time is always of the essence,” he continued.
“There’s no easy fix. I wish I could say that this time next year everything will be perfect.”
— with files from Rosanna Hempel