Friday 14 September 2012

Exodus (Escape from downtown)

I would say there is generally a positive outlook about downtown Winnipeg. Obviously the return of the Jets has been a big boost and the Canadian Museum of Human Rights is hard to miss, but there are smaller things too: the redevelopment of the Avenue Building, the Met finally getting refurbished, etc .. Things seem to be trending in the right direction.

I fear, however, that beneath the surface there is a current of change that is flowing in the wrong direction. You can build stuff, but it's people who make a community tick, in particular people with spending money, and those people are fleeing the core. Or rather: their employers are.

It starts with job losses. We lost the Agricore United head office in 2008, and along with it 430 jobs, when Agricore merged with Sask Wheat Pool and the new company, Viterra, decided that Regina was a better place to have a head office than Winnipeg.

The Canadian Wheat Board has lost it's monopoly on grain marketing, and along with it 330 jobs.

The Government of Canada has cut back jobs at the National Research Council as well as other departments. For example, there were layoffs from the Government of Canada offices on Main Street.

More worriesome to me though are the companies that are choosing to abandon downtown.

Western Financial Group is a growing operation. In fact, it out-grew its office on Portage Avenue and needed to find larger digs. In the search for a larger office space, they narrowed down the options to a short list of 5 potential locations: 4 of the 5 were downtown. They chose the 5th -- a new build on the former arena site in Polo Park. They will be the anchor tenant of a new 3-story Shindico development there (I think it's safe to assume that every new development is Shindico unless otherwise specified), resulting in 370 jobs leaving the core area.

Canadian Pacific Railway announced last year that it was moving it's office staff from downtown to what used to be the Convergys building in an industrial park off Scurfield Blvd. With that move, another 230 or so gainfully employed people will be leaving downtown.

IBM has been cutting back it's work force in Winnipeg for several years, as part of a corporate strategy to lay off and outsource as many people as possible. There was a time when IBM took up a couple floors of 201 Portage (then the TD Centre) and had the nondescript office building at 400 Ellice so full that there was talk of building additional floors. That talk was short lived. IBM has long since abandoned 201 Portage and has laid off so many people that it no longer makes sense to stay in the three-story building on Ellice. The data centre on the first floor will stick around for another year, but the 100 or so staff will move to the Clarion Hotel at Polo Park of all places.

These are some of the more obvious examples, but I know I'm missing others.There are also numerous companies that shun downtown altogether and set up shop in suburban office parks. For example, a new building was just constructed for an engineering firm next to the future CP Rail building in the Fort Garry Industrial Park. They are moving there from the west end. More office buildings are planned for the same area, but this pales in comparison to the Tuxedo Business Park.

The Tuxedo Business Park off Kenaston Blvd has been growing like a cancerous tumor for a few years, and will continue to do so, with plans for 15 sprawling buildings that, depending on how they're configured inside, could have square footage equivalent to two James Richardson towers. The defunct One Man Committee blog had a good post on this, but unfortunately it's vanished into the web-o-sphere.

Not all of these buildings are put to typical office use, but many are. Many of these jobs could just as easily be located in the core area, but these suburban office parks, zoned as mixed manufacturing use, are so much cheaper. I'm sure that's the primary factor, but perception of safety may be another. When Western Financial Group made their decision, they stated that they "chose the Polo Park site because the rent and parking rates were cheaper, it provided room for future expansion, and because of concerns about downtown safety at night."

Rent. Parking. Room. Safety. Sprawl out on a cheap piece of land with lots of free parking where kids with hoodies are seldom seen. This is the new model that is threatening downtown.


Riverman said...

Consider also the large number of hotel rooms being built in the Polo/airport area compared to the teeny hotels being built downtown. I'm sure this has to do with perceptions about safety.

Anonymous said...

Wow, so much office space being built in suburban greenfield developments. It flies in the face of virtually every planning document released in the last 40 years.

It's almost enough to make one think that developers have some real sway in this town!

Anonymous said...

Here is the reality*. Downtown Class A office space is quite expensive in Winnipeg, and is increasing every year. Financially it makes sense to move to a suburban office park. Add the facts that suburban Winnipegers don't feel safe downtown, they hate the limited and expensive parking as well as the downtown traffic and a suburban office park is an employee perk.

I have had a few co-workers who have left for jobs in suburban office parks and they tell me would never work downtown again.

* From my point of view as an IT specialist employed downtown.

Anonymous said...

@ IT Specialist -
You & your coworkers are the source of the problem the author just described!

Riverman said...

@ Anon:

People work where they want. Downtown Winnipeg is crappy and IT Specialist is not the source of any problem.

cherenkov said...

Anon3: you're shooting the messenger. Everything anon2 said is true, or if not true, people believe it to be true. Parking isn't actually scarce nor is it expensive relatively speaking, but that doesn't change the fact that people don't enjoy driving downtown, and LOVE free parking.

spiritedmom said...

Polo Park (the Western Financial example) isn't exactly 'the 'burbs', and half of their co-locating offices are actually already in the Polo Park they're not building greenfield. In my mind, there are much worse examples.

PS - the airport hotels comment is also not a good example of a problem with Winnipeg. Anyone who has ever flown into another major urban centre will know that for the first 10 minutes of any cab ride out of any airport all you will see is hotels and the head offices for logistics companies. If you want Winnipeg to be economically viable, you need to be able to offer businesses and travellers the convenience of airport hotels. Sorry.

Unknown said...

There's still some good trends. South central Winnipeg, which is quite close to the downtown area, is doing well and expanding in desirability. Property values in West Broadway/Wolseley are rising. Rising fuel prices will eventually counteract this sprawl.

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