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State of Downtown – luncheon highlights

Session highlights graciously provided by Laurie Nealin

Tens of millions of dollars will be invested in Winnipeg’s downtown over the next couple of years as part of the Downtown Recovery Strategy. You can read about the “action areas” of the strategy here: Winnipeg's Downtown Recovery Strategy

With that in mind, the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce – in partnership with the Downtown BIZ and Exchange District BIZ -- hosted its first State of Downtown luncheon on September 27, 2022.  Guest speaker was Mick Cornett, a four-term mayor of Oklahoma City who is credited with turning the downtown of his city from a virtual ghost town into a thriving urban centre.  In the process, he won numerous national and global awards for his leadership.

These were the key takeaways from the event/Cornett’s remarks:

  • Everyone/the entire city benefits from a prosperous, healthy downtown. It’s important that people, no matter where they live in a city, understand that (to get their buy-in on decisions/spending taxpayer dollars on downtown initiatives)

  • Oklahoma City (OC) implemented a one-cent sales tax to fund major downtown renewal projects. But even when the projects were completed, the number of people living downtown did not increase as expected. 

  • To attract more residents downtown, schools and family-oriented facilities needed to be upgraded. The special sales tax was then dedicated to projects for kids, allowing 75 schools and other buildings to be refurbished or built downtown.

  • After the Oklahoma City federal building bombing which killed 168 people in 1995, OC was known only for that.  It needed to rebrand.

  • Cornett made it his mission to bring an NBA team – the Oklahoma City Thunder – to the city which elevated OC’s stature, image and brand.

  • OC was designed around cars and had one of highest obesity rates in the U.S.

  • A decision was made to redesign the city around people with parks, walking paths, and a streetcar system downtown.

  • With the high cost-of-living in east coast and west coast cities, OC saw an opportunity to attract highly-educated, 20-somethings. Affordability presents a huge opportunity for mid-size cities to attract young professionals who will move to a city with low traffic congestion, clean air, fresh water, arts and culture, etc. 

  • Increasing the quality of life in a city is economic development. Cities must invest in their urban core.

  • In 10 years, OC went from being the 28th to the 22nd largest city in the U.S., mostly due to the increase in population of the younger demographic.

  • To counter arguments against a new tax or downtown development, Cornett said his most successful strategy was to tell naysayers he was creating a city for their kids and grandkids, a place they would want to live in the future.

  • On eliminating “highways” through the downtown, Cornett said it’s not possible to get everyone on board beforehand but his experience was that there were no complaints after changes were made to their streets (turning one-ways into two-way streets).

  • The key to moving plans forward is to get people to understand there is a problem, to increase awareness of the issue and why it’s important to make changes.

  • The best candidate for mayor is someone who understands the importance of the downtown core, of creating a place where highly educated people want to live.


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