Monday, August 1, 2011

Winnipeg Convention Centre

With very little fanfare, debate or explanation, the Winnipeg Convention Centre is planning to move to the next level in its quest to expand the size of the 132,000 square foot facility. At a proposed $180 million the project is massive and the changes to the downtown and the city could be profound.

Since 1974, the Winnipeg Convention Centre has been responsible for some of the largest and most important gatherings of Canadians in history. It was there in 1983 that Joe Clark decided that he had not received enough of a mandate to continue as leader without a new leadership convention. This proved to be his undoing.

The annual conventions that take place at the facility each year have been a boon to business and tourism alike. Several hotels and restaurants make their year based on what happens at the Convention Centre.

In 1974, the building of such a large facility was a leap of faith. There was no other buildings of its size in Canada at the time and no one aside from the city seemed willing to finance the construction. It probably chafed some butt at City Hall to watch other cities receive oodles of provincial and federal cash to steal Winnipeg's lunch money.

There have been some naysayers at the Canadian Taxpayer's Federation at projects like the Convention Centre. They have proposed a scaled back expansion to save $54 million. Other critics have been less charitable and have wanted to scrap the expansion or to somehow get out of the money-losing convention business.

The justification for a convention center usually comes from its economic impact. Public ownership of the facility only make sense if the events generate revenue and profits for the private businesses that utilize the building. The people who advocate for private ownership of a convention center need to take into account that if the venue is a profit-based business, it will be intent on convention center profits.

This is not an unimportant point. The Winnipeg Convention Centre's strongest position doesn't come from how profitable the facility is but how much business it generates as a whole. In turn, this draws more taxes for government and more profits for business.

As difficult as it is to come up with good numbers of the Winnipeg Convention Centre's economic impact, there is no doubt that it does try to get maximal benefits to its users. It is for this reason that all three levels of governments have ponied up.

Still, the concerns of the Canadian Taxpayer's Federation should not be dismissed. While maximal profit-making should be left to the hotels and their meeting and banquets business, the Winnipeg Convention Centre should try to mitigate the operating losses.

In the past they did this with a mix of retailing, movie theatre and hosting a temporary casino.

Retailing will continue to help pay the freight but the big ticket item is likely to be a hotel connected to or on top of the Convention Centre paying rent. This is in the plans for the present expansion although the details are fairly sketchy.

In terms of what the Winnipeg Convention Centre does for the downtown, it cannot be denied that until the MTS Centre was built, there was not one city property aside from the Millenium Library that drew such consistent numbers of people to the area. However, unlike the library, many of the people who come to the Convention Centre often stay in hotels and use the restaurants in the area as well.

It is without doubt that of the two, the Convention Centre has a bigger wallop.

The unfortunate thing about city facilities such as City Hall, library and Convention Centre is that while they are all downtown, they lack synergy because they are all spread out over a great distance. It has taken till 2010 to even connect up the walkway system so that library and Convention Center are attached.

There is nothing to be done about about how spread out things are except try to coordinate efforts. It is surprising even know how things run at cross purposes or from one crisis to another sometimes. The SHED (Sports, hospitality and entertainment district) program appears to be one way to link things up. Still, at 11 blocks and incorporating theatres north of Portage Avenue and all the way down to the Convention Centre, it is lot of real estate to connect the dots.

And whenever possible, it is important to remember that the downtown is also a good area for office buildings. It is still remarkable to me that Western Financial was lost to the Polo Park area and that no one talked to them from the downtown agencies. Missed opportunity when you consider that Stantec was negotiating around the same time to build across from the MTS Centre.

It will be interesting to see how the Convention Centre looks when all the tenders are in and the actual building design comes in.

It would be good to see some projects fulfill the potential many believed they had from the beginning.

1 comment:

One Man Committee said...

There has been a fair amount of criticism regarding the Convention Centre's expansion. I don't have any expert knowledge of the economics of these things, but I'm not really seeing the downside considering that it's about an improvement to an aging public amenity.

The CTF's idea is not a bad one, but it would have been more appropriate 20 years ago before the WCC fell so far behind the times. In some ways, many of the public facilities built between 1950-1980 suffered from the same fate. Poor maintenance and upkeep and failure to expand from time to time resulted in the need for massive renovations, expansions or outright replacement. You can see how that played out with the airport, stadium and arena.