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Blog by Ursula Thiessen

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Bill Thiessen’s Fortune Cookie Reads: Chinatown is in Crisis!

Having read the Wpg Free Press article about the Chinatown Development Corporation (Dec 6th, 2010) wishing to knock down the Shanghai Restaurant in hopes of one day receiving enough public funds to construct a new development. I have come to the conclusion that it is now official that Winnipeg's Chinatown has fallen off the table on every public and private level that matters.

That an iconic local restaurant has so little value that the building is to be bulldozed to become a gravel parking lot tells me as a Realtor that the values for the area have hit ground zero.

Which is always very telling because the real estate values reflect the ability of a location's commerce potential, which is based upon density, which is based upon public safety, comfort, convenience, “cool factor” meaning an area in which people wish to be seen and other factors. Turns out that Chinatown has none of the above.

 Possibly the worst comment I could make is how few Chinese Canadians visit (let alone live in) the area. If it was not for great Dim Sum at Kum Koon and a few others local restaurants, lets face it, most of us including local Chinese Canadians, would never visit.

Stating the obvious is easy. Pointing out the failings of government is even easier. But as a city if you want a lively and prosperous downtown then Chinatown cannot be left behind. Every good city (not just great city like Vancouver) has a healthy Chinatown. One of the stops in most visits to cities world wide is that city's Chinatown.

Because I deal with people new to the city all the time, I tell people them to check out Kum Koon, Maxim Bakery or one of the area's Chinese Grocery stores, but really I can’t go past that in an endorsement of the area. Truth be told, the area is far more of a "Poverty Town" than a "China Town". The Siloam Mission (where I and my family have volunteered regularly, you should as well) and other good causes are really the dominate players in the area, not Chinese business merchants or residents.

The lines forming outside all of the charitable institutions in the area are the only place you will find people lining up, which is a cheap shot but comes out of wanting so much more for this area.

What’s the solution? I always hate being the smartest guy in the room since I know my own limitations, but here goes some thoughts.

  1. City of Winnipeg having a comprehensive strategy beyond the bulldozer.
  2. That Strategy including significant tax breaks, should be for those wishing to redevelop or develop in the area.
  3. A buffer that keeps charitable institutions away from the area you wish to redevelop (there should be clear boundaries of where Chinatown stops and starts). This is politically difficult, a publically elected official could never make the statement, but I can. You cannot expect a healthy living/shopping environment while homeless people are lined up around your buildings. Before you go on thinking I am an evil pawn for the gentrification development community you should know my family has worked in the missions and charitable locations in the area for generations. I am not saying "don’t address poverty and all its complicated issues", but those are social issues, not real estate issues. The fact is commerce doesn’t like the face of poverty.
  4. The highly promoted Provincial Government program, which was mentioned on the front page of the New York Times, The Provincial Nominee Program which brings new Canadians to the city, has zero impact on Chinatown, and that could be changed. Offer additional concessions or easing of restrictions if people are willing to relocate their business to Chinatown. They send these brand new Canadians to the smallest towns across the province and wonder why we are a stepping stone province to BC and Ontario. How would you like to be from China or India and now living in a Red Bum Manitoba? perhaps we could ask new Canadians if they would consider Chinatown first. How do you think so many of us ended up in Winnipeg? Ask many immigrants who came to Montreal in the fifties and sixties who were told, sorry, you can’t stay here, keep moving, it’s Winnipeg for you. And here we are. It worked didn’t it?
  5. Create attractive entry and exit points so you know you have entered something special, safe and maintained.
  6. Create ways to have local artist make it home. Many live across the street in Point Douglas. Make options ready for studio and live spaces. Artists are the first wave in many great changes in areas in cities around the world. I personally worked for three years with Richard Walls to create “The Edge” Artist Village on Main Street. In my time at CentreVenture it was my most difficult file. My board wanted sustainability from what was the skinniest of deals at this project. I wanted, for reasons of rehabilitating Main Street, to help the artist’s community, and create something good out of a dead, eye sore. The CentreVenture board wanted that as well, but how to make sense of the money was near impossible. But we did it. Not exactly what Richard wanted but it is there today because somebody cared. I never did have the same relationship with my board after this was put together, but I accepted the outcome.

So anyone else interested? Take a walk some time and look closely at all the buildings and empty lots. Walk the few blocks, up and down, note the locals. Try it late at night, try it during the day. Think its working? If you think it is not, tell someone that matters at the City or Province. Somebody has to pull the alarm, could be you?