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A Creative Cluster in the Exchange District, more than just a BOLD idea

- by Jamie Lou Morneau

By Thomas Sparling, Executive Director, ACI Manitoba

Exchange DistrictIn the spring of 2015, the Chamber established its “Creative Leadership Council” to provide advice and direction that would bolster Winnipeg’s creative economy. One of the topics of focus for the council has been the development of a Creative Cluster Strategy for the Exchange District. Home to the densest concentration of creative sector workers and economic activity, the Exchange is a logical place to start when looking at how best to foster growth in Winnipeg’s creative and design economy.

The Exchange District covers roughly 68 acres of the northern part of downtown Winnipeg. It consists of dense, mainly intact, turn-of-the-20th-century warehouse and commercial buildings. The area was designated a national historic site in 1997 because it illustrates the important economic role that Winnipeg played as a key centre of grain, wholesale trade, finance and manufacturing in Canada between 1880 and 1913. Winnipeg became the third largest city in the country at that time and was coined the Chicago of the north.

Exchange DistrictThe First World War and the opening of the Panama Canal in 1913 slowed Winnipeg’s growth. Thereafter, most private investment in the downtown shifted to Portage Avenue and streets to the south. The architecture of The Exchange District, for the most part, remained frozen in time.

Over the last 50 years, the District has evolved, sometimes with planned intervention, but also organically, into the creative and cultural hub of Winnipeg. Artists, designers, and performers, seeing the intrinsic value of the buildings and neighborhood character, were early investors, with both their sweat and their equity.

More recently, technology entrepreneurs and innovators are being lured to the vibe of the district. This confluence of creative and progressive individuals has attracted the attention of tourists, filmmakers, speciality retailers, restaurants, galleries, and more recently residential developers. If Winnipeg’s economic prosperity depends on its creativity and innovation, The Exchange District plays an important role. Will historians look back and recognize the district as the centre of our economic prominence in the 21st century?

Recognizing the opportunities and the challenges of a fully developed Exchange District – noting that the musicians, artists and other creative entrepreneurs who pioneered the development of the Exchange are at risk of being displaced – ACI Manitoba began a dialogue to explore how to ensure that the arts and creative industries that make the District so vibrant and desirable remain anchored in the Exchange as property values increase.

Exchange DistrictFor creative industries, place matters, and in the Exchange, the clustering of artists and other creatives has supported the success of Winnipeg’s internationally recognized art scene, Innovation Alley and year-over-year growth for retailers, restaurants and other area businesses.

ACI Manitoba’s Creative Cluster Strategy offers a structured approach to building on the area’s existing assets to accelerate investment in the Exchange and downtown, serve as a catalyst for further growth in Winnipeg’s creative-sector workforce and support the continued revitalization of the Exchange and downtown neighbourhoods.

What makes the Creative Cluster an eminently achievable goal is the strength in the creative sector and the people behind it. In addition, the idea of a Creative Cluster in the Exchange District is not conceptual, but a reality. The Exchange District is already a key hub of creative activity in Manitoba. It is authentic, unique and dynamic – the strategies we are proposing will create an environment where the creative sector continues to develop and expand in organic and sustainable yet accelerated ways.

The Creative Cluster Strategy answers the question, “Where do we go from here?” It’s a strategy – fully supported by the creative sector and based on recognized best practices – to guide the next phase of growth in the Exchange. The strategy is designed to leverage existing strengths while concurrently addressing the real barriers that inhibit the Exchange from reaching its highest potential.