Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition March 12, 2016
“When eating an elephant take one bite at a time” U.S. general Creighton Abrams once mused while tackling a particularly difficult situation during the Vietnam war.
In the long sought after revitalization of our city’s downtown this analogy may be suit our city’s approach to urban revitalization.
Eat slowly, and when the opportunity presents itself it, eat plenty. But never, ever stop taking bites.
Mayor Rick Chrest spoke this week in the Sun on the revitalization efforts in downtown being a “game of inches” and most, myself included would have a hard time disagreeing with His Worship on that point.
For a decade or more, downtown revitalization has taken the form of that game of inches, often moving forward, occasionally stepping back. Progress in the downtown has not moved at the pace many would have liked, and there are still plenty of systemic, social and urban renewal issues present. But overall the forward steps have out-counted the moments we staggered back.
The optimism has come with plenty of limitations, though, as Brandon has yet to attract the mega project that for so long has eluded our city. We have always felt as if we were on the cusp of greatness and growth in the downtown, but a small hint of skepticism sneaks into the psyche of the community. It happened with the ill-fated Strand project. It happened with the McKenzie Towers revitalization. And it happened when we attempted some of the bigger vision items like a casino. In each instance, public perception of a task too monumental outweighed possibility.
The forum held by the city last year known as the Brandon Development Forum was hoped to have brought a champion or two out of the woodwork for the city’s downtown. It brought together many different stakeholders to try to craft a vision for the foreseeable and distant future for the urban centre of this city.
Although maybe not attracting the champion like Winnipeg has in True North Sports and Entertainment, it did start the process of idea sharing. What it missed again though was concrete plans to break down the long-held stigma of downtown safety and opportunity, and it needed to narrow the reach of Renaissance Brandon, the city’s downtown development group.
In a July 2015 column, I had shared how the downtown development group needed to actually shrink the boundaries of the true Renaissance district as opposed to expanding them. By doing so, the Downtown Development Group could more accurately assess properties in need and allow their focus to be on more sole issue properties (like McKenzie Towers) in a single year.
A paintbrush effect to downtown revitalization is good for smaller projects but to take bigger bites every so often wouldn’t hurt our city, or the development group for that matter.
McKenzie Towers is a prime example of that aforementioned bigger bite. It is one of the most iconic buildings in our downtown and could attract plenty of new opportunities if the gaps could be closed on financing the project. The problem has and will continue to be finding a suitor and having enough latitude to sweeten the pot for someone to turn the corner on it.
It is tough to always draw a Winnipeg comparison to happenings in Brandon, but a McKenzie Towers success could be comparable to the mega-project that will become True North Square in the provincial capital. As an economic and social driver for Winnipeg, it will be second to none. To a certain extent, McKenzie Towers in our city is that same driver as it attracts people, opportunity for business and a beneficial social structure to the area.
Another point this city should never lose sight of is the benefits of arts ventures in the downtown. Music in the Parks, the Summer Lights Music Festival, the Brandon General Museum, the Art Gallery, the Global Market and many others all contribute to creating the social culture we want to see in the downtown. It is unfortunate that the lens of revitalization almost exclusively points at the “bricks and mortar” issues as opposed to growing the cultural opportunity of the city’s urban centre.
The community as a whole has done a tremendous job in taking positive steps in building the culture of the downtown so we should never lose sight of that being a strong component of any revitalization effort.
We may not have the fireworks of major project announcements like so many hope for, but in reality, that may not be our style. At the very least, let’s continue to embrace our progress, keep an eye on the bigger possibility and eat a proverbial “elephant,” albeit one bite at a time.