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Re-opening Portage & Main

An interview with Winnipeg Mayor Scott Gillingham

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Mayor Scott Gillingham

The intersection of Portage Avenue and Main Street in downtown Winnipeg has seen many important celebrations and events throughout the years. From Armistice Day in 1918 and the General Strike of 1919, to the many Santa Claus parades and the return of professional hockey in 2011, among others. The famous intersection has been closed to pedestrian traffic since 1979 after the construction of an underground concourse.

Now, with the release of a report that would have the city government shelling out more than $73 million dollars to repair a leaking membrane that protects the underground concourse from water leakage, Winnipeg mayor Scott Gillingham supports the closing of the concourse and wants pedestrians to be able to cross the Portage and Main intersection at ground level by July 1, 2025.

Lucille Nolasco-Garrido of Pilipino Express(PE) recently spoke to Mayor Scott Gillingham about the reopening and other important issues.

PE: Let’s talk about one of the hottest issues in Winnipeg lately – the reopening of the Portage and Main intersection for pedestrians. What were the factors that led you to support its reopening now?

Mayor Gillingham: One of the biggest factors for me to make that decision … is the price of $73 million, at least, to repair the membrane that covers the concourse. So rather than spend $73 million in repairing that membrane, I think it’s time to reopen the intersection to pedestrian traffic, to save money.

If we’re going to repair the membrane for $73 million, we also have five years of traffic delays at the intersection. And so rather than spend that amount of money, to save us some money, the more practical decision is to decommission the concourse and reopen the intersection to pedestrian traffic.

PE: If we reopen the intersection, how long will it take? For sure there will be changes.

Mayor Gillingham: We’re going to have our staff to prepare the opening in the summer of 2025. So, about a year and a half from now. That’s an aggressive timeline. But we want the intersection open in the summer of 2025.

PE: What about the flow of traffic and the safety of pedestrians, will there be assurances in place? Will the area get very busy?

Mayor Gillingham: I think it’s important for us to keep in mind that there are 10,000 intersections in Winnipeg. Portage and Main right now is the only intersection that people do not cross. Pedestrians can’t cross the traffic. So, we will focus on safety at the Portage and Main intersection the way we focus on safety in every other intersection in Winnipeg. And our Traffic Division staff will make sure that the intersection is designed in such a way that pedestrian and vehicular traffic will flow in a safe way. We prioritize safety in our intersections, and I have said many times before that, at the end of the day, this intersection in this area of Winnipeg is like any other of the 10,000 intersections that we have. It’s not even the busiest intersection, it used to be the third busiest. Now, it is the sixth busiest intersection.

PE: Have you done any or are you planning to do a survey of the residents, especially those that will be directly affected by the reopening?

Mayor Gillingham: We haven’t done any surveys recently, but I know the four properties on the four corners of Portage and Main are all in favour of reopening Portage and Main to pedestrian traffic at street level. We know that the downtown businesses are very much in favour of it as well.

Another thing we need to keep in mind is the downtown area, that’s a neighbourhood. There are people who live not too far from there, and so in the same way that we live in our neighbourhoods, whether it’s in The Maples or Transcona or St. James, it’s a neighbourhood. People live there and so people would want to be able to cross the street there.

PE: What will happen to the underground businesses and offices in Winnipeg Square?

Mayor Gillingham: I think it’s important to keep in mind that the concourse I am talking about to be decommissioned is owned by the City of Winnipeg. For the people who’ve never been in the concourse, imagine driving along Portage and Main. Right below the intersection is like a circle down below. That concourse connects the properties underground in the four corners of Portage and Main. There are six businesses in the concourse, who lease space with the city. There are also businesses underneath in each of the four corner properties. Those will remain. They lease from the properties on each corner, not with the city.

The only difference is, instead of going from one building to another underground, they will have to go outside to access the buildings across the street.

PE: Have you heard of any objections or unfavourable reactions from the tenants down there?

Mayor Gillingham: Obviously, there are some concerns about the news that the concourse would close … and we’re going to have conversations as a city with the property owners and the business owners.

PE: With the reopening of Portage and Main to pedestrian traffic, do you think more people will be encouraged to visit downtown once again? Because safety has always been an issue for some residents when it comes to visiting downtown.

Mayor Gillingham: Yes, I believe for some, it certainly would improve people’s experience in downtown. We also need to keep in mind that for example, on one corner, we have the Fairmont Hotel. We have guests that come to Winnipeg for business, leisure, and we also have professional sports athletes and celebrities who stay in the Fairmont. And there are times that they want to leave the hotel and go for a walk from Portage Avenue to some business or some store. They can’t do that right now.

So, it’s going to be a positive experience for those visiting Winnipeg. And for those who live in Winnipeg or from other parts of the province who come to Winnipeg, it will enhance the walkability of the intersection.

One of the keys, though, to making Winnipeg a safer place, in any neighbourhood, is having more people. We’re working very hard to get more people to live downtown, to have more residential developments downtown.

I always ask people about their feelings of safety when they are at an event like a summer event or jazz festival that happens in downtown … When you’re in a space where there are hundreds of people around you, it’s a great experience. I know when I go to festivals or events where there are lots of people around, even in the Filipino Street Festival, there’s a lot of people around in that event, there is a sense of safety in numbers.

PE: What about police presence? Some people feel more secure if there are police around.

Mayor Gillingham: Well, the good news is we are increasing the number of police on the streets, on foot patrol this year. We’re adding 24 more officers on foot patrol in the downtown. That is thanks to some funding from the Province of Manitoba. So, Winnipeg will see an increase of police presence.

Also, when I campaigned for mayor, we committed to adding more investment to the downtown community safety partnership. So, there’s more of those, sort of patrolling downtown. I also campaigned on, and we just got them on the buses, a couple of weeks ago, so we’re adding more community safety officers. So, those are Transit Safety Officers that now ride our buses to assist people and make sure that individuals who need help can get the help they need.

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Mayor Gillingham and his wife Maria with the Pinays Manitoba and MFSF president Ley Navarro at the 2023 Manitoba Filipino Street Festival. Winnipeg 150 canopy and banners will be seen at the 2024 MFSF.

PE: Let’s talk about Winnipeg 150. Our city is celebrating its 150 years of cityhood this year and we officially marked this milestone last January 19th. Are there any upcoming events to celebrate it, and how can Winnipeggers take part in the celebration?

Mayor Gillingham: There are events coming up, more specifically in the spring and summer. One of the things we’re going to be doing is, you will see the presence of Winnipeg 150 canopy and banners during festivals this year. I’ve spoken to Ley Navarro so you will be seeing Winnipeg 150 banners at the Filipino festival.

We’re also looking to have a gala dinner in the fall to celebrate our 150th. It will be called the Mayor’s Ball. That’s going to be really exciting. I’m looking forward to that. So, plans are in the works. And very, very soon, the merchandise. Our beautiful logo will be on sweatshirts, and T-shirts and hats and mugs. And that will be available very soon at The Forks. And we’re looking forward to that. So, stay tuned, people can go to the Winnipeg city website, and look for the latest about Winnipeg 150 events. So, we will be celebrating for the whole year.

PE: On another note, this year also marks the 35th year of the Winnipeg-Manila partnership.

Mayor Gillingham: Winnipeg has 11 sister-cities, and Manila is one of those sister-cities. And this year, 2024 near the end of the year, we will be celebrating our 35th anniversary of our sister city relationship. Also, we will be reaching out to the mayor of Manila soon, in the coming months, just to find ways on how to mark the celebration. One of the beautiful things about Winnipeg and one of the strengths of our city is our diversity. We have such wonderful diversity, different cultural communities, faith communities, and that really makes us strong. Our relationship with Manila, it helps us to promote and enhance the Filipino community here in Winnipeg. And as we know, 10 to 11 percent of Winnipeg’s population is of Filipino descent, so that relationship with Manila is very important to me.

And again, throughout the year, please make sure you watch for Winnipeg 150 opportunities and events to celebrate. 

By Lucille Nolasco-Garrido

Editor's note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.