As we continue to grapple with the effects of the pandemic, David Pensato offered some thoughts he’s gathered from others about dips, overcoming limitations, and building towards the future at this year’s AGM.
Writing a speech for an AGM at a time like this is a tricky bit of business. It’s kind of stressful actually. To what degree do you acknowledge that it has been an incredibly challenging 20 months? It has been. It has been beyond challenging. And we all know it, and we all keep hearing it over and over again. How do you balance the real, existential struggle of all the uncertainty and suffocation of this pandemic that our ground-floor businesses have faced— how do you balance that in a speech with the dawning, tentative hope that seems to be emerging ever so slowly.
A speech like this normally accomplishes three basic things. It recounts all the great things our organization has done in the past year, it describes all the new programs and initiatives we’re planning for the new year, and it serves as a bit of a hype-machine for the area— a motivational, visionary call to action. I’ve decided to be honest right upfront here and tell you that this year, that is a very hard speech to write. Like many of you, I am personally exhausted. There has been no break. There has been no rest. There has only been Pandemic.
One draft of this speech began with a stab at making a joke referencing a line from 30 Rock— one that’s become a meme you’ve probably seen where Liz Lemon says “what a week, huh?” and Jack Donaghy replies “Lemon, it’s Wednesday.” I couldn’t quite make the joke work, because I couldn’t quite scale it up:
What a decade, huh?
Pensato, it’s 2021.
I don’t know. Maybe a better writer could make that work.
Anyway. I hope you can bear with me while I break with the usual script. Instead, I have three different thoughts that I’d like to share today. Fragments of thought, really, but I think they work together.
First, I want share some advice that one longstanding business owner here in the Exchange District offered to another. It was pre-pandemic, but just barely.
This business owner said that they’ve been around long enough that they’ve been through many cycles of good and bad sales. Different waves of retail resurgence and decline in the Exchange. The advice this person offered was that they had learned that a lot of the time, those dips and peaks are entirely based on external forces that none of us have much control over. They had learned that the best use of their energy in those times was to really work on their business. To take a good look at where things could be tightened up, where processes could be optimized, what parts of the business were just plain out of date, what needed to be merely edited, and what precious pet projects needed to be let go. This dips also force them to find new ways of doing things, new sources of revenue, new pet projects, and even new types of customers. What this business owner said was that when they handled those inevitable dips in that way, not only did it help the business survive, it allowed them to do even better once they got to the other side.
In the past 20 months, what started as a dip turned out to be a gut-wrenching ravine. And yet, somehow, most of our ground-floor businesses have held on. They’ve done so by doing exactly that. They’ve innovated and improved and found new ways of reaching customers. They’ve worked on the fundamentals and applied their entrepreneurial spirit. It’s not the only reason they’ve held on, and I’ll have more to say about that later, but that line of thinking has been foundational.
It has also guided much of our work as an organization in the last year. Guided by our strategic plan, we’ve been tightening things up, optimizing processes, and thinking through what we do and how we do it, so that as our community climbs out of the dip, we’re ready to help bring things back and to do so better than before.
The second thought I’d like to share came from a woman who is on one of the boards I sit on. She is an accomplished leader who has worked in a number of non-profit organizations across the country over her career, and I was fortunate enough to be present when she was giving advice to a young leader of a small organization. She told about how one of her first leadership jobs was with a small little arts organization that had literally 2 other staff besides herself. She spoke of the frustration in trying to fulfill the organization’s mandate with their limited reach and limited capacity. She just couldn’t do it all. And so, she decided to not do it all. Looking back on it, she described it as realizing that she felt like a genie trapped in a bottle.
Her organization had this grand sense of vision and purpose, but the constraints kept them stuck inside of this little space doing little things. Until she finally broke free. It was a lesson that she would learn over and over again throughout her career: she could let the constraints trap her and keep her bottled up, or she could break free by focussing on her grand vision, her sense of purpose, her knowledge that she had much to accomplish and that she could. Once she did that, she found ways to make things happen. She redirected the few resources she had away form the busy work that everyone thought they needed to be doing and towards a bigger vision.
And the way to make things happen in that situation was to find other people and other organizations who had senses of purpose and vision that aligned. She forged partnerships and found people willing to contribute resources to her vision and her sense of purpose. In some cases, she simply let other organizations (those who were willing to) do some of the heavy lifting. That organization grew into a well-regarded national institution under her leadership, because she was willing to break out of the little bottle that organization was trapped in by focussing on their sense of purpose and finding others who believed in it and were willing to help do the work.
We too are a tiny little organization. Apart from our patrols and our maintenance crew, we are currently a staff of 4 people. We often run up against our limitations. There are many things that we’d like to do, that we simply can’t. We don’t have the resources, we don’t have the time, and we don’t have the staff power to do it. But as we move forward in the coming year, we will be building on the partnerships that we’ve begun to forge over the last couple of years.
These include our peer BIZs, both at the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ and the West End as well as those who helped create and activate the Central Winnipeg Loop. Partnerships with the arts organizations that bring the Exchange so much of it’s cultural richness. Partnerships with the City of Winnipeg and various advocacy groups in finding the right ways to keep making the Exchange District evolve with all of its potential. Partnerships with the tech sector, with Red River College Polytechnic, with the development community and with residents. Partnerships with our members, so that we can do more events like this past year’s Love the Exchange. So yeah, look for more partnerships ahead. ????
The third thought brings me to the past of this beautiful historic neighbourhood, and as is often the case with the past, points towards the future.
One of my struggles in putting this speech together is that the biggest things we’ve been working on over the past year have been plans. And let’s be honest, no one cares about a plan. No one gets passionate about a plan. They do get passionate about a dream. But plans, as boring as they are, are how dreams come true. They are how vision becomes reality and are how you stick to doing the sometimes boring stuff that is foundational to making things happen— especially when it’s collective action on a collective sense of purpose.
Don’t get me wrong, we’ve done some other exciting things this year too. The Exchange District Cooking club connected restaurants with their customers in a uniquely satisfying interactive series of events at the height of one of our tightest lock-downs. Our Curbside Concert Series and our partnership with Jazz Winnipeg brought live-music back to the Exchange this summer. Our patio guide helped visitors to the Exchange District hop from patio to patio in what is Winnipeg’s most densely concentrated collection of outdoor dining spots— 25 of them within a 10 minute walk! Love the Exchange was our first stab at an annual, collaborative event welcoming people back to the area and offering a living reminder of all the things we love about the area.
As we enter the second winter of the pandemic, we are beginning to see some signs of hope in the Exchange District. The hope that can only exist because the types of people who have made the Exchange District what it is, who will continue to to make it survive and thrive despite the odds, are persistent and united by a belief in what this area has to offer. And while there is still the need for vigilance and concerted support for our ground-floor businesses, it does seem that we are all beginning to turn our attention to the future.
And so: Back to plans and back to the past in order to illustrate that even though plans are boring, they are consequential.
25 years ago, the Exchange District BIZ led a planning exercise Resulting document, “The Exchange District Strategic Action Plan” established a vision for the Exchange District and proved to be a valuable tool for guiding the evolution and development of the area. In part, this was achieved through informing relevant sections of CentrePlan, the City’s official Downtown planning document in 1999. While some of the specific actions may not have been completed, and some were implemented in slightly different forms, the vision presented has certainly come to be very close to reality:
“The Exchange District should be a neighbourhood in which there is a diverse mix of heritage, commercial, cultural, residential and recreational uses and activities. It should be known as a community of people and activities as well as the district of old and historical buildings.
It should have a character which is unique in the city and distinct from the main commercial area of the downtown.
When someone thinks about cultural activities, about unique architecture and interesting streets, of trendy bars and brewpubs, of public outdoor art, of loft apartments or of an urban waterfront, they should instinctively think of the Exchange.”
The success of the Exchange District has been driven by the collective effort of the many businesses, residents, arts groups, developers, elected officials, institutions, and members of the broader community who helped to shape that vision or subsequently worked toward achieving it.
In recent years— even before the pandemic, the Exchange District has been faced with a variety of challenges. In some cases, these have been due to pressures caused by the successful transformation of the area, while in others, they have been due to some of the lingering challenges that stretch back 25 years and even longer. The consensus among the community has been that the most significant barrier to addressing these challenges has, by and large, been the lack of a renewed vision for the Exchange District.
In response, and in partnership with the City of Winnipeg, The Exchange District BIZ began leading a process in 2019 to develop that vision and a plan for the area. We are pleased to say that as we ease our way back to more usual activities, the first major part of that process is complete. The Exchange District Plan 2021 lays the foundation for the important decisions that lay ahead as the Exchange District continues its evolution towards becoming a distinctive, urban Complete Community.
As that process was well underway, we were all beginning to grapple with the damage being wrought by the pandemic throughout the downtown, The Exchange District BIZ joined a working group of organizations, lead by the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ and including CentreVenture, the West End BIZ, Tourism Winnipeg and the City of Winnipeg to begin working on a Downtown Recovery Strategy. The framework we’ve developed has informed the City’s own Economic Development Strategy, and we’re looking forward to getting down to some specific actions in the new year.
Finally, something that we’ve been a little bit more quiet about is an exciting project that builds on the work from the Exchange District Action plan. In partnership with the City and Economic Development Winnipeg, the Exchange District BIZ was able to receive a significant level of funding from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities to create a Sustainable Neighbourhood Action Plan.
Working with a team lead by Glen Murray, this exercise will prove to be nothing short of transformative. Using advanced versions of the principles that originated with the work that transformed Waterfront Drive into the urban living precinct it is today, this project is studying the conditions of the area and using means-tested and data driven processes to direct investments towards a prosperous, environmentally sustainable, and culturally and socially equitable future for the Exchange and the surrounding area. Glen will have more to say about that shortly.
The Exchange District exists as we know it today, because over the years, there have been growing waves of people— artists, freaks, small business owners, architecture lovers, community builders, and more, who believe in it. Our predecessors in the early 80’s saved this consequential collection of buildings from being torn down— well most of them anyway. The early to mid 90’s brought us a vision for the Exchange District as we mostly know it today. The late 90’s and early 2000’s brought us the plan that transformed (and continues to transform) the Exchange east of Main. And as we begin the 2020’s, we can see that sense of vision and purpose is as strong as it ever was. That momentum continues despite what we’ve been through in the last 2 years. As our ground-floor entrepreneurs tightened up their operations and found new ways to do business, a huge part of why they have managed to make that work is because the Exchange District is a full-fledged community. When businesses offered something new, the community that feels ownership for this gorgeous neighbourhood rallied and supported.
As we move, ever so painfully slowly out of this dip of all dips, we will do so with a shared sense of vision and purpose, with ready and willing partners, and with an integrated set of plans that will make that vision a reality.