Foundation is there

“All roads lead to Winnipeg,” declared Chicago journalist William E. Curtis following a trip to this city in 1912. “... It is a gateway through which all the commerce of the east and west, and the north and south must flow ... It is destined to become one of the greatest distribution commercial centres of the continent as well as a manufacturing community of great importance.”

At the time, Winnipeggers looked southward and saw how Chicago had boomed because “all roads” led to that city. In their eyes, Winnipeg was destined to become the “Chicago of the North.”

It’s an analogy Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz uses to instill a sense of community spirit, the “Spirited Energy” referred to in the new brand name for Manitoba.

“This city was a leader in North America,” Katz said last year. “I want to bring that momentum back again. We have an opportunity. The foundation is there, but we need to work hard to bring this vision to life.”

One city that doesn’t have to work too hard to maintain its momentum is Calgary, which greeted its one-millionth resident this week — a baby boy weighing in at a hefty nine pounds 10 ounces and named Dashiell Waite. News photos show the baby wearing a cap with “Calgary 1,000,000.” 

The new Calgary resident was showered with gifts by a grateful Mayor Dave Bronconnier and local businesses. This was a mark that wasn’t supposed to be reached until 2008, but a booming economy has attracted thousands of new immigrants from abroad and from Canada’s other provinces, including Manitoba. Census figures show that Calgary adds 100 new citizens a day through immigration and births. Last year, the city’s population increased by 35,681 people.

It was once believed that Winnipeg’s streets were paved with gold, but that’s now a belief solely associated with Calgary among Canada’s cities. This new million-plus city is only surpassed in population by Montreal and Toronto. Although Ottawa and Vancouver are also in the million-people club, this figure is only arrived at when the people living in their surrounding municipalities are added.

According to the last census in 2001, Winnipeg’s population stands at just under 620,000. Within the Winnipeg Census Metropolitan Area, which includes the city and the municipalities of West and East St. Paul, Headingley, Ritchot, Tache, Springfield, Rosser, St. Francois Xavier, St. Clements and Brokenhead First Nation, the total population is just over 706,000.

Calgary is expanding its population so quickly it is continually annexing land to its borders from the surrounding prairie. Suburban sprawl’s real-time name is Calgary. 

A more apt name for Calgary when seeking comparisons from across the border is the “Las Vegas of the North.” That U.S. city is also undergoing an unprecedented growth spurt.

But while Vegas has its gambling and sunshine, Calgary resides in a province blessed by Mother Nature with vast oil and gas resources. It is fossil fuels that are solely responsible for Calgary’s present growth surge. When the wells run dry or the price of oil drops dramatically, then Calgary’s economy will go bust. 

However, don’t expect that to happen anytime soon. There is no end in sight to the conditions that have driven the price per barrel of oil into the stratosphere. Wars still rage in the Middle East and tyrants and dictatorships still have their hands on the oil taps, creating the uncertainty that is pushing oil ever upward toward  US $100-a-barrel.

On the other hand, Winnipeg is noted by international credit agencies as having a diverse economy that is best able among Canadian cities to weather the storm of an economic downturn. Winnipeg’s economy proceeds at a less-hectic pace than other cities — slow and steady is one way to describe it. 

There was a time when Winnipeg’s growth actually was at a level that marvelled the world. In 1891, the city’s population was 25,639 and just 10 years later stood at an impressive 136,035. And, that was when the city’s borders were quite confined when compared to today’s. In 1921 when Winnipeg’s population was 179,087, Calgary’s population was significantly smaller at 63,305.

“The growth of Winnipeg since 1877 has been phenomenal,” wrote George M. Grant in a historical travelogue of Canada in 1882. “Statistics need not be given, for they are paraded in every newspaper, and so far, the growth of one month — no matter how marvelous that may be — is sure to be eclipsed by the next ...”

It is a description that could just as easily be applied to Calgary today.

Winnipeg remained Canada’s third largest city after Toronto and Montreal until the years immediately following the Second World War and then it was gradually surpassed by other cities in the West and East. Calgary’s rise to prominence began in 1947 when Imperial Leduc No. 1 Well gushed, indicating the discovery of a major oil field. In the same year, it was determined that a massive petroleum deposit was contained in Alberta’s tar sands. Since then, Calgary has been on a roll that has only been marred by the occasional oil crisis.

“You have no idea of the enthusiasm people have here about the prospects,” wrote Winnipeg Methodist minister and future Labour MP J.S. Woodsworth in a 1904 letter to a cousin in Toronto.

In 1910, the Winnipeg Telegram reported that Winnipeg had 19 millionaires, more per capita than any other Canadian city. Winnipeg millionaires built their financial empires in the grain trade, retail, real estate and finance.

While Winnipeg may be playing catch-up to Alberta’s two major cities, it still has its own distinct advantages. The most obvious is its significantly more affordable housing and commercial real estate markets. 

Another advantage is Winnipeg’s diverse economy, which provides a solid foundation for future expansion. This city’s economic diversity keeps industries and businesses protected from the bust cycles that plague other cities, especially Calgary.

Mayor Katz is right, “The foundation is there.”