Comparing Calgary to other cities is very popular with the readers of my Calgary Herald column. An edited version of this blog was in the Calgary Herald as a two piece column so I have kept the same format. It should be noted that Brenda grew up in Winnipeg and I lived there for 14 months while I did a MSC in Agriculture at the University of Manitoba. We hope enjoy our look at Winnipeg vs Calgary (where we have lived the past 30+ years).
Urban Hot Spots
Winnipeg wouldn’t be on too many people’s radar as one of North America’s urban hot spots. In fact, for many years, it has been brunt of cruel jokes like the “We’re going to Winnipeg” punch line from the 2005 Fountain Tire commercial that suggested Winnipeg was the Canadian equivalent of Siberia. However, that wasn’t always the case. Early in the 20th century it was a boomtown, rivaling Chicago as the major mid-west city in North America and beating out Vancouver as Western Canada’s largest city (it had three times the population of Calgary).
Every city has its heyday. Calgary shouldn’t get too smug about its current “flavour of the month” city status. Cities can also rise up from the decay and baggage of their past and I believe Winnipeg is ripe for such a renaissance. I thought it would be fun to compare Calgary and Winnipeg’s downtowns. The results might surprise you!
Both downtowns are blessed - and cursed - with being situated at the junction of two rivers that provide wonderful recreational opportunities but also are subject to mega flooding. For both cities, their two rivers have become a focal point of their sense of place and play with major museums, parks, pathways, riverwalks, promenades, plazas and bridges located on or near the rivers.
While Calgary’s Bow River is considered one of the best fly-fishing rivers in the world and a great place to float, Winnipeg’s Red River is a major catfish river and allows for major motor boating activities.
The Forks vs East Village/Stampede Park
While Calgarians are gaga about the potential of East Village’s mega makeover and Vancouverites’ Granville Island is the envy of the world, Winnipeg has quietly surpassed both of them with the development of The Forks on old railway land on the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers).
The Forks boasts an upscale boutique hotel, a market, Johnson Terminal (boutiques, café, offices), Children’s Museum, Children’s Theatre, Explore Manitoba Centre, one of North America’s best small baseball parks and the soon-to-be-completed Canadian Museum for Human Rights (arguably Canada’s most iconic new building of the 21st century). Not bad, eh!
It also has perhaps the best winter city programming with the world’s longest skating rink (yes, longer than Ottawa’s) in addition to the plaza skating rink, Olympic-size skating rink, 1.2 km of skating trails, snowboard fun park, toboggan run and warming huts designed by the likes of world renowned architect Frank Gehry. They even have Raw: Almond the world’s first pop-up restaurant on a frozen river featuring the hottest chefs including Calgary’s Teatro. Take that, Calgary!
Calgary’s East Village, after numerous false starts, is trying very hard to match Winnipeg’s eastside redevelopment with its National Music Centre, new Central Library, Bow Valley College, St. Patrick’s Island Park and bridge as well as Fort Calgary improvements. Stampede Park also has notable attractions with the BMO Centre, Saddledome, new Agrium Western Event Centre and plans for Stampede Trail shopping street, as well as the best festival in Canada i.e. Calgary Stampede.
GMAT Fun (Galleries, Museums, Attractions, Theatres)
Winnipeg’s Manitoba Museum is a large history museum on par with Calgary’s Glenbow from a visitor’s perspective with major permanent and temporary exhibitions. The Glenbow also functions as our major public art gallery, while Winnipeg boasts one of Canada’s oldest public art galleries, which is located in an iconic contemporary building.
Both cities have major new museums with contemporary “weird & wacky” architecture slated to open in the next few years - Winnipeg’s Canadian Museum for Human Rights ($300+ million) and Calgary’s National Music Centre ($130+ million).
Calgary’s major downtown attraction would be the mid-century modern Calgary Tower, while Winnipeg’s would have to be historic Provincial Building with its intriguing Masonic Temple design.
In Winnipeg, the MTS Centre (arena) is a major attraction. While many cities (Edmonton) are building new downtown arenas, Winnipeg has a “Main Street” arena, literally right on Portage Avenue; this would be like the Saddledome being where the Glenbow is on Stephen Avenue. The MTS Centre has placed in the” top 10 busiest arenas in North America” list in the past, regularly selling more tickets to more events than Saddledome.
From a performing arts perspective, Winnipeg has its Centennial Concert Hall (home to the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra), the historic 1914 Pantages Playhouse Theatre, Burton Cummings Theatre, Tom Hendry Warehouse Theatre, Rachel Bowne Theatre and Prairie Theatre Exchange. As well, their Royal Winnipeg Ballet complex is not only located right downtown, but also performs downtown, unlike the Alberta Ballet, which is off-the-beaten track and performs outside the downtown.
Winnipeg though has nothing match our three festival spaces - Prince’s Island Park, Shaw Millennium Park and Olympic Plaza. And, while Winnipeg has a well-renowned folk festival, it doesn’t happen downtown. Winnipeg’s major festival Folkarama attracts over 400,000 people each year to over 40 ethnic pavilions that are located around the city. The ‘Peg also boasts the second largest fringe theatre festival in North America (Calgary’s fringe struggle to survive) and their Royal Manitoba Theatre is Canada’s flagship English-language regional theatre company (you can’t just call yourself “Royal”).
Calgary probably has the more impressive line up of theatres - EPCOR Centre with its five spaces, as well as the Grand, Pumphouse and the two theatres at the Calgary Tower (but rumour has it that the latter spaces will be closed, to accommodate a new office tower).
Calgary boasts the High Performance Rodeo as its only major theatre festival now that playRites is history. However, downtown Calgary is also home to numerous live music venues including several weekend afternoon jam (WAMJAM) sessions at places like Blues Can, Ironwood, Mikey’s and Ship & Anchor that Winnipeg can’t match. In addition, YYC’s downtown is home Fort Calgary, which is has ambitious plans to become a major attraction.
SDC Fun (Shopping, Dining, Café)
Winnipeg’s Portage Place doesn’t hold a candle to Calgary’s The Core with its shiny new $200+ million renovation and mega glass roof. Nor does Winnipeg have the wealth of restaurants that populate Stephen Avenue, 4th Street and 17th Avenue or the mega pubs – CRAFT, National or WEST.
Calgary’s downtown restaurants regularly make the in Top 10 List of new Canadian Restaurants by EnRoute Magazine, while Winnipeg’s restaurants have not. A quick check of Vcay’s Top 50 Restaurants in Canada lists eight downtown Calgary restaurants including Charcut Roast House #5 and Model Milk #7 in the top 10. Winnipeg has only one on the list Deseo Bistro at #36. This might be due to fact downtown Calgary is home to over 100 corporate headquarters with their healthy “expense account” dining.
Both Calgary’s and Winnipeg’s historic Hudson Bay stores are in need of major exterior washing and interior renovations. Calgary’s Holt Renfrew is definitely in a class of its own when it comes to upscale shopping.
Winnipeg boasts the Stella Café (named after one of the owner’s cat) with its signature Morning Glory muffins in the uber chic Buhler Centre, as well as the unique News Café (owned by the Winnipeg Free Press, it hosts live interviews with Canada’s top newsmakers). However, Calgary’s café culture has more depth with dozens of local independent cafes with multiple locations throughout the downtown.
So far the score is tied. Next week: a look at Winnipeg’s and Calgary’s successes and failures in placemaking, architecture, urban design and downtown living. Also a look at how Calgary's GABEsters differ from Winnipeg's hipsters in what they are looking for with respect to urban living.
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- Calgary vs Ottawa