The designer who brought on city’s downtown revival says goodbye

By Joan Cohen

Ross-McGowan
Ross McGowan. Photo by Dorothy Dobbie.

Charles Thomsen had just become a full professor of landscape architecture in 1976, and was teaching a master’s course architecture, when Ross McGowan, a young social studies grad from the University of Winnipeg joined his class.

“He was learning and I was learning. I found him to be a very challenging and interesting fellow. He was not the typical design student. He was most interested in the social aspect of design, in the human behaviour and what made good communities.”

The movement from social studies to design, the now-retired professor will tell you today, is a “very interesting one” and challenging. “He was what you hoped a graduate student would be. He was thinking for himself. He was always ready to challenge and negotiate the programs we gave them to work on and those of his fellow students.”

It was an unusual shift in disciplines, and like all students with no undergraduate design training it took Ross an extended period to get his master’s degree. But get it he did, and it was his field ever after.

“I always felt he was destined for some unique niche, or a unique role in the field of landscape architecture,” Charles continues. “When he formed his own firm, he had a unique ability to judge and hire really good designers. Not people ‘outside the box’ but with the ability to translate the big visions and make them a reality.”

Charles Thomsen hasn’t seen his former student in many years, but he’s been watching from afar. “When he came to CentreVenture, I thought it was the perfect role for his abilities. When you see the changes that have occurred in downtown Winnipeg, the improvements that have occurred, it seems the role has been tailored exactly for him.

“His ability to negotiate, his ability to challenge and his ability to see good designers… the things all around the MTS Centre, all the development in the downtown area. The new Entertainment district.

“He’s a bit of a planner, and I think by zoning and creating theme zones he’d be achieving the types of things he found inspiring.”

Today, after seven years in the job of president and CEO of CentreVenture, an arms-length agency of the City of Winnipeg operating under a private sector board of directors, Ross McGowan at age 62 is preparing to retire at year’s end. There have been nothing but accolades for his achievements, with his board and the CentreVenture Development Corporation, in bringing life, excitement and the prospects of an illustrious future to his long-stagnant home city in the few years of his tenure.

Trudy Schroeder is executive director of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, whose home base is the Richardson building and the Centennial Concert Hall, in the heart of the newly created arts zone. She has long worked with Ross McGowan and offers this not untypical view of his work in that post.

“He has a great perspective on the city, and on the kinds of positive changes that make for a healthier downtown and the neighbourhoods that form it. And particularly his passion was for redeveloping downtown spaces.

He has been massively persuasive. He had really great ideas, and the ability to bring them to fruition in a climate that for a good chunk of the time he was president wasn’t superconducive to developments in the city. But he found ways to create partnerships from a personal perspective.

“I got to know him when I was at the Folk Festival [as executive director until 2007]. He was coming up with space ideas for us and thinking of … well, of some of the things, for example, that would make the Exchange more of an Arts district.” Even then.

“And in the last number of years he’s been extremely encouraging of new ideas, of having people think outside the box and think about their community outside the box. “Mostly we’ve been working with him and CentreVenture on the cultural district streetscaping. Some of those amazing lights on Market Avenue and the benches and sidewalks that have lighting. All these things turn it into a district that has gives people an urge to stick around. He’s very involved in the personality of our downtown.

“I know he knows that in working with his board and lots of developers and not-for-profit agencies in Winnipeg, he has had a huge impact on the vitality of our downtown… he found ways to make things happen.

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