Manitobans used to be among the most entrepreneurial people in the world, full of bold ideas and get-it-done gumption. Then for years, we seemed to lose this spirit as big government put a hold on our energies and inertia set in. Now Winnipeg’s Metropolitan Region is showing that we still own our let’s-just-do-it nature and how we can get it back.
I have an aboriginal friend who is also an entrepreneur and who has the best advice in the world for his fellow man: If you want to do something, just do it!
That used to be the spirit that motivated Manitobans to move mountains, and we did.
Isolated as we were in the early days, if we needed something to make something work, we just improvised and created a tool or a part or a method to solve the problem. Often, along the way, we came up with better ideas, better products and more efficient methods.
History has shown that we in Manitoba can do almost anything.
We fought our way into Confederation when they hardly knew we existed in the East. Against all odds we built a railway over the permafrost to Hudson Bay. To support our troops during the Second World War in 1942, we raised over $65 million – that would equal more than a billion dollars today! We overcame the great flood of 1950 and then built a diversion, Duff’s Ditch, that can be seen from the moon. Along the way, we pioneered the air industry, we built rockets that explored the stratosphere and, on the side, we developed a world famous ballet while gaining an unparalleled arts reputation.
We believed in ourselves and we made things happen. We didn’t ask for government handouts. We certainly didn’t ask for government permission.
Now, we are looking at a future that is fiercely competitive for business – you have to be faster, smarter, more creative and willing to do what it takes to get ahead.
Thankfully, there is a group of very creative civic leaders who believe this and so have created an organization called Winnipeg’s Metropolitan Region (formerly the Partnership for Manitoba’s Capital Region). Led by a feisty executive director, Colleen Sklar, who jollies, jostles and jokes her way forward carrying the group along with her momentum, the organization is poised to makes some very productive changes to the way we do business with business in Manitoba.
Their goal is to be more efficient, more nimble, more proactive and more aggressive in running the Metropolitan Region communities (of which there are 17 in the partnership, counting Winnipeg) than their counterparts in other provinces where these kinds of regional organizations already exist. One of the most successful of these is Edmonton which, ironically, took their ideas from the 16 years of study that has gone into the Manitoba initiative.
In the short term, the aim of the Winnipeg’s Metropolitan Region is to use the co-operative efforts of its members to reduce the cost of running their towns and to improve the infrastructure for the region. In the long term, their co-operation will help them attract big business looking for the advantages the region has to offer, bringing jobs and prosperity to local citizens.
This is not a slam dunk even after all this time. Change always stimulates reservations, but the determination to make it happen is driven by reality.
“We’re not here to hold your hand,” said site selection consultant Greg Wassmandorf on a tour of Winnipeg’s Metropolitan Region last year. “We are here to eliminate you.”
In other words, if you don’t have your act together you won’t even be considered. Business doesn’t have time to babysit your problems. No matter how competitive your hydro rates or how expert your labour force or how convenient your product source, if you can’t provide a smoothly running, barrier-free infrastructure under which to do business, investors will just move on.
With a small population of some 820,000 people in the Metropolitan Region catchment area, this is a tiny market. But rather than seeing this as a negative, we need to see the upside. Our compactness can be a great advantage.
Because we are small, we are nimble. We can respond quickly. Because we have to be more resourceful, we are more resourceful. We solve problems ingeniously. We find ways when others would throw up their hands. We know each other, so we can work more collaboratively.
The members of the group will start with the basics: synchronize bylaws, rules and regulations as much as possible. Save money though group purchasing. Rationalize the amount of equipment and the number of social amenities needed over the entire region rather than over just one municipality at a time. Cluster the synergies that will show best to prospective investors. Design transportation infrastructure for the benefit of those synergies.
In fact, they have already started by using the proceeds of a symposium on collaboration to buy enough computer power to store the region’s data needs on a wide front. “For example,” says Colleen Sklar, “we can now track emergency response data in a way we never could before. We can see where the hot spots are, where the activity is taking place and react accordingly.” She adds that the open access system is available for use by the whole province, not just the region.
This was just the beginning. Colleen envisions a day when the pesky planning documents required by the province can be on the system, letting users update data and see what others are doing. Currently, it can take anywhere from two to nine years to complete a plan, frustrating everyone and reducing the efficacy of the planning itself. There is much, much more that can be done.
Sometimes, for Colleen and her group, it is hard to recognize the progress they are making as it is by nature incremental, but with each achievement, the progress is accelerating.
Best of all, no one is waiting for senior government permission any more, although they, of course, keep a wary eye on budgets and other moves by the senior level of legislators. But they have come to accept that self-will is liberating.
The Metropolitan Region is showing us the way back to self-sufficiency in our province. The spirit that moved all those mountains out of the way is coming back. The Region is forging ahead and just doing it!
By Dorothy Dobbie