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Canada's `old' city of Winnipeg stages a comeback

For many months, three blocks along the north side of Portage Avenue here looked as if they had been bombed flat. The area was a wasteland, the buildings torn down and carted away. Now there is a massive hole in the ground and piledrivers are pounding in the steel foundation for two office towers and a $50 million retail shopping center. ``It is the most major redevelopment in one chunk which has happened to the city of Winnipeg,'' says Bill Norrie, the affable mayor of this city of 600,000.

By western Canadian standards, Winnipeg is an old city -- 113 years old. When it was founded, Upper Fort Garry still stood on the flats a few hundred feet from the north bank of the Assiniboine River -- a dozen blocks east of the shopping complex now under construction.

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Fort Garry, a collection of about a dozen two-story stone buildings enclosed by stone walls and dominated by four musketry towers, was the headquarters of a great trading empire. From these buildings, the governors of the Hudson's Bay Company presided over most of what is now called Canada.

When this company agreed to turn over the lands that now make up the province of Manitoba to the newly formed Canadian Confederation, a m'etis leader, Louis Riel, rebelled, setting up a provisional Red River government of 1869-70 in Fort Garry. Ottawa soon sent troops to crush this revolt of the m'etis (people of mixed Indian and European blood). Riel, its leader, was hanged after leading a second rebellion in neighboring Saskatchewan. In a nation marked by gradual evolution of its political institutions, the Riel rebellion is treasured as a flash of revolutionary ardor.

Only the north gate of that fort has survived to the present day. However, it is in that river shore area where Mayor Norrie has plans for another major redevelopment of this city on the edge of the prairie and 60 miles north of the United States border.

Last month the mayor and ministers from the provincial and federal governments agreed on another five-year joint program called the Core Area Initiative Agreement. A portion of the $100 million (US$72 million) in funding will be used to buy some 60 acres of a little-used switching yard from Canadian National Railways.

The land will be used for a park, an arena, a cultural ``folkorama,'' and other buildings. These two projects are part of a substantial revitalization of Winnipeg.

In the late 1970s, Winnipeg suffered from a loss of confidence. The value of new construction fell badly. Many middle-class people had moved to the suburbs. Others had gone to the province of Alberta, then in the midst of an oil and gas boom. The downtown area was deteriorating. Some local cynics called the city ``Lose-a-peg'' rather than ``Win-a-peg.''

But now this railroading, grain trading, and manufacturing center is enjoying a comeback that, according to Mayor Norrie, started about four years ago. A goodly number of new office buildings sprinkle the downtown area with glass and steel. Some Winnipegers have returned from Alberta. Unemployment runs around 6 percent, low in Canada.

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The city enjoys only 116 frost-free days a year on average. Perhaps the long winter evenings have encouraged its residents to provide such entertainment as the internationally known Royal Winnipeg Ballet, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, the Manitoba Theater Center, and a major folk festival.

Hudson's Bay Company, now a national department store chain, has one of its stores just across Portage Avenue from the hole in the ground, now being turned by a major Canadian developer, into a three-story retail complex with a glass-covered atrium and gardens.

A 600-unit housing development will be erected in the same area, an attempt to bring people back into the center of Winnipeg. Next door, the YMCA is spending $10 million to refurbish its quarters, including a new swimming pool. ``There are a lot of good things happening,'' says the mayor.

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