Closing up shop

Does ample parking beat affordable groceries?

After The Bay closed the supermarket in the basement of its downtown store, and Extra Foods shuttered its stores in the North End and West End locations, there is increased worry that Winnipeg’s downtown and inner city are turning into food deserts – areas with little to no access to fresh and affordable food.

While rumours abound that the two Extra Foods locations will re-open in some capacity under the Loblaw Companies banner, the availability of supermarkets in central Winnipeg, particularly downtown, is rather dire. If downtown is not quite a full-blown food desert, it certainly is a little arid.

Councillor Ross Eadie, whose Mynarski ward covers the commercial service-deprived parts of the North End and West Kildonan, said in April that major tax breaks for new grocery stores, similar to ones New York City implemented to lure supermarkets to that city’s poor outer boroughs, could help address this issue.

Grocery stores, and lots of them, are essential to making downtown and other central neighbourhoods more livable places where residents don’t have to go far to buy groceries.

Mayor Sam Katz was quick to criticize Councillor Eadie’s proposal to offer tax breaks, noting that these kind of incentives are not the answer to downtown’s grocery store issues.

This is interesting coming from a mayor who enthusiastically supports, among many other things, the City’s $51-m contribution to expanding the Winnipeg Convention Centre, a $20-m line of credit for Centreventure to buy up low-end hotels downtown, a $5-m loan to the owners of the Winnipeg Jets to build a parkade on Hargrave Street and a $500,000 property tax break to the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority to build a horrendous office complex on Main Street.

To pro-business thinkers at City Hall, local government has a direct role to play in the provision of parkades, government employees, and the annual Wedding Show downtown. But grocery stores? That’s “tricky,” and in any case, sounds a little socialist.

It may seem like a small nuance, but there is a big difference between being pro-business and being pro-market: while pro-market policies favour an ease of entry and exit from the market, healthy competition, and a level playing field, pro-business policies pick a certain set of winners and do everything to keep them thriving – even if it means distorting or thwarting the market.

So when people say that Sam Katz is a pro-business mayor, it is not because he wants to see lots of people start all kinds of different businesses, it’s because he favours governments subsidizing a relatively closed market of select players. In downtown Winnipeg’s case, these players are mainly big developers and public corporations.

Such pro-business thinking has affected development patterns across the city. Many Winnipeg citizens may defend low-density suburbanization and shrug off urban infill because they “love their cars” and cling to the outdated pretense that one can “get anywhere in 20 minutes.” The reality is that the market is distorted by zoning regulations that encourage suburban development and limit urban development.

Conventional sprawl development, and suburban-like “infill” development is par for the regulatory course. Try doing something moderately urban, and it’s an uphill battle of regulations.

While the current political and regulatory structure strives for more of the same – a boring “theme-park” downtown, hollowed-out inner city ghettos, and new suburbs as far as the eye can see – there is a tendency to want to pick a different set of winners.

What if things could be tilted toward favouring the kinds of things people with more urban sensibilities want – say, subsidizing grocery stores downtown instead of parking garages?

The hazard in this is that picking winners comes with many unintended consequences. One is that it can cause marketplace actors to develop behaviours that are more focused on gaining government handouts than on actually producing things of value to the public. The successful actors become more focused on keeping government happy and limiting new competition than on keeping the public happy through greater competition and new ideas.

Actors who are unsuccessful in gaining handouts, or simply don’t want to play by the irrational rules of politics, will take their ideas and capital elsewhere.

Another issue is the knowledge problem that is inherent in centralized planning. Good cities are beyond the ability of any one person or group to understand or predict; they are, by their very nature, concentrated, complex, and interconnected.

Hoping to lure the right kind of grocery store to the right kind of location downtown might seem ideal, but it cannot be done without hampering the possibility of a more thriving local economy in the long-run.

So where all kinds of subsidies and political acrobatics might bring one new grocery store to downtown, a municipal government that actually cared about the market flourishing and leveling the playing field might bring five.

A city can and should plan for certain outcomes (a thriving, pedestrian-scaled, and attractive city), but it should not be the ones planning those outcomes themselves. The city should make conditions for its neighbourhoods to be good places for many different people and many different kinds of investments to flourish within.

These could be anything; a tool-sharing co-operative in a forgotten corner of the North End, a trendy restaurant in the heart of Crescentwood, a small rental housing project in Centennial, or a grocery store downtown.

These types of small initiatives are hard for city government to take credit for or cut a ribbon on, but they are essential, as they add texture and variety, and increase the social and economic value of this city and its neighbourhoods.

Robert Galston is a University of Manitoba student who writes about urban issues. Visit his blog at

Published in Volume 67, Number 26 of The Uniter (May 29, 2013)

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