Ask anyone with only a fleeting familiarity with Winnipeg what they might have heard about our city, and it’s a solid bet one attribute will be top-of-mind: it’s seriously cold here in the winter. But there are important economic reasons to appreciate our internationally renowned Winterpeg nickname and the subzero scene that gave rise to it.
First, a reality check: occasionally, Winnipeg is one of the coldest major cities in the world. Statistics Canada puts our average January low at -22.8 C. But this differentiator is actually worthy of celebration, and that’s the point Mayor Bowman and I made recently when we announced Winnipeg is now an accredited member-city of the World Winter Cities Association for Mayors (WWCAM), a network of over 20 northern cities worldwide dedicated to promoting winter technologies and experiences. We both believe that ramping up collaborations with leaders and organizations living and working in other winter cities will bolster Winnipeg’s reputation as an exciting winter wonderland with a leading cold-weather economy.
Winnipeg’s winter identity has experienced a welcome transformation of late, thanks in part to high-profile attractions validating Winnipeg’s wintry allure in ways that have persuaded locals and visitors alike to brave the elements and experience the best our city offers when blanketed with snow. The Forks is a case in point. Winnipeg’s No. 1 tourist spot attracts more than 4 million visitors annually, and over the last five years its winter weekend numbers have rivalled peak counts in July and August. Whether gliding along the Red River Mutual Trail, exploring the Arctic Glacier Winter Park or enjoying a meal at RAW: almond (for those quick enough to snag tickets to this perpetually sold-out pop-up restaurant), there’s an abundance of activities for winter enthusiasts at Winnipeg’s oldest meeting place.
But The Forks is just one of many attractions capitalizing on Winnipeg’s cool climate. The Festival du Voyageur is set to usher in its 48th edition of Western Canada’s largest winter festival from Feb. 17-26, featuring perennial favourites like canoe races, chainsaw carving and toboggan runs, while welcoming over 150 bands this year—which also makes it the biggest francophone music festival in Western Canada. Assiniboine Park Zoo’s award-winning Journey to Churchill, part of the park’s $200-million Imagine a Place redevelopment, immerses visitors in the world’s most comprehensive northern species exhibit. And FortWhyte Alive’s 640-acre urban nature reserve also attracts attention in the colder months, with its Lake Shaker winter party, moonlight snowshoe treks and free ice-fishing weekends.
Winnipeg’s winter-themed recreation options compare favourably to activities available during the city’s milder months, but they comprise only a small part of the much bigger cold-weather picture. Winnipeg has evolved in fascinating ways since its incorporation as a city on November 8, 1873, but there’s no need to examine the historical record to see how winter weather has positively impacted its economic well-being. Modern-day evidence is plain to see, and it forms a portrait whose key features owe much to the lower end of Winnipeg’s famed 60-degree annual temperature swings.
A partnership between GE and StandardAero resulted in the opening of the $50-million GE Aviation Test Research and Development Centre (TRDC) in early 2012 at Winnipeg’s Richardson International Airport. The 122,500-square-foot TRDC is the only cold-weather engine-testing facility for GE, which performs icing certification testing on a variety of its jet engines—including GE’s LEAP (Leading-Edge Aviation Propulsion) series of engines used in Boeing’s 737 Max, the fastest-selling passenger jet in the company’s history. Did you know Boeing’s Winnipeg facility makes this aircraft’s innovative inner barrel, which reduces operational noise by as much as 50 per cent? So successful has the GE-StandardAero collaboration been that GE is set to begin a $26-million upgrade to the TRDC this year that is expected to expand its capabilities from cold-weather certifications to a wider range of tests that can be performed year-round.
Other iconic local companies, MTS and New Flyer Industries, for example, also benefit from Winnipeg’s winter weather. The former’s $50-million data centre on Waverly Street is a purpose-built 64,000-square-foot facility offering co-location, managed hosting and cloud services. Row upon row of servers must be kept at a consistent temperature to guard against overheating. Cooling these machines in a cold climate like Winnipeg reduces operating expenses even more in an already ultracompetitive city when it comes to energy costs relative to other North American locales.
For its part, New Flyer believes Winnipeg winters provide an ideal testing ground for its zero-emission electric buses. In partnership with Winnipeg Transit, these buses are subjected to real-world rigours on local streets. Our winters not only offer frigid temperatures for assessing such things as battery life and cabin integrity, but also feature useful fluctuations in day-to-day conditions. A big temperature change from one day to the next means New Flyer technicians can monitor how the humidity created from such extremes affects electrical systems. And finally, Winnipeg’s abundance of snow and wind throughout the coldest months contributes to what results in a perfect (winter) storm routinely meeting New Flyer’s needs.
While GE, MTS and New Flyer exemplify companies investing here because our cold weather directly benefits certain operational aspects, Winnipeg’s winter-city reality invites an entirely different yet equally innovative economic angle: how do we survive and thrive in a place where the temperature once dipped to a mercifully infrequent record low of -47.8 C in 1879? Perhaps the most obvious answer is that our buildings—residential, commercial and industrial—must be built to withstand the ravages such extreme temperatures threaten. From insulation and HVAC issues to vapour barriers and weatherproofed windows, accommodating Winnipeg winters requires a level of expertise that gives local companies in the industry a competitive advantage.
Beyond construction advancements best evidenced in buildings like the Platinum LEED-certified Manitoba Hydro Place, with its geothermal heating, biodynamic double façade and solar chimney (among other ingenious features), Winnipeg has fostered an array of creative solutions allowing it to function as efficiently as possible regardless of prevailing conditions. How the city builds and repairs roads, provides water and waste management, ensures reliable sources of energy and moves people from place to place all coalesce in ways that make living and working in Winnipeg more pleasant and prosperous.
So why does this matter in the bigger scheme of things? It matters because this kind of expertise is easily exportable and could garner big economic dividends. For cities wrestling with winters like Winnipeg, and for places experiencing irregular spikes in cold weather for which they are ill-equipped, the products we’ve perfected and the best practices we’ve established make us a winter-living leader. What’s commonplace for Winnipeggers is anything but for places not as accustomed to the effects of bone-chilling cold. Admit it: don’t we secretly get a kick out of it when other North American cities issue “severe weather warnings” on days when the temperature might dip to (a comparatively balmy for us) -10 C or so? Amateurs.
But that’s the point—knowing things other places don’t about coping with the cold—and that’s why Winnipeg is poised to make inroads as a higher-profile winter city in the years ahead thanks to its WWCAM membership, which is expected to expose the city to a wider audience with a vested interest in studying our winter assets. WWCAM conferences are held every two years, and host cities can also concurrently present a winter expo for business and industry as well as a winter forum for researchers and academics, which have significantly increased the scale and impact of the association’s activities. Look for Winnipeg to host this conference in the coming years. It’s time our city accesses this influential network.
Elevating Winnipeg’s status as a winter city with proven solutions to cold-weather challenges could lead to both foreseen and serendipitous economic windfalls. We’re already enjoying various business- and recreation-based dividends that an increased focus on winter living has yielded, but we should step up our game by connecting local ingenuity with prospective external markets craving improved subzero strategies. Part of being a smart city is knowing how to monetize what we do best, then promoting this value proposition to global audiences. The more we do that, the more we’ll see Winnipeg appear on the potentially lucrative short list of intelligent cities that own winter like nowhere else in the world.
Dayna Spiring is the President and CEO of Economic Development Winnipeg.