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Underdog Winnipeg has been slow to tell its story

But it's getting there

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October 14, 2012

WINNIPEG, MB, Oct. 14, 2012/ Troy Media/ – Winnipeg is now – unofficially – Underdog City.

It’s a title that is unlikely to make it into travel brochures or onto signs on the outskirts of Manitoba’s capital, but it’s a concept being embraced by many people in Winnipeg as they promote their humble, underestimated Prairie town to the world.

They can thank Malcolm Gladwell, author of best-selling books such as Blink and Outliers, who called Winnipeg ‘Underdog City’ recently when speaking to an audience at an international business conference in Winnipeg.

That is high praise from Gladwell, whose most recent work, the subject of his upcoming book, is on how underdogs often triumph ahead of others who have come up with ideas first or started with more money and advantages – how Xerox researchers invented the computer mouse and graphical user interface, but it was Steve Jobs who saw them in a lab and turned them into the Macintosh computer while Xerox sat idly by.

Being first can be overrated, Gladwell said as he told people not to be bothered by the sparkling scenery of Vancouver or the shiny office towers of Calgary. ‘Being an underdog is really better than it looks,’ said Gladwell. ‘I’m impressed by how often underdogs win.’

Gladwell’s advice: ‘Talk about how you want to be third.’

He may just have hit upon the secret sauce for a city that has long suffered from an inferiority complex, and never been a big player in the game of self-promotion.

In his audience was an elite group of ‘site selectors’ – people who help companies locate, relocate and find good places to operate. Somewhat amazingly, it was the first time the group had ever been invited to Winnipeg, though cities across North America hotly pursue them in the hopes of landing new enterprises, jobs and people for their communities.

The story the site selectors heard was that of the classic underdog – a city that has come through some adversity, adapted with some unique innovations, and quietly built a stable, even thriving economy.

They arrived at the new Winnipeg airport terminal, a building that took many years to plan and construct but is now an architectural gem filled with natural light and views that showcase the vast Prairie landscape. They were driven through Assiniboine Park, 1,110 acres of English landscaped grounds and forest that was suffering from neglect, but is now getting a $200-million facelift that includes the world-class attraction of a polar bear conservation centre.

They visited the massive Canadian Museum for Human Rights, a project that many thought impossible when entrepreneur Izzy Asper first dreamed it up. They dined in the atrium of the downtown Manitoba Hydro building, the most energy efficient office tower in North America built in one of continent’s coldest cities. Just down the street is the MTS Centre, home of the reborn Winnipeg Jets, thriving in a market that many doubted could support the National Hockey League.

The site selectors learned of a diverse population that is growing more quickly than at any time since the 1960s, thanks to efforts the Manitoba government took to fast-track immigrants by setting up the first Provincial Nominee Program in the country. They learned about the city’s aerospace industries and how General Electric chose a Winnipeg partner – StandardAero – when it was looking for a unique cold-weather climate for a new facility to do icing evaluations on aircraft engines.

They toured CentrePort Canada, a new inland port that will provide tax and transportation advantages for companies wanting access to key markets in North America, Latin America, Asia and Europe – a concept that works because of Winnipeg’s unique geographic location, an isolated city that is actually in the centre of North America.

Winnipeg has been slow to tell this story, but is getting better at it. The site selectors were brought to the city by YES! Winnipeg, a unique effort to attract new jobs to the city. It is funded by more than 110 private sector firms that pledged $4.5 million, added to $1.8 million in public funds. YES! Winnipeg’s goal is to create 4,200 new jobs by 2016.

They hope to do so by telling Winnipeg’s story over and over again – not a flashy one, but a tale that any underdog could understand.

Troy Media columnist Bob Cox has been writing from different parts of Canada for 30 years. He is publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press.

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