Making it up as he went along

·6 min read

It’s a cliché, he admits, but Paul Jordan remembers his first day working at The Forks like it was yesterday.

Back then, in the early ‘90s, there wasn’t much to the beloved meeting space and market at the confluence of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers — save for a heritage status as a historic site, after bearing witness to six thousand years of human activity.

There were no food halls, no towers, museums, tours, hotels or inns, maybe two shops; and much else was left abandoned after CN Rail left behind what could only be described as "a bombed out rail yard with lots of gravel" in downtown Winnipeg.

"I clearly recall that my first day was right when we’d opened up the river walk, which also didn’t even exist at the time," Jordan told the Free Press in an interview.

Perhaps deep down, he knew there was potential, though Jordan never really pictured this kind of massive transformation. "It really just amazes me, looking back at it all," he says.

Thirty years later, the man behind Manitoba’s tourism mecca is now taking a bow.

After elevating the cultural landscape to what it’s since become, over the course of all of those decades of development and rapid changes, Jordan is retiring and stepping down from his role as chief executive officer of The Forks North Portage Partnership.

He intends to stay on for as long as required to ensure a smooth transition. The board of directors will begin looking for a new CEO as early as next week.

Around four million people visited The Forks every year on average, prior to the pandemic — with nearly 100,000 on Canada Day alone. And the site employs 1,200 people per recent estimates.

Jordan is far too humble to admit how intrinsic his role has been to make that happen. But in a statement to the Free Press, the board of directors said that’s just part of the modesty that allowed him to achieve this feat over the years.

He’s "played an instrumental role in creating the city’s award-winning meeting place," the ten-member board’s statement reads. "The site began as an abandoned brownfield and former railyard when Jordan began his career and now plays host to hundreds of events."

But for Jordan, taking a job at The Forks in 1991 was only ever meant to provide a stable income for his family.

Before that, he’d been working in the private sector as a contract business owner handling construction and landscaping — something he thought wasn’t steady enough after his fourth child was born.

"As a 30-something-year-old, I didn’t really think it would be much more than just a good job to establish myself," he said. "So much changed so quickly, I never really realized how vital The Forks became to my life outside of work, let alone everyone in the city.

"Although truth be told, I didn’t even know what this place was before I started here, living here in the city. And honestly, neither did anyone else I knew."

North Portage Development (NPDC) was incorporated in 1983, under the laws of Manitoba, as a community development project with the objective to provide a mechanism for redeveloping downtown Winnipeg. The corporation is equally owned by the federal, provincial and municipal governments.

As a wholly-owned subsidiary of the corporation, The Forks Renewal Corp. was then merged in 1994 with NPDC to form The Forks North Portage Partnership — with a board representing all government shareholders.

"This meant that every title I held from the get-go were all things that I was sort of making up as we went along," said Jordan.

First, he was a site supervisor. Then, he became manager of operations and programming. And from 2004 to 2014, he was acting as chief operating officer for The Forks. It wasn’t until 2014 when Jordan was appointed as CEO.

"It’s a reflection of the quick pace of things once we got fired up with development projects and events," he said. "We’d get a call one day asking if we could hold this big festival, and we couldn’t obviously say no, so we’d quickly work around it — creating roles, changing things, sorting things — all to make it happen."

Some of those festivals, concerts and exhibitions have not only become a mainstay in the city, but they’ve often been the first of their kind in Manitoba’s and even Canada’s history.

To Jordan, it was all about "tapping into making elements of Winnipeg unexpectedly interesting."

So, for example, something like bitterly cold weather for much of the year could be seen as an asset instead of a liability. Enter: winter cycling on ice, iridescent carnivals, skating soundtracks and river trails, heated outdoor patios, warming huts and even internationally-lauded art displays.

"I wanted us to pivot to a place nobody had gone to before," said Jordan, "because we’d taken our own unique geographic aspects for granted for far too long. This was a place with such a rich history that we just weren’t using to attract people or cultivate further to boost its importance in the community itself."

During his tenure, Jordan helped establish and elevate three different museums — the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the Manitoba Childrens’ Museum and the Winnipeg Rail Museum — all in the same junction at the riverside.

He also helped setting up the Travel Manitoba Visitor Information Centre at The Forks, which now acts as a centre point for travel counselling in the province and offering the "6,000 Years in 60 Minutes!" Parks Canada interpretive program throughout the summer.

And if that wasn’t enough, Jordan spent his time outside The Forks chairing organizations like the Rivers West-Red River Corridor Association, Manitoba Music and Winnipeg Trails Association (which he also formed).

"It’s all kind of a blur now," he said with a laugh. "And now, I think it’s time for some new adventures — I’ve done this thing for way too long of my life."

Jordan isn’t sure what his retirement plans exactly are, but he told the Free Press, he’d like to fill it up "with lots of clichés like travelling when I’m allowed, writing a book or two and just relaxing as much I can."

There will always be more he could do, he said, especially with 11 acres of land that can be redeveloped. "But I’m comfortable leaving that behind to someone else’s very capable hands."

Twitter: @temurdur

Temur Durrani, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press