Prior to studying landscape architecture, Ross McGowan attended the University of Winnipeg and completed an undergraduate degree in Sociology. With the intentions of working as either a parole or probation officer, McGowan continued his studies at the downtown Winnipeg University and began pursuing a Masters in Criminology. During this time, he was also working at Stoney Mountain Penitentiary. It was while working at this institution that he decided that this was not the career he wanted and therefore began looking into other options.
McGowan had been interested in studying forestry, which prompted a friend to recommend that he study landscape architecture. McGowan looked into the Masters program at the University of Manitoba, but because he did not have any background in design, planning, or architecture, it was recommended that he get some hands on experience in the field. McGowan took an unpaid position with Amisk Planning Consultants and worked with the firm on a planning study being done in Pukatawagan, Manitoba. The following year, McGowan applied to the graduate program at the University of Manitoba and was accepted. He graduated in 1980 with a Masters in Landscape Architecture. His practicum thesis, titled Richmond Lakes Housing Study: Privacy & Social Interaction at the Neighborhood Level, looked at the theoretical implications of space and privacy in their relation to the design of medium density housing developments.
Instead of accepting a position at an architecture firm following graduation, McGowan decided to take a chance and work independently on a $1700 project. One project resulted in another project, and so forth. Eventually, McGowan had to hire people to assist him with the work and this was how McGowan and Associates began. Not long after, McGowan’s firm joined forces with Lombard North Group, whose head office was located in Alberta. In 1981, McGowan reopened the Lombard North Group office in Winnipeg, which had been closed since 1977. While working for this firm, McGowan completed several projects, including the Harbour View Golf Course, the Stephen Juba Park, and the Air Canada Window Park. McGowan also worked on the River Road Heritage Parkway, a popular historic route that follows the Red River in Manitoba. The gardens at the Kennedy House, located along this route, were also restored by the firm as part of this project.
McGowan left his position with Lombard North in 1986 when he was offered the Urban Design Coordinator position for the City of Winnipeg’s Environmental Planning Department. While working for the city, McGowan worked with Ralph Shilling and Doug Patterson on the first master plan for the Forks, a historic site located in the heart of downtown Winnipeg where the Assiniboine River flows into the Red River. McGowan also chaired the technical steering committee and worked on the first environmental reviews of the site.
Two years later, McGowan left his job with the city and formed his own firm, McGowan Design Group Incorporated, along with Susan Russell and Ruth Rob. Even though the firm would grow over the years, McGowan and Russell both wished to keep the firm predominately Manitoban based. In the 1990s, the firm, led by McGowan, worked on several important local projects. For example, Winnipeg Transit wished to create Graham Avenue, a downtown Winnipeg street, into a dedicated pedestrian and transit avenue and they enlisted McGowan Design Group for the project. The streetscape was designed to be bold and urban, with specific light and signage standards. Even though it took the firm several public consultations and meetings with Graham Avenue business owners, the community eventually supported the project. The firm also worked on the Pritchard Farm Properties development, a housing subdivision located in Winnipeg. The lots were arranged around the man-made Eagle Creek and also contain bicycle trails. The development, completed in 1999, has seen quite a lot of success.
In 2007 McGowan was approached by the chair of the board of CentreVenture Development Corporation, an arms-length agency of the City of Winnipeg that is an advocate and catalyst for business investment, development, and economic growth in downtown Winnipeg. McGowan was told that CentreVenture was looking for a new CEO and McGowan accepted the position.
McGowan came onto the scene at the same time that a city council, led by the then Winnipeg mayor Sam Katz, was considering putting an end to the agency. McGowan managed to convince the council of CentreVenture’s importance to the city with his aggressive downtown revitalization and development-stimulus agenda. McGowan remained with the agency for seven years and during this time he accomplished a significant amount of work, attracting both positive and negative reviews throughout his term. One of McGowan’s most celebrated projects, and his personal favourite, was the conversion of the Bell Hotel from a hotel to a forty-two room housing complex that offers permanent housing for those who have been homeless. He was also praised for the transformation of Central Park in downtown Winnipeg, which is located in a high-density, low-income neighbourhood. The park now has a soccer pitch, a skating rink, and new lighting. The transformed green-space, which was executed by the landscape architecture firm Scatliff+Miller+Murray, has become a great space for the community and has also improved the safety in the neighbourhood.
McGowan, with CentreVenture, also worked on the Centrepoint development. The Centrepoint development began when Liquidation World was going to sign a long-term lease for the former A&B Sound building, located at 311 Portage Avenue in Winnipeg. McGowan believed that allowing this to happen would harm the downtown area. Therefore, CentreVenture, along with Forks North Portage purchased the structure and started the Centrepoint development, which was to include a hotel, offices, and condos. In order to attract businesses and to ensure that the Centrepoint development would be a success, McGowan and CentreVenture established the Sports, Hospitality and Entertainment District, more commonly known as SHED. The eleven-block, tax-incentive zone aims to revitalize Winnipeg’s downtown.
In December of 2014, McGowan retired from his position as CEO of CentreVenture but continues to work as a private developer. In addition to his work, he has been involved in various community initiatives. McGowan is a former president of the Urban Development Institute and has sat on the board for Habitat for Humanity.