The Black Rod

The origin of the Usher of the Black Rod goes back to early fourteenth century England . Today, with no royal duties to perform, the Usher knocks on the doors of the House of Commons with the Black Rod at the start of Parliament to summon the members. The rod is a symbol for the authority of debate in the upper house. We of The Black Rod have adopted the symbol to knock some sense and the right questions into the heads of Legislators, pundits, and other opinion makers.

Location: Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

We are citizen journalists in Winnipeg. When not breaking exclusive stories, we analyze news coverage by the mainstream media and highlight bias, ignorance, incompetence, flawed logic, missed angles and, where warranted, good work. We serve as the only overall news monitors in the province of Manitoba. We do the same with politicians (who require even more monitoring.) EMAIL:

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Did the Asper School for Business provide the recipe for South Point Douglas?

Our heads are spinning.

Reading about the Asper plan for South Point Douglas is like taking the most exciting ride at the Red River Ex without leaving home.

Is it because the plan is so gi-normous you can't get your head around it? Or is it because of a week of effective P.R. spin? We think it's a lot of both.

The project is so huge the press can't focus on more than one aspect at a time. For once, we don't blame them. The deal is so complex it seems reporters have glommed on to the stadium as the one facet they feel the public can absorb. Imagine having a giant, steaming, home-made pie put on the table after a Thanksgiving meal and you know you can only have one delicious slice because more will make you sick, and it's your favourite pie, so you'll have one large piece and dream about the rest.

The whole Asper pie is at least ten slices:

1. A new 30-40,000 seat football stadium that will be everything and more than was proposed for the Polo Park site. More parking at the new stadium than there is currently at Polo Park. And a tram system (wheeled, not rail, so don't get too excited) to move fans from their cars to the stadium and back.

2. The relocation of Higgins Avenue six blocks north to parallel the existing railway line

3. A hotel with rooms for 1000 people. (By comparison, The Fort Garry Hotel is 240 rooms over 10 floors.)

4. A great, big waterpark that will dwarf anything previously proposed for the city.

5. River-front condominiums

6. Commercial development over the remaining land which is twice the size of the Forks.

7. A new pedestrian bridge across the Red River to Whittier Park in St. Boniface.

8. New public docks and moorings.

9. A new underpass connecting Annabella Street in the South Point with North Point Douglas.

10. And the piece-de-resistance, Asper will buy the land where the current stadium now stands and build a "lifestyle shopping village" to rival Polo Park.

Plus any of these possibilities that have already been thrown around...

11. A new Louise Bridge

12. A bridge connection to Archibald St. in St. Boniface

13. A connection to the Nairn Overpass

And if nobody is thinking about gondola/cable cars across the Red, they should be.

Whoa Nelly. Hold the walls. The room is going round and round again.

What's fascinating is the silence that's coming from City Hall.

This is a city with a resident flock of boo-birds that goes ballistic over every single proposed development. Winnipeg's own Miss Negativapeg, Genny Gerbasi, objects when the Sun rises in the East. And not a peep out of her about the Asper plan.

When lawyer Ken Zaifman wanted to replace a dumpy hotel in the Exchange District and asked for a curb cut on sleepy Albert Street, the yappy boo-birds attacked him with brickbats for months and forced him to back down.

David Asper says he wants to eliminate three city blocks to make way for his stadium, to demolish 21 occupied homes, to move a major thoroughfare (Higgins) a block over, possibly to rebuild a bridge (Louise) -- and to have the city give him the land for his project for free. And he's met with dead silence at council.

Strange, don't you think?

The reaction from the public is as predictable as the frown on Lillian Thomas's face. Winnipeggers hate change. So there's the don't-change-a-thing crowd that wants the stadium to stay at Polo Park.

There's the conspiracy crowd (the people are getting shafted and everyone's in on it) and the hate-the-rich crowd (stop them from doing anything, raise taxes and let the government spend it because government knows better than anybody). And then there's everybody else, who really, really want to believe something good can happen but who have become cynical---from experience.

They've read countless stories that said the answer to the blight of downtown Winnipeg was for more people to live downtown. Then when a developer said he would build apartments downtown, the millionaires from the Manitoba Club (stand up David Asper) stepped in to stop the project, to override the city's land development process, and to humiliate the elected mayor and city councillors who approved the apartment project. Then, to top it off, the millionaires begged children to empty their piggy banks to "save" Upper Fort Garry for the Manitoba Club.

Oh, and then the newspapers still write stories about how the answer to the blight of downtown Winnipeg is for more people to live downtown.

These Winnipeggers want to believe, but can't. Certainly one thing that turns them away is the estimated cost of the project---$400 million and counting. They could visualize a $150 million stadium. And a $70 million hotel-plus-waterpark. And a condo development on the river. And a new Louise bridge. Just not all at once.

But that's because they don't realize that there's no shortage of money. The city is awash in money. The province is awash in money. The federal government is awash in money. They can't spend it fast enough.

Money is not a problem for the South Point plan. It's just a matter of which pot do you draw it from?

There's the New Stadium money pot. There's the Rapid Transit Corridor money pot. There's the Infrastructure (bridges and roads) money pot. There's the Residential-slash-Homelessness money pot. There's the Downtown Redevelopment money pot. There's the Tourism money pot (did you know Louis Riel's birthplace is in Whittier Park, and the park hosts the Festival de Voyageur?). There's the bottomless "Green" money pot (have we mentioned the geothermal heating and cooling planned for Asperville?).

And, of course, there's always the Aboriginal Something-or-other money pot. There's the Western Diversification money pot. The Riverbank Stabilization money pot. The we-owe-you-for-Spirited Energy money pot. And we're betting we overlooked one or two or six money pots we don't even know about.

If all else fails, those kids have had time to replenish their piggy banks.

In other words, that money is there.

It will be spent.

It's just a question of whether it will be spent on the South Point or somewhere else.

"If we don't seize the moment on this one, it'll be another 40 years before another one comes around," Don Borys, who owns Border Glass on Higgins, told the Winnipeg Free Press. Like it or not, he's right.

Reporters should be beating down the doors to the Asper School of Business. If this play is based on principles being taught there, the school is turning out graduates who will change the face of this country. If not yet, it will be the basis of the core curriculum in years to come.

Nobody is talking about this yet, but the plan for Asperville is more than a bloated commercial project. It's a power play unlike anything we've seen before.

A man who controls a $400 million private enterprise project becomes the Don Correleone of the city. Everyone has to kiss his ring. He gives many favours and asks for few. But he makes offers you can't refuse.

Mayor Sam Katz has looked very bad as the Asper plan unfurled last week. He complained the plan was leaked by Gary Doer then refused to discuss details. (WFP, June 24) He pretended he didn't know a water park was part of the plan.(Wpg. Sun, June 26) He spoke of the plan in platitudes and generalities. (WFP, June 26). He never once looked like a leader who knows what's going on and who is a player at the table.

David Asper had to throw him a lifeline Saturday by telling the Winnipeg Sun he "only thought of putting the stadium there a few weeks ago after Mayor Sam Katz suggested looking for alternatives to a Polo Park site that the province and feds didn't seem too keen on spending $40 million each on."

Nice try, David, but untrue, though we won't get into details today.

Asper, Winnipeg's newest powerbroker, snookered his predecessor Leo Ledohowski at every stage of the game. Leo thought he had the inside track with the Blue Bombers. He struck a deal for a new stadium on land owned by the Red River Exhibition. It would be built next to one of his hotels and a brand, spanking new waterpark. The Bombers had a splashy news conference announcing the plan.

Then---nothing. Each level of government said it wasn't prepared to give money to a stadium way the hell out of town. The Bombers, chastened, were forced to ask for other proposals. Ledohowski regrouped with a stadium in St. Boniface on the Canada Packers site. Asper, knowing how slow to change Winnipeggers are, said he would build a stadium at the old site.

And he won.

But Asper all along was working on the South Point location. He just had to wait for the right time to announce it. The time came when Treasury Board minister Vic Toews said he couldn't give federal money to a privately owned football stadium that would benefit the owner and no one else. Hello, Vic. Have I got a deal for you?

To add insult to injury, Asper bid on a city proposal to give $7 million to anyone willing to build a "world class" waterpark in Winnipeg. He even said he would put it at the South Point, but everyone laughed and said that was a stupid idea. Who's going to go to South Point Douglas to a waterpark? Are you crazy?

So Leo bid, and won, and lost. He will get $7 million for 66,000 square foot waterpark adjacent to one of his hotels. But he has to subsidize public access for poor kids for the next 25 years.

Asper, meanwhile, got to announce his own waterpark to be "created by the design team responsible for Disneyworld, West Edmonton & Niagara Falls water parks." He won't be subsidizing anyone. His new hotel can count on (federally-funded) visits from at least 15,000 schoolchildren being brought to Winnipeg each year to visit his sister's pet project, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. And each kid will want to visit the waterpark, the cost will be built into the hotel room.

Oh, and the Fallsview Indoor Water Park at Niagara Falls is almost twice the size of the Ledohowski waterpark at 125,000 square feet including a mezzanine and outdoor activity pool. Adding marquee slides and rides would make it even bigger still. Will Asper downsize and embarass Winnipeg, or upsize and make us proud.

If 66,000 sq. ft. is "world class", what's 125,000 sq. ft. plus? Inter-planetary?

If built as planned, the Asper South Point will leave a number of losers in its wake.

- Corydon Avenue is past its prime and will suffer as the crowd moves to the new hot spot.

- The Forks will shiver as politicians begin asking why they're spending $2 million each year in subsidies when South Point Douglas is twice the size and doesn't require public money.

- The NDP will wonder why they backed a deal which only solidifies the idea that private enterprise should take the lead on urban revitalization with government standing by holding its coat.

- And Lloyd Axworthy's head will be spinning faster than Linda Blair's.

Axworthy was supposed to be Winnipeg's saviour. He was redesigning the city in his vision with the help of his bosom pal, the former CEO of the Crocus Investment Fund and soon-to-be defendant before the Manitoba Securities Commission, Sherman Kreiner. He was supposed to be showing the Left how the big boys do it.

And suddenly, its back to second-banana land because of that right-winger Asper.

Pass the Gravol.

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