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.

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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: black_rod_usher@yahoo.com

Friday, December 03, 2010

Tiny clues help reconstruct the secret discussions on a new stadium

Sproing!!!!

No matter how tightly they try to keep the secrets, details keep spilling out.

The "partners", including unelected Premier Greg Selinger and promise-breaking Mayor Sam Katz, refuse to tell the public anything about the discussions going on in secret regarding the debacle of the failed plan to build a new stadium for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers football team.

You know, the project they started last May based on phony construction numbers provided by David Asper, chairman of the company given an untendered contract to build the stadium.

Nevertheless, tiny but revealing breaches in the wall of silence have appeared this week. Together, they provide hints at what's going on in those secret meetings.

1. The Elms is dead.

David Asper's fantasy---a high-end shopping mall on the site of the existing football stadium---is kaput.

" UNDER WINNIPEG'S CANOPY OF ELMS, you'll discover an upscale shopping destination that will take the prairie marketplace by storm."
"Located in our most profitable shopping district, The Elms will offer the finest fashion brands and the most expansive collection of prestigious retailers within hundreds of miles."
"When it opens, The Elms will be home to the most sought after retailers in North America, a number making their first foray into Canada."

Yeah? Try to find www.theelms.ca today. You'll get a message telling you "there's no such domain". (H/T to roccerfeller at Skyscraperpage.com for spotting this first.)

With no Elms, there's no David Asper in the mix. The only difference between him and toast is that one is good for breakfast and the other is a ...

Without even the pretense of private investment, the new stadium is all-government all the time. And given that the City of Winnipeg can barely find the money to clear the snow off the streets, it's looking like the province will have to foot the entire bill by itself. You know, the province that's running $500 million deficits every year for the foreseeable future.

The Elms was always Greg Selinger's fig leaf. Selinger had to make it look as if he wasn't borrowing money to give to millionaire David Asper so that Asper could fulfill his fantasy of owning a football team. Asper would help him with the deception.

Selinger tried to disguise the millions for the stadium as a loan to an educational facility, the University of Manitoba, which then hired Creswin, the millionaire's company, to build the stadium. As a side deal, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers would agree to sell the team to David Asper if he repaid $90 million of the loan. To pay off the loan and save Selinger's hide, Asper pledged to buy the old stadium site from the city, redevelop it into The Elms, and use the profits from the new mall to repay the province. Selinger could, and did, argue that the province was taking no risk at all because most of the "loan" would be paid back either by David Asper or, if he couldn't do it, by the taxes that would flow from the redeveloped stadium land.

Asper sweetened his romance with Selinger last April by attacking Opposition leader Hugh McFadyen and linking support for the NDP with support for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. McFadyen's sin? Questioning whether Asper could ever raise enough money from The Elms to pay back the provincial government for fronting the cost of the stadium.

"Everybody needs to stay focused... and not get distracted by Mr. McFadyen's cheap slogans," hissed Asper.

"It's so incredibly disappointing, frankly, to hear the scope of how uniformed or ill-informed he is."
"You really have to wonder the value of his contribution to this debate."
"I just find it very disappointing and, you know, I think that Mr. McFadyen certainly has the education to be a smart person but..." Asper sneered in a radio interview at the time.

Asper had his snit before it was revealed that he had vastly underestimated the cost of construction. And before he reneged on his promise to cover all cost overruns. And, of course, before The Elms crashed and burned.

He owes McFadyen a big, big apology.

2. The cost of construction just keeps rising with no end in sight.

Gary Lawless, sports writer for the Winnipeg Free Press, reported this on Monday:
"The latest figure being bandied around by the stadium partners is very close to $200 million."

Let's review the long and rocky road to $200 million.

The cost of the new stadium is:

* $115 million on May 20, the day of the sod-turning ceremony at the University of Manitoba.

(The Black Rod reported on Oct. 9 that an insider said tenders showed the cost of the stadium would range from $160-$190 million for building material alone.)

(Creswin President Dan Edwards issued a denial to the Free Press on Oct.19. "For 10 days now, we have been fighting untrue, inflammatory numbers on stadium costs that are clearly being floated to media outlets in order to make mischief on the project.")

* $160 million according to the CBC on Nov. 4 quoting "a source close to the deal."

* More than $160 million but less than $180 million according to an unattributed statement in the Winnipeg Free Press by reporter Bartley Kives on Nov. 25.

* $185 million according to Global News on Nov. 26 citing "sources".

* Very close to $200 million. The Winnipeg Free Press Nov. 28 citing "stadium partners".

As the price of a new stadium breaks through the stratosphere and heads into outer space, we can see some of what's been happening at the secret meetings. Someone has been asking questions and, in the process, uncovering more and more costs.

The pricetag as revealed through "sources" has climbed $40 million between Nov. 4 and Nov. 29.

Someone was hiding expenses which were being pried out slowly.

You can imagine the angry exchanges behind those closed doors as millions of unexpected costs came spilling out of the cupboards.

Selinger thought $105 million would be enough to buy a new stadium. Now that the price has escalated by $90 million or more, he's in a panic. He doesn't have the extra money. Neither does anyone else.

"That figure (almost $200 million) has at least one of the partners ready to push away from the table." wrote Lawless.

The partners are the province, the city, Asper, the university of Manitoba and the football club.

- Asper is already out; it's not him.
- The U of M is getting something for nothing, so they'll stay in.
- The Blue Bombers have no burning reason to see David Asper as their owner so they'll go along with anything the others agree on.

That leaves the province and the city.

- Sam Katz has nothing to lose by walking away and leaving his nemesis Selinger to stew in his own juices. He just won his election. Selinger, who wanted Katz defeated in the worst way, still faces his.

If this surmise is correct, does it explain what Greg Selinger said in the Legislature on Tuesday? Or, rather, what he didn't say.

3. Every day the Opposition leader asks the unelected Premier for an update on the stadium discussions, and every day Selinger lectures the Conservatives that a new stadium is needed because repairing the old one would cost $50 million. Every day except Tuesday.

From Hansard:
Mr. McFadyen: ... can the Premier tell us how much more have the costs escalated since the third update that we got earlier this month?

Mr. Selinger: Mr. Speaker, as the member well knows, there was a very high price that was coming to fix up the existing stadium at Polo Park. And also, the member should know that the stadium at the University of Manitoba was a very old facility, in a state of great decline, as well.

"A very high price" is as far as Selinger would go on Tuesday. On Wednesday, he didn't mention fixing the old stadium at all in reply to the usual question, choosing instead to rant about converter stations for Hydro. (We don't know how that relates to the Blue Bombers, either.)

Has Tom Brodbeck shamed Selinger into backing down?

Winnipeg Sun columnist Brodbeck has challenged Selinger repeatedly, writing that $14.4 million is the real cost of fixing the old stadium enough to keep it operating for up to 10 years, more than enough time to make a measured plan to replace it instead of the back-of-the-envelope decisions that Selinger and Katz have taken to date.

He's written:

"The $52.5 million figure includes a whole range of enhancements like 20 new guest suites, renovated washrooms, relocated press facilities, upgrades to seating allowances and enhanced concession areas.
Those discretionary enhancements would cost $26.8 million, but they're not required to keep the stadium safe and functional. They would be designed to improve the fan experience."

A commenter attacked Brodbeck on a Saskatchewan Roughriders discussion board, making some points that have been repeated in Manitoba:
Under_Miner wrote:

"The guy should really research his facts. Whenever a building like this is upgraded or renovated the entire building MUST be brought up to current codes. That includes providing adequate barrier free access throughout seating, and other areas. It also includes Increasing exit capacity and reducing travel distance and bringing washroom facilities within compliance of current health requirements, which I'm certain the ones on the East side do not meet. Furthermore, electrical, mechanical and plumbing systems would all have to be replaced where the upgrades are being made, and they can't just be abandoned, they would have to be removed and disposed of. Also, providing adequate worker safety on a job like this would probably cost the builder into the millions. Every dollar in that amount cited is necessary."

But Brodbeck had addressed these claims in his original column.

"The report (commissioned by David Asper’s Creswin Properties) also speculates that if the stadium were to undergo major renovations by adding luxury boxes, upgraded seating and new food concessions, it’s possible there may be a need for building code upgrades. The bill for that “could” be $11 million, but the author of the report is not certain."

"What is certain is that the possible code upgrades are tied solely to the proposed enhancements, not to the $14.4 structural upgrades required to eliminate the leaky roof, the pigeons and the plumbing problems."

Is it possible that, faced with an impossible bill for a new stadium, Selinger is willing to concede that the only option is to keep the existing stadium operational until a solution acceptable to all is hammered out?

Which looks better going into an election---a small cost to buy time to make the right decision or a blank cheque written in haste?

Maybe the next leak will tell us what the untested Premier is saying in those secret meetings.

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