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Does Grand Forks hole foretell Bombers bottomless pit?

We're betting your momma told you the simplest way to test something past its best-before date is---smell it.

Maybe that's why we decided to take a closer look at the latest story in the Free Press about a hotel and water park complex planned by Canad Inns for Grand Forks.

This deal has smelled bad for a long time. And when the Free Press said it smelled roses, we thought we needed to sniff around some more.

Good thing we did.

The story that ran Dec.2 in the Free Press was headlined "Ground broken in U.S. for Canad Inns complex." It was by Tu-Uyen Tran who's been following the project tenaciously for the Grand Forks Herald.

He wrote: "Grand Forks, N.D. --- Construction on a much-anticipated $30 million US Canad Inns hotel and waterpark in Grand Forks, N.D. has begun. Yesterday, excavators began digging a hole in the area immediately north of the city-owned Alerus Centre where the new complex is going to be built."

Now it just happens that Tran wrote about the excavators for the Grand Forks Herald, and that story, which also ran Dec. 2, had some fascinating details missing in his Winnipeg story.

"City residents Thursday saw the first physical sign of progress on Canad Inns' Grand Forks hotel and water park.
A milestone that went without fanfare, an excavator was digging a hole in the area immediately north of the city-owned Alerus Center where the $50 million complex is to be built.
For now, the work is limited to relocating water lines entering the center, according to the city inspections department. Canad has not yet picked up a permit that would allow construction of the foundation or the rest of the complex."

Soooo......its the City of Grand Forks that's started digging and not Canad Inns. This isn't the long-awaited, much postponed ground breaking. It's the city trying to create the impression that the hotel-slash-waterpark is not a mirage.

Which only makes sense. Nobody has as much political capital staked on Canad Inns as Mayor Mike Brown and his council.

"Every time you go on talk radio, it's always, 'How about the hotel?' It was always in the back of people's minds." he said.

When it was first proposed in 2002, the Canad Inns project was seen as a sign that Grand Forks was thriving. At 13 stories, it was to be the tallest structure in town next to the state Mill and Elevator. It was going to draw tourists like nothing before it, especially from the lucrative Winnipeg market.

Canad Inns originally wanted the city to build the 40,000 square foot waterpark. When it was put to a referendum, the people said "Nuts."

To keep the 193-room hotel alive, Canad offered to pay for the waterpark itself. But that threw the original budget of $16 million out the window. By the time city council approved the deal in spring 2004, the cost of the deal had risen to $35 million. It's since climbed to $50 million.

Grand Forks wants the project badly. They sweetened the pot with a 50-year lease on the land for $1 (U.S. of course). And some annual marketing money. And a five-year tax abatement. And a whole lot of patience,.

This year alone Canad said it would start construction in March, then October, then before the snow flew. In November, Canad Inn's project manager blamed the latest delay on a national shortage of steel and cement which was driving costs up.

People are getting frustrated. After an Oregon man won $340 million on a Powerball lottery, Grand Forks columnist Ryan Bakken put the Canad Inns entertainment centre on a list of things the winner could spend his money on:

2. A hotel, water park and movie theater to be attached to the Alerus Center, which has been held hostage three times longer than the detainees in Iran. The latest Canad Inns promise is to do ground work in October. With seven days left in the month, not a teaspoon of dirt has been turned.

No wonder the city wants it to appear as if the deal is on track at last.

But there's no doubt Canad Inns has been having financing problems, coincidentally right after their biggest booster - The Crocus Fund - went into the toilet. Grand Forks has transferred the lease on the land to a new limited partnership called Canad Inns Destination Center - Grand Forks L.P. If Canad can't finish the hotel, the consortium of banks will finish it for them.

Which is an interesting lesson for Winnipeg. Any day now the Blue Bombers will announce that they've completed their review of where to build a new stadium. They will say that the best site is still at the Red River Exhibition grounds where Canad Inns wants to build---you know it--- a hotel and waterpark in conjunction with a new stadium.

The lesson from Grand Forks is that if they want a high falutin' entertainment complex bad enough, they're going to wind up paying for it themselves, whether they want to or not.

That's something for Winnipeg City Council to ponder when the Blue Bombers come a'knocking.

And while we're on the topic of the smell test, it's time to face the truth and admit that the biggest movie ever filmed in Winnipeg, The Big White, is headed straight-to-video.

Filming ended a year and a half ago. Last year they said it would be released in December, 2005. Guess what. It's December, 2005. North American distributor Lion's Gate Films is sucking air after its latest big hope In The Mix, starring R&B star Usher, tanked. Who releases a winter movie in the summer?

And by next winter The Big White, starring some old guy with hairy arms, will be almost three years in the can. Something screenwriter and former Winnipeger Colin Friesen can't deny, even movies have best-before dates.

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