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Arctic chill blows in

Katz, province at odds over $17-M loan guarantee for new zoo exhibit

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MAYOR Sam Katz says the City of Winnipeg is poised to guarantee a $17-million loan to help build Assiniboine Park Zoo’s ambitious new Arctic exhibit after, he alleges, the province declined to offer a loan of its own.

The Selinger government, however, maintains that a loan guarantee is not part of its support for the project, which exceeds $30 million.

The Assiniboine Park Conservancy is in the midst of building a 10-acre exhibit called Journey to Churchill, a $58-million project that encompasses a state-of-the-art polar-bear enclosure, an interpretive centre, Manitoba’s first seal exhibit, a tundra garden and new enclosures for existing zoo species such as caribou, muskoxen, snowy owls, tundra swans and Arctic foxes.

When it opens in 2013 or 2014, Journey To Churchill is intended to be the centrepiece of the revitalized zoo, which is undergoing an extensive makeover. Park administrators expect the exhibit to be one of the top tourist attractions in the city and province, the latter billing itself as the polar bear capital of the world.

To date, the province has pledged $31 million toward the Arctic exhibit, while the Richardson Foundation has led private donations with a $5-million gift. The city is contributing $4.5 million to the conservancy next year as part of an annual cash commitment to park renewal.

While the Assiniboine Park Conservancy plans to raise the remaining $17 million from private donors, the non-profit agency expected the province to advance the money to allow further construction to proceed, Katz said Wednesday.

"The APC had direct dialogue with the province. That didn’t go the way they assumed, so now there is a shortfall," the mayor said.

"It appears as we speak right now, this project could be delayed and we do not know when it might happen," Katz said. "We’re very concerned, because Journey to Churchill is a major, significant part of the whole rejuvenation of Assiniboine Park" Katz said council’s executive policy committee will soon consider a city guarantee of up to $17 million in loans for the project.

Under the plan, the conservancy would pay interest on the loan until 2016 and then start paying back the principal. If the conservancy defaults on the loan, the city will pay the tab by clawing back on its annual $4.5-million capital contribution to Assiniboine Park, Katz said.

The province declined to extend a loan because it does not own all the facilities within Journey To Churchill, the mayor claimed, adding he doesn’t buy the Selinger government’s alleged logic.

"They guaranteed the (Winnipeg Football Club’s) stadium loan and they don’t own it," he said, referring to the facility under construction Ka at the University of Manitoba.

A spokesman for the Selinger government indirectly challenged Katz’s version of events.

"We are incredibly supportive of the project and made the initial commitment of $31 million on the condition that the APC raise the remaining funds from other sources, including the private sector," Matt Williamson said in a statement. "The additional $17 million they are seeking is part of that obligation. It has never been the understanding that the province would contribute more than $31 million."

Along with building Journey To Churchill, the Assiniboine Park Conservancy’s renovation plans for the next two years include a new main entrance to the zoo along Corydon Avenue, new washrooms, a new restaurant and a new kids’ play area.

The conservancy has already completed the conversion of the zoo’s former black- and grizzlybear enclosure into a rescue facility for orphaned polar bears, under the auspices of the International Polar Bear Conservation Centre, which also includes research and educational components.

Assiniboine Park Zoo has been without a public display area for polar bears since the death of Debby the polar bear in 2008. The facility is capable of housing orphaned polar bears immediately, but they would not be placed on public display until it’s time to acclimatize the animals, who would otherwise be destroyed, for life in other zoos.

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