Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Project going down the drain?

Some councillors fear vote delay will be death of water-park plan

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Five members of city council's executive policy committee met Tuesday afternoon in a lobby between two committee rooms to discuss Winnipeg's latest plan to dole out a $7-million water-park grant.

The previous week at EPC, Couns. Justin Swandel (St. Norbert), Paula Havixbeck (Charleswood), Russ Wyatt (Transcona), Dan Vandal (St. Boniface) and Scott Fielding (St. James) voted in favour of a plan to sell the gravel surface lot known as Parcel Four for $6 million to Drumheller, Alta., hotelier Canalta, which planned to build 250 hotel rooms, a 50,000-square-foot water park and a 450-stall parkade at the 2.2-hectare site adjacent to The Forks.

The plan called for the city to give Canalta $7 million in exchange for $700,000 worth of admission credits every year for the next 25 years. But the absence of detail about the proposal -- and a growing body of emails, phone calls and social-media messages from unhappy constituents -- was giving many members of council cold feet.

Vandal and Fielding, in particular, started to express doubts during the Tuesday gathering about the Canalta proposal. Fielding said he was ready to accept amendments, while Vandal prepared a motion to delay any vote on the proposal until Canalta completed a public-access agreement, submitted a site plan and detailed building designs and consulted with the public, The Forks and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

According to varying accounts, no consensus could be reached at the Tuesday meeting. Havixbeck departed first, followed by Swandel, who proceeded to prepare a motion of his own to delay the council vote without amending the Canalta plan.

Normally, EPC votes as a bloc at city council. On major issues, Mayor Sam Katz usually counts on his unofficial cabinet to help deliver a majority of votes.

But in the absence of the mayor, who recused himself from all votes related to the parcel of land opposite Shaw Park, home to his Winnipeg Goldeyes, no one was capable of achieving, let alone enforcing, some form of consensus among EPC's personalities.

The result spilled out onto the floor of council at a remarkable Wednesday council meeting that saw Swandel defeated in an attempt to delay the vote for two more months. Denied even the opportunity to issue a closing speech, the deputy mayor could only watch as Vandal's rival motion to add conditions to the Canalta proposal and also delay it sailed through council in a 10-5 vote.

"I think it's reasonable to ask for that sort of information, given the magnitude of the investment," Vandal told reporters Wednesday after the vote. "It's a lot easier to convince the public this could be a positive thing when you have an accurate rendering behind you, when you have a business plan, when you have a site plan and know where structures are going to be located."

Since it wasn't an outright rejection of the Canalta proposal, Vandal's motion allowed the veteran councillor the opportunity to mitigate the optics of his reversal. To gain as much support on council as possible, he enlisted as seconder Old Kildonan Coun. Devi Sharma, the only vote left up for grabs on the water-park file.

Seven other councillors had already lined up against the water-park subsidy -- six on the left, plus pro-development council Speaker Grant Nordman (St. Charles), whose weekend decision to speak out against the Canalta proposal accelerated the opposition's momentum. Meanwhile, both Fielding and North Kildonan Coun. Jeff Browaty saw their resolve weaken; the latter said Canalta didn't respond to his calls.

The three remaining Canalta supporters on council -- Swandel, Havixbeck and Wyatt -- could not contain their disappointment with what they described as a disingenuous council decision that will lead the hotelier to give up on what would have been a $75-million investment in Winnipeg.

Wyatt called Vandal's motion a "delay tactic to the inevitable" because no company would invest an estimated $200,000 in site plans and designs without the assurance of a project at the end.

"We just shut the door on somebody who wants to do business with us," added Havixbeck, who said she believed the project is dead in the water.

Swandel accused his council colleagues of disrespecting Canalta by not even giving the chain the chance to better explain its position. He also said the hotel chain has been demonized as a small-town company by opponents, accused the Canadian Taxpayers Federation of "superficial rhetoric" and dismissed the public response to the project -- which one online activist hailed as a "success for participatory democracy" -- as an orchestrated campaign.

In the end, a relatively young and inexperienced council waffled in the face of opposition, Swandel charged.

"What we saw today was a lack of political courage," he said.

Project opponents, however, accused Swandel of not standing up for voters. Nordman, the council Speaker, told Swandel not to worry about Canalta's feelings. "They're big boys, they'll get over it," he quipped.

Daniel McIntyre Coun. Harvey Smith, who broke his hip in January, rose from his wheelchair to insist he could not simply trust Canalta will deliver on promises to create a development that befits The Forks. "We shouldn't act like a church and just have faith," Smith said.

Ultimately, Vandal made no apologies for bowing to the will of his constituents. "I think we're cognizant of what our citizens are thinking," he said.

Mayor Katz, having recused himself from the water-park debate, was not permitted to utter a word in public about the latest setback to a water-park plan he has championed since 2008.

Canalta did not respond to calls Wednesday.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca jen.skerritt@freepress.mb.ca

THE VOTE

Council voted 10-5 Tuesday in favour of St. Boniface Coun. Dan Vandal's motion to hold off on approving a hotel and water-park proposal slated for the city-owned gravel parking lot known as Parcel Four. The motion requires developer Canalta to come back with a site plan, detailed building designs, a completed community access agreement and engage in public consultations.

Here's how the vote broke down:

 

In favour of delaying approval, seeking more information (10): Couns. Vandal, Devi Sharma (Old Kildonan), Jenny Gerbasi (Fort Rouge), Scott Fielding (St. James), Jeff Browaty (North Kildonan), Harvey Smith (Daniel McIntyre), John Orlikow (River Heights), Ross Eadie (Mynarski), Thomas Steen (Elmwood) and Brian Mayes (St. Vital).

 

Against Vandal's motion due to complete opposition to the Canalta plan (two): Couns. Grant Nordman (St. Charles) and Mike Pagtakhan (Point Douglas).

 

Against Vandal's motion due to support for the existing Canalta plan (three): Couns. Justin Swandel (St. Norbert), Paula Havixbeck (Charleswood) and Russ Wyatt (Transcona).

 

Recused: Mayor Sam Katz recused himself from the debate because he's the majority owner of the Winnipeg Goldeyes, which play at Shaw Park, north of Parcel Four.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 26, 2012 A3

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