CentrePort Canada is turning away potential large-scale developments because of a lack of sewer and water servicing -- or even a schedule as to when it will be built -- and its angry CEO is demanding action.
In a very forceful speech to the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce Friday, Diane Gray said if the city wants to realize its goal to establish an inland port as a differentiator "that will put our city on the map, provide us with a unique calling card and ensure prosperity for the city and the province," then some decisive action is required on municipal servicing.
"We have been turning away -- yes, turning away -- large-scale distributions centres and other significant investors who have been forced to look at other locations because we can't give them a firm timeline on servicing," she said. "Large, anchor-style tenants cannot be built at CentrePort."
Buildings larger than 30,000 square feet require fire-suppression systems not possible without municipal services. Smaller buildings can drill their own wells, dig retention ponds and install diesel pumps and holding tanks.
Although $17 million in municipal and provincial funding has been in place for almost three years to build the sewer and water extension to about 400 hectares on the CentrePort footprint, a legal action by a Shoal Lake-area First Nation has completely stymied the project.
The dispute is over the City of Winnipeg's right to draw water from Shoal Lake, the source of the city's drinking water, and send it to neighbouring municipalities. Some of the CentrePort land is in the Rural Municipality of Rosser.
Gray noted the $212-million highway through CentrePort may be finished this year, yet its ability to leverage more development is dramatically curtailed without municipal services.
She said CentrePort can't even go out and market the land because businesses expect servicing. She said at least one large distribution centre that inquired about developing at CentrePort is going to another western Canadian location.
Gray was not able to guess as to when servicing might be in place.
"It's full-on uncertainty," she said.
When asked to provide an update as to the status of the CentrePort servicing project, a spokeswoman for the city said, "All I can say is that the city is negotiating service-sharing agreements with many municipalities."
But Gray and others believe the situation is becoming critical.
The province has engaged an engineering firm to probe the possibility of a Plan B that might somehow circumvent the municipal water system.
Nammi Poorooshasb, spokesman for Premier Greg Selinger, said, "The province is in the early stages of exploring what, if any, other options there may be. Our focus, however, remains servicing CentrePort with a hookup from the City of Winnipeg, as originally announced by the mayor and the premier."
Gray said the other options might mean a system that would treat groundwater or perhaps a hookup to a water-treatment facility outside of Winnipeg.
While that may seem drastic, Gray and others seem to think it's what the situation demands.
In talking about the issue, Dave Angus, the normally good-humoured president of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, was visibly wound up.
"This is not a new issue," he said. "We have been talking about this forever. Let's get on with it... It takes leadership... We have spoken to the mayor about this and there is every excuse in the world."
Chris Lorenc, head of the Manitoba Heavy Construction Association, a member of the board of directors of CentrePort and a former city councillor, said, "I think it is regrettable and unfortunate that we don't have decisions that would have by now provided the core service to the CentrePort lands. But I am optimistic that the decision to launch tendering of the sewer extension at least, could be imminent."