Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fascinating stories lie behind the big picture

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper (right), Premier Greg Selinger (left) and Diane Gray, CentrePort's president and CEO, opened the first section of the new CentrePort Canada Way expressway in Winnipeg in November.

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES Enlarge Image

Prime Minister Stephen Harper (right), Premier Greg Selinger (left) and Diane Gray, CentrePort's president and CEO, opened the first section of the new CentrePort Canada Way expressway in Winnipeg in November.

No matter what angle you take or how hard you look -- and believe us, we've been looking hard -- the economic performance of Manitoba in 2013 looked generally the same as it does most years.

A survey of the bank and institutional forecasters has tagged Manitoba's GDP growth rate at 2.6 per cent for 2012, 1.9 per cent for 2013 and 2.2 per cent in 2014, effectively mirroring the Canadian national experience.

The big picture didn't change much in 2013 for the same reason as always -- economic diversity. But it's within that mix where the good stories are cooked up.

Not a national player... Until it is 

The big national telcos were at war with the federal government all year and MTS once again seemed on the verge of being swallowed by one of the Big Three. A much-debated change in foreign ownership regulations made MTS's national business fibre-optics network, Allstream, eligible for a foreign capital infusion -- a mechanism the company believed would be the saviour for the underperforming division. Accelero, a very successful group led by Egyptian nationals, came forward in an orderly way to buy Allstream. The vetting process took place with no clue from anyone the Ottawa security apparatus had any problem until the very last minute, when they spiked the deal. It threw Canada's reputation as a place that is friendly to foreign investment into question and has put MTS back on its heels to come up with plan B for Allstream.

What do you mean there's no water?

As a concept, CentrePort has been marketed as having the potential to be the city's most important development in a generation. The concept includes actual greenfield development, which means water and sewer service will eventually be required. That means underground water pipes and an actual supply of water. A $212-million highway was finished this year, political leadership as high up as the prime minister himself was on board, all that's needed now is... water? How hard can that be? Very hard, it turns out. Legal issues with the city's legacy water supply cropped up just when anchor tenants (a Facebook server farm?) started to show interest. A new water-delivery scheme is now in the works and the current generation is counting on increasing longer life expectancy so they will be able to experience CentrePort's impact on the economy.

They're giving it away

For a long time now, the development of a functioning high-tech sector has been a goal for the province's big picture economic planners. And some real headway has been made with development of world-class medical devices and medical therapeutic technology. But this year IMRIS and DiaMedica left town and Monteris and Intelligent Hospital Systems were forced to move some of the production assets out of province. However, in an inspired move, the University of Manitoba instituted a new policy allowing private sector entities to use technologies developed by the university with no fees or strings attached until they become part of commercialized offerings. It could be a game-changer.

Meet the new boss

In a rare instance of minority shareholders successfully ousting management they believed had lost sight of shareholders interests, Manitoba tribal councils fired Allan McLeod, CEO of Tribal Councils Investment Group this year. They might have waited just a little too long to pull the trigger. It seems despite the awards and goodwill TCIG had garnered, several of the business units were ailing and the bank lender was already getting antsy. So now, months after the palace coup, there's still no CEO in place, two of the units have been closed and an 11th-hour re-financing has apparently fallen through. The news early in 2014 will be either the arrival of a saviour or total liquidation for TCIG.

Explorer discovers New Flyer

New Flyer Industries had the kind of year that solidifies a company's position in the competitive landscape for years to come. In January, it closed a $116-million strategic investment with Brazilian bus company, Marcopolo S.A., for 20 per cent of the company. That was followed by the purchase of the parts business of shuttered competitor, Orion, from Daimler Buses North America and the all-out acquisition of another competitor, North American Bus Industries. It's already working on an all-electric prototype and will soon start introducing a smaller, medium-sized transit bus for the North American market in partnership with a British firm. Meanwhile, aging bus fleets are forcing cities across North America back into the market and New Flyer's red rockets are looking better than ever.

What happened to all those parking lots?

Downtown Winnipeg's famous expanse of surface parking lots aren't gone yet but two potential new major downtown mixed-use developments and the long-discussed convention centre expansion now underway ought to add a dose of densification to a sprawling downtown long characterized by... parking lots. This isn't China, where highrise towers are built before tenants are even sought, but Toronto-based Fortress Real Developments is definitely serious about its proposed SkyCity Centre, a 45-storey, 400-condo project on Graham Avenue, as is local Longboat Development for its proposed So/Po Square on the current cityplace parking lot, another mixed use office/retail/hotel development.

A gas station for Santa?

OmniTRAX, the Denver company that owns the Hudson Bay Railway and the Port of Churchill, thought they'd finally found a commodity with enough global demand to ship out of its northern port that would make the northern port more economically active -- crude oil from the midwest Bakken basin. But then the tragic derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Que. put the shipment of oil by rail under the microscope. OmniTRAX says it's adamant it will test the feasibility this year but it's already a major public relations project causing nightmares for some who worry about oil tanker cars rolling on rickety tracks across all that pristine northern muskeg.

DIY start-ups 

The concept of a makerspace may not yet be part of the popular consciousness but whatever you want to call AssentWorks/Ramp-Up Manitoba's workspace in an old Exchange District warehouse, it is an amazing achievement. The headquarters for Winnipeg's red-hot start-up culture was already housing a handful of 3-D printers and a host of other high-tech production equipment even before the federal government handed the volunteer board nearly $500,000 to buy even more equipment this year. Founded two years ago by the visionary Michael Legary and a few partners, the grassroots co-op prototyping/research/start-up space is already the largest facility of its kind in the country.

No trespassing

In the rankings of "hot" sectors in 2013, mining was at the "cold" end of the spectrum. In Manitoba, matters were made worse by a number of First Nation demonstrations, including the attempted eviction of a long-standing gold mine development site near Red Sucker Lake. This year, the province finally rolled up its sleeves and started taking its duty to consult First Nations more seriously but not before Manitoba fell further down the list of international jurisdictions open to mining.

When is the bounty too bountiful?

This year's Prairie harvest was one of the best in history. It came after one of the worst droughts in years south of the border, which drove prices up. The huge harvest this year brought prices back down to earth and clogged up elevators, rail carriers, port terminals and on-farm storage capacity. Regardless of the collateral damage caused by the huge production volumes, farmers would take it over a failed crop any day.

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 28, 2013 B7

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About Martin Cash

Martin Cash joined the Free Press in 1987 as the paper’s business columnist.

He has spent two decades chronicling the city’s business affairs.

Martin won a citation of merit from the National Newspaper Awards in 2001 for his coverage of the strike and subsequent multi-million-dollar union settlement at the Versatile tractor plant. He has also received honours and awards for his work on agriculture and technology development in Manitoba.

Martin has written a coffee-table book about the commercial and industrial make-up of the city, called Winnipeg: A Prairie Portrait.

Martin Cash on Twitter: @martycash

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

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