Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Rights museum faces cash crunch

Virtually all of $2.3M to develop project gone

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OTTAWA -- The proposed human rights museum for The Forks is facing a cash crunch after spending virtually all the $2.3 million in federal funding provided to help develop Israel Asper's pet project.

Documents obtained by the Free Press reveal Winnipeg's Asper family is seeking additional cash for developmental expenses needed to keep the museum dream alive while Ottawa decides whether to answer their call for an extra $70 million for capital costs.

However, the Western Diversification briefing notes make clear it is difficult for the department to consider further funding of developmental costs unless questions surrounding the request for additional capital funding is resolved.

"In order to be viable, the project likely requires this additional federal funding for capital, some amount of funding for operations as well as potentially, a commitment to purchase human rights training/services," says a July 22, 2004, briefing note to Western Diversification Minister Stephen Owen.

"The size of WD's budget does not permit the department to fund the requested amounts from existing programs.

"The same appears to be true of the Department of Canadian Heritage... it is difficult for WD to continue to contribute towards these (developmental) costs without commitments in place for the project's capital costs."

The documents also show the museum is projecting annual revenues of only $4.5 million as part of a budget plan estimating yearly costs of $16.5 million. The Asper-led project is banking on Ottawa to provide $12 million annually in operating funding -- an amount the federal government has to date deemed a non-starter.

The next few months will be critical for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights as federal Treasury Board President Reg Alcock works on a plan to secure additional federal funding for the project. Premier Gary Doer has declared the project is one of his government's priorities and he met last month with Prime Minister Paul Martin and Alcock where the museum was discussed.

The $2.3 million provided to the project in April 2003 was supposed to last until March 31, 2005. However, the documents show the Aspers were warning the federal government in July that they only had enough money left to last until about November.

Kim Jasper, spokeswoman for the Asper Foundation, said the project remains on track but would not reveal how much extra federal money is being sought to pay for developmental costs.

"We understand some of the unique challenges this type of project presents," Jasper said.

"Right now, we are working with our government partners to find a formula that works for everyone. We expect to have some answers in the first quarter of 2005."

Jasper also said the museum's projected budget, including its revenue line, is being rejigged.

"We are currently updating these numbers," she said.

"Projected revenues include admissions and memberships, onsite sales, and endowment monies and do not include government and other grant contributions that will support various annual initiatives."

For the past nine months, the Aspers have waged an intense lobbying effort designed to squeeze more money from Ottawa for the museum first proposed by the family patriarch and media mogul Israel Asper, who died last year. To date, Ottawa has committed $27 million in capital funding plus $2.3 million for the developmental costs. Ottawa also paid $700,000 for a feasibility study. Both the province and city hall have each pledged $20 million toward what is envisioned as a $200-million project.

The federal records released to Ottawa-based researcher Ken Rubin show some of the $2.3 million in federal funding to cover architectural and design costs flowed to CanWest Media Inc. and Creswin Properties Ltd., a private corporation controlled by the Asper Corp.

In the case of the Asper's Canwest Media Inc., a bill for a $1,400 Toshiba DVD player was submitted and paid. They paid their Creswin Properties $9,700 for computer equipment, postage and Fed-Ex courier charges.

According to the expense claims submitted by Friends of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, they were able to "significantly reduce some operating costs by sharing infrastructure, hardware and software with Creswin."

WD spokeswoman France Guimond defended the department's approval of spending to Asper-controlled companies.

"These are project costs which were incurred by these companies on behalf of the museum in order to obtain these goods and services at a reasonable price," she said.

"It is not the purchase of existing assets from the Asper controlled companies, there are no fees or profits."

The documents also show that while the Aspers talk of the project in terms of a national museum, they don't want it listed under the Museums Act.

"The Asper family originally sought to have the CMHR put under the Museums Act but the federal government declined,'' says the WD briefing note. "At this time, the Friends no longer desires this approach since it could reduce community control over exhibits and programming. As currently planned, donors, including governments, will have some level of influence over the museum's evolution as will stakeholder groups consulted during the development of the exhibits as well as human rights experts. There may be a delicate balance at times between the concerns of major donors and those of groups that are not significant donors but still seek coverage of specific human rights stories."

Meanwhile, Jasper said the winner of the architectural contest originally scheduled for release this summer will be announced soon.

"We know the public is just as excited to hear the winning design as we are to announce it," she said.

"Friends of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights will announce the winning design in the first quarter of 2005 -- after we have concluded our due diligence related to this particular architectural treatment. An exact date has not yet been selected."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 3, 2005 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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