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Bequest a windfall for tiny Waskada

Woman's gift of mineral rights pours cash into town's coffers

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An oil well at work.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES Enlarge Image

An oil well at work. Photo Store

WASKADA -- The Village of Waskada, Manitoba's smallest incorporated municipality, is about to spend $3.5 million to replace an aging hockey rink with a new state-of-the-art facility.

The southwestern Manitoba community, which boasts 185 official residents, has a new $240,000 fire engine and just paved a new section of road for $250,000. It recently hooked up all its homes and businesses to a regional water supply, collects both garbage and recyclables and even spends $1,600 a year placing flowers in pots on Railway Avenue, the lone commercial thoroughfare.

While most Manitoba municipalities struggle to find enough revenue to pay for basic services, the smallest of them all is flush with cash -- thanks to the southwestern Manitoba oil boom and the dying wishes of the daughter of a former resident.

In 2002, when 93-year-old Mabel Pounder passed away, she gave the Village of Waskada a gift: the mineral rights to a tract of land in the nearby RM of Arthur.

Those rights now translate into $600,000 a year for a village of only 185 people, who collectively generate only $154,000 in property-tax revenues.

"I hate to mention this, because some people are jealous," said Waskada Mayor Gary Williams, driving his pickup truck around the outskirts of Waskada, which sits about 10 kilometres north of the U.S. border. "Our community is able to do things a lot of other communities can not."

The full impact of Pounder's bequest to Waskada was not felt immediately. During the initial years after her death, her gift translated into an average of about $60,000 in additional revenue for the village, which sits in the middle of a dense collection of oil wells known to the industry as the "Waskada play."

Pumpjacks have been extracting oil from below the canola fields and cattle ranches around the village for decades. But recent advances in horizontal-drilling technology -- which allows access to thin layers of otherwise inaccessible deposits -- allowed much more oil to start flowing from below the land where Pounder retained the mineral rights.

In 2011, Waskada's oil royalties nearly doubled to $113,000. The following year, Waskada's windfall more than quadrupled.

Chief administrative officer Diane Woodsworth said the village most certainly could not afford a new hockey rink -- let alone curbside garbage-and-recycling collection and civic beautification -- without the bequest, which makes up more than two-thirds of Waskada's nearly $900,000 annual budget.

"If it wasn't for Mrs. Pounder, we wouldn't have all this," she said, echoing Williams' contention Waskada would otherwise be in the same boat as most other Manitoba municipalities -- that is, struggling to balance their budgets. "We would be, too, if it wasn't for her."

Waskada isn't alone in experiencing a direct windfall from the recent oil boom. The nearby RM of Pipestone also holds mineral rights to oil-producing land, ironically due to the economic disaster during the dust bowl era.

In the 1930s, struggling farmers walked away from their land in Pipestone, leaving both their land and the mineral rights below it in the hands of the municipality, said Arthur-Virden MLA Larry Maguire.

"They walked away from the surface of the land, unaware there was anything of value below it," said Maguire, who represents almost all of the southwestern Manitoba communities dealing with the benefits and drawbacks of the oil boom.

Waskada, which remains the epicentre, would be experiencing some form of economic renaissance even without oil royalties. But the direct infusion of $600,000 makes financial decision-making easier for the tiniest of Manitoba villages.

"Imagine if more people did what Mabel Pounder did," Williams asks. "Most people give half to the government and half to three kids who don't need it. This woman, she made a difference."

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca


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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 15, 2013 A7

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Updated on Thursday, August 15, 2013 at 6:25 AM CDT: Replaces photos

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