Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Is that Winnipeg under a laser beam?

Ex-mayor Thompson has some interesting ideas

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If all goes well, history will remember Susan Thompson as the Winnipeg mayor who wrestled power away from bureaucrats, handed it to council and enabled her successors to make meaningful municipal change.

During six years in office, the first woman to run this city fought with an Old Boys club known as the Board of Commissioners -- a group of appointed administrators -- and eventually emerged victorious. Glen Murray, Sam Katz and every future Winnipeg mayor have Thompson to thank for empowering elected leaders in this city.

All of this nice stuff must be said up front to contextualize a speech delivered by Thompson on Friday, when members of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce gathered to hear the former mayor unveil a future vision for the city -- her first pronouncements about municipal issues in more than 15 years.

What they wounding up hearing was the funniest comedy routine ever delivered in the second-floor ballroom of the Fairmont hotel, where many a best man has failed miserably at the task of making a toast to the bride and groom.

Thompson, who now lives in Vancouver, proposed a garish image makeover for Winnipeg that would make the Vegas strip seem as subdued as an industrial park on the outskirts of Estevan.

To announce itself to the world, Thompson suggested Winnipeg cover itself with a laser pyramid that would be visible from space. She said she suggested a similar idea to executive policy committee in the 1990s, only to see it get shot down on the basis lasers would interfere with airplane traffic.

Thompson also suggested Winnipeggers with no interest in going for a polar-bear dip on New Year's Day could instead immerse themselves in hot tubs placed at Portage and Main, which would be decorated with fake palm trees.

She also surmised Winnipeg's image routes could be spruced up by planting evergreens alongside major streets such as the drive in from Richardson International Airport. Since road-salt-tolerant conifers do not exist, she suggested someone develop a hybrid evergreen that could survive on Route 90.

It all sounded like a joke: A wry and cutting jab at the ridiculous sort of boosterism you might expect to hear at a chamber of commerce luncheon.

Except Winnipeg's 40th mayor wasn't kidding about anything. Winnipeg needs a laser pyramid, Portage and Main hot tubs and hybridized, Route 90-enshrouding evergreens in order to be a world-class city where people want to live, she insisted after her speech concluded.

"We have to attract more industries; we have to attract more people to our city in order to elevate our economic base. Why do people go to Paris? What does the Eiffel Tower do for you?" she said. "It is a tool in which to attract people to come to the city to spend money and attract more population."

So there you have it: The most important political figure in Winnipeg in the 1990s believes converting the city into a giant Luxor hotel is a more pressing concern than solving the infrastructure crisis, ending child poverty or diversifying the city's economy. Or rather, a laser pyramid would be the key to ENDING all those problems. Too bad she stopped there.

Imagine how far this city could go if we attached laser beams to Mark Scheifele's head while he rides Hudson the polar bear into the lobby of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights on Louis Riel Day?

Never mind world-class. We'd be galaxy-class, at that point. The entire population of Botswana would probably move here within minutes.

To be fair, Thompson also proposed some less wacky ideas, although all of them are untenable. She said Winnipeg should be a leader in the field of electric-car production -- mainly because we have cheap hydro power and already plug in our cars.

She said the city should create a trust fund for infrastructure renewal and let the Winnipeg Foundation administer it. She said Lake Winnipeg should be cleaned up and a second source of drinking water should be found to augment Shoal Lake.

The city actually looked at piping in Winnipeg River water in the 1980s, but abandoned that idea when per capita water usage started dropping. A second aqueduct would cost billions -- but Thompson isn't interested in hearing why things can not happen.

"I've heard it a million times. Where there's a will, there's a way," she said. "A lot of my ideas were not embraced, but that's what perseverance is all about."

Thompson's speech was met with a standing ovation and applause. Chamber president Dave Angus said he liked what she had to say because Winnipeg ought to think big.

Here's a bold idea for the chamber: Deal with actual problems. Leave the laser beams for Las Vegas and focus on the gritty, boring task of making this city better.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 18, 2014 A4


Updated on Saturday, January 18, 2014 at 11:45 AM CST: Replaces photo

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives


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