If you had $7 million to blow on recreation in Winnipeg, how would you go about spending that cash?
This is no abstract question about some hypothetical pot of money. It's a real decision that will soon come before city council, as Mayor Sam Katz's dream of spending public funds on a private water park has lived to splash another day.
Way back in 2005, when Katz was still a rookie mayor, he managed to convince the late Reg Alcock -- then Manitoba's senior MP -- to allow the city to redirect a pile of cash originally set aside for a bus-corridor project approved the previous year by departed mayor Glen Murray.
With Alcock's reluctant blessing, Katz won the right to spend $43 million of the $51-million purse that had been set aside for a southwest rapid-transit corridor. The following year, council decided to spend $9 million of this cash on pool improvements at Kildonan Park.
But that plan also wouldn't go forward, as projected cost overruns led Katz's office to devise what could be described as this mayor's water-park Waterloo: A plan to spend $7 million of the transit-cum-recreation cash on a privately owned and operated water park.
In early 2008, Katz announced Kildonan Park's aquatic facilities would still get a $2.8-million facelift, but the search was on for a private developer to build that water park. Months later, the city chose a Canad Inns hotel plan to build the water park as part of an expansion to the Winnipeg chain's Polo Park hotel.
But the details of this plan proved difficult to work out, as the private water park had to remain accessible to people of all incomes in order to be eligible for the city grant.
When no progress on the water park was made by early 2009, the city yanked the grant away from Canad Inns and issued a new search for a private partner.
By the end of that year, the city was entertaining a plan to build a $64-million luxury hotel and water park on one of the most valuable pieces of publicly owned property in Winnipeg: "Parcel Four," a six-acre plot of land at the southwest corner of William Stephenson Way and Waterfront Drive, directly opposite the future Canadian Museum for Human Rights and two hops south of Shaw Park, home of the Winnipeg Goldeyes baseball club.
According to councillors who attended a closed-door seminar about the luxury-hotel proposal, a private developer was willing to pay $7.7 million for Parcel Four. This in itself was fascinating, given the previous year's city hall scandal: the Riverside Park Management affair, a parking-lot rent dispute between the Sam Katz-owned Winnipeg Goldeyes and the City of Winnipeg, presided over by the very same Sam Katz.
The crux of that scandal was the assessed value of Parcel Four, which determined what sort of rent the city would charge to Riverside Park Management, a non-profit entity that sublets city land to the Goldeyes. Riverside Park, which listed Katz as its president until April 2008, had spent three years arguing Parcel Four was not worth $3.7 million.
In 2009, city property officials were entertaining an offer worth more than double that amount for the same land.
Given the unfortunate optics, it's no surprise the luxury-hotel plan never came forward to city council in the form of a formal report. But Katz never gave up on the water-park plan, even in the face of ridicule for being hell-bent on spending public funds on what no sane individual could describe as a core city service.
Right now, with the mayor justifying the sale of some city-owned golf courses on the basis golf isn't a core city service, council is about to consider spending $7 million on yet another hotel and water-park plan at Parcel Four.
On Wednesday, Katz said a plan will soon come before city council. Other sources identified the proposed developer as Canalta, a Drumheller-based chain with 34 hotel properties.
The fact this issue arose this week is a little bit awesome, given today's opening of the Southwest Transitway, a bus corridor built along the very same lines as the underfunded plan Katz cancelled in 2004.
But it also provides Winnipeggers with one heck of an opportunity: They can tell this mayor whether they do in fact want him to spend $7 million on a water park -- or whether some other recreational facility could better use that cash.
Across this city, there are pools, hockey rinks and community centres in awful shape. The mayor is well aware of this, as he spearheaded a plan to offer up $1 million in new grants for community centres in need of upgrades.
Yet the single largest recreation priority for this mayor remains a water park. Asked again about this on Thursday, Katz said if Grand Forks and Steinbach can have one, Winnipeg should have one, too.
So the question remains: If you controlled $7 million in public recreation funds, would you spend it on a private water park?
Splish splash, we're all taking a bath!
A brief history of Mayor Sam Katz's water-park plan:
2004: All three levels of government announce plans to share the $51-million cost of a southwest transit corridor, which is cancelled following the election of Sam Katz.
2005: Katz convinces the province and Ottawa to allow the city to redirect $43 million of the transit-corridor cash to recreational facilities in Winnipeg.
2006: City council votes to spend $9 million of this cash on pool improvements at Kildonan Park.
2008: Increased cost projections on the Kildonan Park project leads council to amend the plan, spending only $2.8 million on park improvements, and offer a $7-million grant to a private water-park developer. After entertaining several offers, the city chooses a Canad Inns plan to build a water park at an expanded version of the Winnipeg chain's Polo Park hotel.
2009: The city withdraws the grant to Canad Inns after no progress is made at Polo Park. After the city launches a new search for a private partner, a developer approaches council with a plan to build a $64-million luxury hotel and water park on Parcel Four, a chunk of city-owned land near The Forks, once leased to Riverside Park Management and sublet to the Winnipeg Goldeyes. Councillors are told during a closed-door seminar the city would receive $7.7 million for the land.
2010: During the mayoral campaign, Katz says he still wants to award a grant to a private water-park developer and said an announcement could be made soon.
2012: Katz says council will soon peruse a new plan to build a hotel and water park at Parcel Four. Drumheller, Alta., chain Canalta Hotels is reputed to be the developer.