A non-profit Christian group wants to transform one of downtown's dreariest corners into a $11.7-million youth centre, complete with an indoor skate-and-BMX park, climbing wall and job-training centre.
But Winnipeg Centre MP Pat Martin is slamming a proposed city contribution to the project as "taxpayer-funded proselytization."
Youth For Christ, which operates 15 programs across Winnipeg, plans to build a 50,000-square-foot "Youth Centre of Excellence" at the northwest corner of Main Street and Higgins Avenue, a one-acre empty lot owned by downtown development agency CentreVenture.
"It would bring all our programs together under one roof," executive director John Courtney said. "That would open up new services and opportunities."
The youth centre would include a multi-sport gym, dance studio, fitness centre, skate-and-BMX park, drop-in centre, theatre, classroom, counselling facilities and a job-training centre. Youth For Christ also plans to move its main offices from Talbot Avenue to the new facility.
Construction is slated to begin in April and finish up in March 2011. Youth For Christ has raised $3.1 million privately toward the project so far and seeks more funds from the federal government.
On Wednesday, city council's executive policy committee agreed to contribute $2.6 million to the project.
The plan, which still faces council approval, calls for CentreVenture to loan Youth For Christ $2.6 million upfront. The City of Winnipeg would then pay the agency back over 15 years at a rate of $225,000 a year, beginning in 2011. St. Norbert Coun. Justin Swandel, city council's downtown development chairman, said the project will clean up "an eyesore" at Higgins and Main. CentreVenture CEO Ross McGowan called the project "a perfect fit" for the northern edge of downtown because it provides a desperately needed recreation outlet for inner-city youth.
But NDP MP Martin said the project should not receive any public funds, as he believes Youth For Christ tries to convert "vulnerable, impressionable kids" to what he described as fundamentalist Christian views.
"I have no objection to faith-based organizations providing services. Sally Ann (the Salvation Army) and others have been doing a great job for years. But these people are evangelical fundamentalists," Martin said. "Offering much-needed sports opportunities is just their way of luring in young prospects."
Martin said he personally opposes federal funding for the project and hopes the Conservative government does as well. "Would the federal government be so willing to give them $3 million if they were called Youth for Allah?" he quipped.
Manitoba's NDP government has also declined to fund the project, said Point Douglas Coun. Mike Pagtakhan, who said he's thrilled to see the project materialize, but disappointed by the province.
"I had heard they might have had a concern there might be preaching going on. But this is a non-denominational group. There will be peer programming," Pagtakhan said.
Courtney said Martin may be confusing Youth For Christ with another Christian organization. The proposed downtown facility will be open to youths of all faiths, Courtney said.
"I don't know Pat Martin personally, but my guess is Pat would have a problem with public funding of any religious organization," he said.
Youth For Christ already works with approximately 4,300 youths a year in Manitoba, mostly in Winnipeg.
Courtney said the centre will help it reach more than 10,000 by 2015. "It's not just to make it easier for us, it's to expand and grow," he said.
The organization's projects are scattered throughout the city. Some facilities, such as the The Edge skate park behind the Centennial Concert Hall, are in need of serious repair, Courtney said.
CentreVenture is working on a separate deal to sell the land at Higgins and Main to the organization, possibly by increasing the size of its loan.