Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Not much has changed since last stadium was built

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'All we have to do now is go and build'

-- Bomber president Culver Riley on August 18, 1952, upon receiving final approval to build a new football stadium

'Let's dig'

-- Aspiring Bomber owner David Asper on May 20, 2010, at the sod-turning for a new football stadium

Should we build it? Who should build it? Who will pay for it?

It has always been thus.

Back in 1952, after years of failed attempts, a group of local businessmen formed a non-profit entity called the Winnipeg Enterprises Corp. to build a new $400,000 stadium for the city's beloved Winnipeg Blue Bombers. However, they needed a $500,000 guarantee from the City of Winnipeg to borrow the money.

The guarantee, which the city fathers insisted would probably "never be needed," was a point of some controversy. Many critics believed it was too risky and should have gone to referendum. The city resisted that option and Riley got the stadium built.

Almost 60 years later, it's amazing how little the debate has evolved.

Today, we have a private businessman (David Asper) who has a plan to build a new stadium that requires a $90-million taxpayer loan.

Not surprisingly, the descendants of the original stadium naysayers are out in full force. The deal is too rich, too risky, too ambitious.

Just as Riley did so many years ago, Asper seems undeterred. And like Riley, Asper is still selling the idea this project will rehabilitate the city's reputation, recasting Winnipeg as a place where things get done.

Communities have always judged themselves by their capacity to build and grow. It was like that in the 1950s, when Riley felt strongly a city like Winnipeg needed something better than a glorified municipal sandlot for its professional side. Riley told city council in March 1952, "the present stadium is hardly adequate as a symbol of a city which is going places."

This week, Asper pointed to the new stadium and other projects, including the rehabilitation of Assiniboine Park, the new international air terminal and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights at The Forks, as evidence Winnipeg "is a city on the move."

If new stadiums, airports and parks are evidence of a community on the move, is the failure to achieve these things a sign we are decaying?

In reality, there are a lot of things that define a community and a football stadium is just one of those things. But it's sometimes hard to resist the knee-jerk reaction to equate stadiums with progress, especially in a city that has made self-deprecation an art form.

Consider the angst created by the arrival of Ikea, the Swedish purveyor of furniture and housewares.

Ikea doesn't normally come to communities of less than one million residents. You would think getting a deal to bring all those elegantly named coffee tables and brightly coloured dinnerware to Winnipeg, we'd be doing a collective end-zone dance.

Nope. We had to wade through the usual naysayer muck. It's too big, too ambitious and, my personal favourite, it will ruin traffic patterns in a part of the city that is already overrun by minivans and SUVs.

Ikea doesn't make Winnipeg a better place to live. But no matter how you cut it, Ikea's arrival is a sign of a community on the move.

Which brings us to the Polo Park retail complex that will play a large role in repaying the taxpayer loan. The Elms has been promoted by Asper as an upscale "lifestyle" centre, the likes of which this city has never seen.

Asper has not revealed the anchor tenants, but we are promised they will be exciting, never-before-seen-in-Canada retailers.

Expectations are high, which means failure will be greeted with profound disappointment.

If carrying one project full of great expectations isn't enough, Asper now has two promising, ambitious developments to lug around, each of which will serve as a referendum on Winnipeg's ability to get things done.

Nothing is certain, except that the naysayers will continue to see mischief and greed in Asper's motivation and complain about the taxpayer loan as if it were being sucked out of mattresses all over the city.

One of this city's most enduring, but not endearing, qualities is the criticism we save for our most successful and ambitious citizens. Winnipeggers prefer to assume failure and then act pleasantly surprised if the thing works.

Asper will now carry that burden just as Riley carried it before him.

It is the burden of knowing that while the football stadium and the retail complex do not make Winnipeg a better place to live, failure to bring those two projects to fruition will add to the fear we are a city stuck in neutral.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 21, 2010 B1

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