Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Winnipeg goes 0-for-3 on new stadium

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The sun sets during the inaugural game at Investors Group Field in Winnipeg on June 27, 2013.


The sun sets during the inaugural game at Investors Group Field in Winnipeg on June 27, 2013. Photo Store

There's an old joke in the design world -- it may even be the oldest joke -- that if you want to build something good, quick and cheap you'll be forced to pick two out of three.

Build something cheaply and quickly, and it won't be any good. Build it cheap and good, and it won't happen quickly. And if you build something really good really freaking quickly, it absolutely won't come cheap.

Investors Group Field, which opened an entire Canadian Football League season late, appears to be an example of something relatively good that was constructed in a relatively inexpensive manner.

The 33,500-seat new home of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers can be considered cheap even though its entirely government-financed price tag wound up being $204 million, or $14 million more than a "guaranteed maximum price" that was fixed at the start of the construction process.

The ongoing legal action between contractor Stuart Olson Dominion Construction and steel-fabricating subcontractor Structal suggests the true cost of the building is actually much higher. But since the taxpayer and the Winnipeg Football Club aren't on the hook for whatever that cost may be, it appears the client wound up with a reasonable financial deal, notwithstanding the cost overruns stemming from incomplete original designs and change orders.

Investors Group Field can also be considered good in the sense most fans appreciate the sightlines in the new building, which is a huge esthetic improvement over Canad Inns Stadium. IGF is also good in the sense it provides more revenue-generating potential for the Winnipeg Football Club and better offices and training facilities for the team.

The big question is whether IGF will prove good enough in the long run, given what Winnipeggers now know about the bizarre process by which the city's new football stadium was conceived, designed and eventually built.

The right way to build a public megaproject is to take your time and plan it carefully. Investors Group Field was born out a series of shotgun weddings; it is the construction equivalent of an unplanned pregnancy that has resulted in a child we must learn to love.

The first impetus to build the new stadium materialized in 2004, when the football club started tallying up the unappetizing cost of further fixing up a 1950s-era park. Then came an inquest into the death of a Bomber fan at a stadium suddenly deemed unsafe. By the time David Asper reached a deal to build a new facility and buy the club, the economics of his plan proved impossible.

So the Selinger government, faced with the unpleasant prospect of heading into a 2011 provincial election with an unknown future for the beloved Bombers, decided to backstop the entire project on its own.

This series of events led to all sorts of problems, including a lack of due diligence about the University of Manitoba site (hey, that water table's higher than we guessed!) to an incomplete initial design (hey, there's no way to get concert-goers onto the playing surface!) to a remarkable failure of project oversight (hey, we can save money on this thing by choosing not to enclose the press box! The CFL will never notice).

Even one of the most basic features of this project -- a bubble supposed to enclose the field during the winter -- was scrapped after it was deemed impractical. But nobody disclosed this cancellation to the public in 2012, when Bomber fans were already angry the building was a year late.

It's tempting to blame the football club, but former president and CEO Garth Buchko has already been turfed by the Bomber board. It's also tempting to blame BBB Stadium Inc., but former chairman Phil Sheegl has already resigned from the City of Winnipeg. It's not tempting to blame the U of M, the least powerful of the four stadium stakeholders.

So who's left to shoulder the burden? Only the ineffectual Bomber board and the Selinger government, which chose not to disclose stadium problems as they arose.

You can read this as a diffusion of responsibility, an absence of accountability or even outright cowardice.

All three conclusions may be correct -- but they do not represent the entire picture.

IGF was built under a "construction-management" model, where building designs change on the fly in an effort to find ways to save money as issues arise. But this model doesn't work when there's a rush to complete a project, whether it's a $204-million football stadium or a $210-million police headquarters.

Even with the year-long delay, the fact is Investors Group Field wound up getting built somewhat quickly. Since it was also sort of cheap and relatively good, defying the old design adage, the fear is Winnipeg just went zero-for-three. Again.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 11, 2013 B1


Updated on Wednesday, December 11, 2013 at 7:16 AM CST: adds 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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