Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Golf course boondoggle is par for Katz

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After a year of uncertainty, Mayor Sam Katz and his cabinet walked away Wednesday from plans to sell any of seven city-owned golf courses. Millions in potential cost savings, land-sale proceeds and new tax revenues were lost in the process.

The decision comes just as other mayors -- like Vancouver's Gregor Robertson -- are gearing up to allow housing development on their own courses. So why won't Katz go where other, greener mayors will? It's worth asking -- especially since there's evidence voters started out on Katz's side.

There were sound reasons to sell at least a few courses in Winnipeg's golf portfolio, especially for redevelopment.

First, golf-course land is ideal for housing. Encouraging housing development within the existing urban boundary is a high environmental priority

Golf courses are also tax-inefficient in public or private hands. Under provincial law, golf courses only pay tax on 10 per cent of their property value, so any redevelopment will mean a sizable bump in the city's tax base.

Finally, golf is in decline, and our courses are in poor condition. To keep all of our courses competitive, we'd have to invest more capital -- yet roads, bridges, the transit fleet and community centres all have a more urgent claim on scarce capital dollars.

Was the golf-course debate winnable? Absolutely. Last year, I asked Probe Research to poll Winnipeggers on two related questions. The results (from Sept. 21 to 28, accurate 19 times out of 20) speak for themselves:

Q: Would you say that you personally support or oppose the sale of city-owned golf courses?

A: Yes 45 per cent/No 30 per cent/Depends seven per cent/Unsure 18 per cent.

Q: Would you be more likely or less likely to support the sale of these city-owned golf courses if you were to learn the following:

The City of Winnipeg loses $1 million a year operating these courses.

A: More likely 55 per cent/Less likely 19 per cent.

Golf courses would be converted to infill housing.

A: More likely 33 per cent/Less likely 37 per cent.

So yes, there was a solid plurality of support to build on.

The problem: Neither Katz nor chief administrative officer Phil Sheegl have shown much interest in building -- or in this case, maintaining -- public support for anything.

For the latest proof, look no further than the golf-course bid process.

To sell golf-course land under the city charter, council needed the approval of a two-thirds super-majority. Yet in a situation where every vote counted, Sheegl's expression-of-interest process was as vague, suspicious and secretive as possible. It's as if city managers actually dared voters to assume the worst possible outcome.

What makes this failure so astounding is almost every criticism of golf-course sales could have been mitigated before a single bid was ever sought.

CUPE's greatest concern was the fate of dozens of seasonal workers who aren't protected by job-security clauses in the city contract. So why didn't anyone commit to redeploy any displaced employees from the get-go? Given the dollars involved, this promise would have paid for itself.

Residents living near golf courses were upset at losing "public green space." Fee-access golf courses aren't really public, but that objection could have been addressed, too. With hundreds of acres at stake, there was ample room to commit 50 per cent or 60 per cent of course lands for actual parks and green buffer zones in advance of any bids.

Finally, to give the project another positive outcome, city officials could have set aside some of the developed land exclusively for urgently needed rental housing.

To close the deal, the mayor and his allies needed to repeatedly remind voters of a simple, compelling fact: The idea of selling golf courses came from the city auditor. Foregrounding the audit recommendation would have also deflected the inaccurate claim that city-owned golf courses are actually profitable.

Instead, months passed. The seasons turned. Yet all city officials could be bothered to say was "trust us, we have a process." So the only sales pitch anyone heard was from critics. Officials quickly lost any hope of a two-thirds majority. And now we're supposed to believe there isn't a single acre of golf-course land that could be put to better use.

It happened that way because eight years after he was elected, Sam Katz, the concert promoter, still hasn't learned that it's a mayor's job to promote his political agenda. And four years after he entered public service, Phil Sheegl, the developer, is still trying to run the city public service as if it's a privately held realty firm.

How many more reversals will it take before either learns their lesson?


Brian F. Kelcey operates State of the City Research.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 21, 2012 A15

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