Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

No good idea goes unpunished

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Someone said recently the American Declaration of Independence would never have been approved if it had been subject to the scrutiny of modern media.

On the other hand, maybe the historic document would have outlawed slavery if the authors had been barraged by bloggers, mainstream columnists and online reaction.

Most of Winnipeg's signature projects over the last 100 years have been subject to various degrees of political and public opposition, all of it brought to you by media. Good leadership, however, ensured most, but not all, of those projects overcame petty opposition.

When Winnipeg was planning the construction of an aqueduct to transport drinking water from Shoal Lake, for example, it wasn't exactly a slam dunk. Some municipalities objected to the visionary project because it might mean they'd also have to install sewer systems as well as water mains. It was a burden to taxpayers.

After the Second World War, a group of community-minded citizens said the city needed new facilities to replace Osborne Stadium and the Amphitheatre Rink located near the Great-West Life site. Opponents said the existing facilities were still working and there was no need to replace them. The money needed to build new athletic centres could be better spent, they said.

Fortunately, the city's wily business community overcame the opposition and a new stadium and arena were built near present-day Polo Park shopping centre. A newspaper later lamented "the tendency of most Winnipeg citizens... to be satisfied with things which were definitely second rate and unworthy of the city's name."

Needless to say, plans in the 1960s for a new Winnipeg Art Gallery, concert hall, planetarium and other projects were subjected to criticism and opposition, all of it on behalf of the taxpayer, of course.

When the cost of Ottawa's National Arts Centre rose from $9 million to $36 million in 1966 (it would rise even higher before it was built), the Free Press sounded a cautionary note about Manitoba's cultural megaprojects, while noting (regrettably) the money being spent in Ottawa could have been put to better use.

The Red River Floodway battled stiff opposition over expropriations and other issues, as did the floodway expansion that was recently completed.

The MTS Centre came close to never happening because of a relatively small group of vocal opponents who wanted to save the Eaton's building or who opposed taxpayer support for the new arena. A principal partner even pulled most of his money from the deal because of the opposition, which became very personal, including the uttering of death threats.

The pedestrian bridge over the Red River is today one of the city's most recognized postcard images, but it was just too expensive for some critics who called it the "dink bridge," apparently because of its phallic tower.

The province, in fact, was so terrified of negative media coverage it redirected its infrastructure funds to other projects at the time.

Leadership isn't what it used to be.

There are some people who think society shouldn't spend a dime on art or beautiful ideas until every last pothole has been fixed and poverty eliminated, but if they had run the community over the last 100 years, there wouldn't be a symphony or a ballet, a historic park at The Forks, a new arena or anything that contributes to the higher purposes of civic life.

A Winnipegger by the name of Izzy Asper had a vision for a national institution that would educate students and others about human rights. As corny as it sounds, he wanted to make a difference, not just for Winnipeg, but for the world. Some critics, particularly members of the Toronto elite, said it would never happen, but there it is, rising at The Forks in defiance of the odds and the naysayers.

It will eventually be recognized as one of the country's most beautiful buildings, but typically, some Winnipeggers would prefer it be built somewhere else, or not at all. They're the same people who opposed the construction of new athletic facilities and the wonderful pedestrian bridge over the Red River.

The Harper government, which made the museum a Crown corporation, today seems embarrassed by the human rights project. Tory MPs are afraid to talk about it, referring questions to Heritage Minister James Moore, who so far has lacked the decency to come to Winnipeg and answer some hard questions.

A spokesman in Moore's office says "there will be no new funds provided to the museum." The government won't even provide a loan guarantee so the museum could open on time next year with no risk to the taxpayer. The Conservatives are apparently content to let it sit empty and unused indefinitely.

But it will open someday. The big question is whether Prime Minister Stephen Harper, if he is still in office, will even bother to show up.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 8, 2012 A10

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