Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Province flip-flops on Ex

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BRANDON -- The Red River Exhibition Association wants to assume control of Assiniboia Downs and incorporate horse racing into its plans for a "multi-purpose entertainment destination centre."

If the strategy works, it will save Manitoba's taxpayers millions of dollars in annual subsidies that keep the facility solvent. It will also save Manitoba's thoroughbred horse-racing industry, rejuvenate harness racing, and help make Winnipeg a major destination for the multi-billion-dollar North American trade show industry.

The strategy also fits nicely with the RREA's plan to construct a privately financed, $140-million development that will include a 5,000-seat arena, an Expo Centre and a light industrial park.

The arena will be capable of hosting agricultural exhibitions, indoor concerts and sporting events, while the 300,000-square-foot Expo Centre will be large enough to host major agricultural trade shows, conventions and exhibitions for which significant space is needed -- the kind of lucrative national events Winnipeg is currently missing out on.

The addition of the adjacent Assiniboia Downs property would enable the RREA to attract even larger events and offer a diverse mix of events that would appeal to niche markets. Properly managed, the new facility could create more than $100 million in economic activity each year and thousands of jobs for Winnipeggers.

Manitoba governments, both Tory and NDP, have dumped millions of tax dollars into the Assiniboia Downs sinkhole over the past two decades.

Sources within the NDP government tell me it has been looking for ways to walk away from funding the Downs for years. That effort became serious a year ago and, after an exhaustive review by a top bureaucrat, the RREA was identified as the only entity that could possibly take on the Downs and have a chance of being successful.

That the Selinger government now supports the RREA's plans is an interesting change in posture.

When the RREA announced its construction plan last spring, the province was decidedly lukewarm to the idea. Despite the obvious economic benefits, there were serious concerns about how it might impact the Winnipeg Convention Centre and the MTS Centre.

There were even greater worries that the massive new RREA facility would impact the viability of Brandon's Keystone Centre, which is partly owned by the province. The province has invested millions of dollars in the Keystone and has an obvious vested interest in its ongoing success and its ability to attract visitors to Brandon.

In the months that followed last year's RREA announcement, the province erected a series of impediments to the project, including requirements for expansive and expensive traffic upgrades that would have cost the RREA millions of dollars.

Those impediments started to vanish once the RREA was identified as the only possible saviour for the Assiniboia Downs. It appears the province did the math and realized the millions in savings it would reap from the RREA taking control of the Downs and the economic spinoffs that could flow from the RREA project were far more important than protecting the Keystone Centre from competition.

It was a political calculation that was confirmed to me by a source familiar with the government's discussions with the RREA, who says the interests of the Keystone are now a non-factor. The province now takes the position that the RREA facility will not compete with the Keystone, that the two facilities can co-exist because they will be chasing completely different markets and events.

It is the precise opposite of the position the government was taking just a few months ago and provides a fascinating glimpse into the political decision-making process.

What was bad is now good because it is good for the Selinger government. The fact that the RREA expansion was always good for the province seems to have been an afterthought.

Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 31, 2013 A15

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