Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Where have all the visionaries gone?

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It's a photo of a construction crane in a muddy field at The Forks, but to Gail Asper, it's an icon.

It's iconic not just because the crane appears to soar into a wide-open Prairie sky at the site of the future Canadian Museum for Human Rights. But because it's something more -- something we haven't seen in this overly self-deprecating city in a long, long time.

"It's such a powerful symbol of hope," Asper told the Free Press editorial board last week.

She knows about the power of hope.

It has taken her years to set that crane in motion.

The museum is an uncharacteristically ambitious project for this city, with a price tag of more than $250 million and counting; a "build it and they will come" dream to be the first national museum outside of Ottawa; a mandate to somehow tell the stories of every human rights issue encountered by Canadians of every race.

We don't build projects of this size and scope in Winnipeg.

But last week, as piles were being driven into the Red River gumbo, Asper was relatively sanguine about reports the museum will need another $45 million to get built.

"We'll just have to keep on fundraising," she said.

It's going to be a beautiful piece of architecture, and -- again, uncharacteristically for Winnipeg -- they are refusing to compromise on the design.

The glass will be shipped from Europe, the specialty steel from the U.S., they will not cut costs by lopping off the tower by renowned architect Antoine Predock.

"We want something iconic that will draw people to Canada," explained COO Patrick O'Reilly.

Like the little city of Bilbao, Spain, which had the chutzpah to build the Guggenheim Museum a decade ago and became a global destination, Asper dreams that one day, the CMHR will put Winnipeg on the map.

Late last week at a business luncheon, an ad for the CMHR noted that when the Guggenheim was first announced, many questioned the choice of Bilbao, population 350,000. But the museum has transformed Bilbao since it opened. In one year alone, 2007, it pumped more than $300 million into the Basque region's economy, the CMHR ad claimed.

"What would $312,000,000 mean for our local economy?" it asked.

Gail's brother David Asper was the guest speaker at that luncheon, which fell on his sister's 49th birthday. He spoke about the power of inertia.

"I was born here a half century ago when they first started to debate rapid transit," Asper pointed out. "Half a century later, we still don't have a rapid transit system."

It's taken years to get a new stadium built for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers football team, he said, and the deal is still not done. The building of the arena was a Titanic struggle, as was the downtown ballpark.

Asper calls it "policy paralysis," where every movement toward change is studied and debated and studied again until it goes nowhere. "There comes a time when the talking has to stop," he says.

His vision is a "COD" (Control Our Destiny) tax -- a two-point hike in the PST aimed directly at raising millions for legacy projects in Winnipeg. No, he didn't say the fund would buy a stadium for his beloved Bombers; he spoke of upgrading the zoo, sprucing up downtown Portage Avenue and the Exchange District, and building a rapid transit system.

Priorities would be decided by the people of Winnipeg who paid into it, he said, and not tied to the whims of government, or the wealthy.

As it is right now, anybody who tries to build something great in the city has to "be prepared to damn the torpedoes, and suffer," he warned.

Think "suffer" is a bit melodramatic? Take a look at just one of the responses we received to his COD vision: "We would all like to live the way Mr. Asper does but life is not like that so tell him to round up his high-class buddies with their high-class ideas and pay for these things themselves if he is so concerned about our Winnipeg. If he is so embarrassed about what our Winnipeg has to offer, then move on."

That was one of the printable comments.

This city was once home to some of the biggest dreamers and boldest visionaries on the continent. But even the biggest dreamers can lose faith and move on.

I can remember not so long ago when you could not find a crane in downtown Winnipeg.

Sunday night at that one muddy site at The Forks, I counted five.

These days, when the city seems full of people who think small, my money's on Gail Asper.

She knows about the power of hope.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 2, 2009 A10

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