Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

Flush the water park

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One of the best stories out of our City Hall bureau today explains that Mayor Sam Katz is getting very close to withdrawing a $7-million offer to a private developer – any private developer – to build a water park. If he withdraws the offer of funding, it would put to an end almost eight years of lamentable management of the recreational facilities file at city hall.

As detailed today by my city hall colleague Bartley Kives, the money for the water park was taken from a $43-million pot of multi-lateral money destined to fund the first stage of Bus Rapid Transit. However, once Katz was elected in a 2004 mayoral by-election, he mothballed the BRT scheme and asked the money be used instead for recreational facilities. Out of that fund, Katz set aside $7 million in 2008 for a world-class water park.

The problem was that nobody has seen fit to take the money. Canad Inns was thought to be a willing partner, but even they withdrew a project that would have involved a water park. No other private developer has stepped up with a plan that meets the city’s standards. Katz has now set a deadline of March 31 for another developer to take up the challenge. We should all hope that nobody steps up.

With all of the needs this city has in terms of recreational facilities, the mayor’s decision to earmark $7 million for a waterpark has always stood as one of the most curious of his administration. It was just two years ago that a city report detailed more than $50 million in repairs needed at Winnipeg arenas. This season, the city had to close one rink for a year, and temporarily close three others, because of chronic mould problems. Hockey, ringette and figure skating families can attest to the despicable state of our arenas and the deplorable response to the problem by the city. Struggling ice plants, heaving and sagging rink boards, inadequate dressing rooms and showers - it’s a sorry state of rink affairs.

How did things get this bad? In its pursuit of lower taxes, the city has never set aside a reserve fund to pay for arena repair and replacement. Perhaps assuming that the private sector would step in to build and operate new arenas, the city has stood by and watched its facilities slowly decay. Now, there are warnings that some of the oldest rinks will have to be closed. Katz and council have not enunciated a plan to save them.

Now $7 million is hardly enough to solve this problem, but it’s a start. And it wouldn’t have to be spent solely on arenas; community clubs would also love to see some additional money made available to help with repairs and refurbishments. As the city sets a deadline for use of the water-park funds, and contemplates the sale of public golf courses, it would be nice to see a focused, comprehensive plan for repairing, replacing and expanding the facilities that just about every family in this city is using right now.

Using public money to lure a developer into building a water park was a silly idea. And arguing, as Katz has, that a waterpark would represent a tangible boost to Winnipeg’s quality of life is even sillier. For those of us who have spent hours shivering in line to enjoy a seven-second whoosh down a fiberglass tube, water parks have always struck me as one of the least enjoyable family recreational activities. The admission is usually ridiculously high, and the experience typically disappointing. I’ve had some good experiences (spent a half day at a Bloomington, MN, waterpark on Easter weekend when all of the pious tourists were laying low and we had unfettered access to the tubes) but they are few and far between.

As long as the mayor remains focused on squandering public money on something that should be built (if it needs to be built at all) by the private sector, Winnipeg will continue to suffer a profound net loss of recreational activities.

Flush the water park and fix the arenas. A radical but practical policy.

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