Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

Gunfight at the Upper Fort Garry Corral

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I must admit, I've had trouble figuring out where to come down on the Upper Fort Garry debate. I have watched from the sidelines as my colleague Gordon Sinclair has waged battle to preserve the historic site from being converted, in part, into a residential development. I've also consumed huge quantities of blog debate over the efforts of Gord and The Friends of Upper Fort Garry to get private and public funding to create a permanent historical site.To be honest, I was surprised at the hostility that this plan has generated. I understand this is a debate over public and private monies, and what they should best be used for, but I find it passing strange that when the Asper or Richardson families give money (as they do quite often) to some things, they are philanthropists. On other issues, like Upper Fort Garry, the philanthropists are now rich cry babies and bored millionaires. They are also, remarkably, portrayed as the opponents of progress, which is a difficult case to make after you consider the fact the core of The Friends are the sources of most of the private capital that gets invested in this city.Yes, it's true that The Friends were no where to be seen when the Fort was just falling into disrepair. And yes, they only came forward after a private developer proposed a development there. But I think that if the Aspers and Richardsons and some of the other Friends want to engage in a vanity project now and then, I'm okay with it based on all the other good they have done for this town. But that's just me.On a collateral note, I'm also quite surprised at the skepticism directed at The Friends for getting involved in the political game to get their project some money. I think it's become increasingly unfashionable for people to get involved in the political process, either as a supporter of an issue or a political party. It's too bad the people who don't like what they're doing couldn't find the same get up and go, and go down to City Hall and get their point across. I acknowledge that the supporters of high-end residential developments don't have much of a grass-roots lobby but perhaps they should consider starting one.That leads me to the media involvement. I remember quite clearly when the MTS Centre (aka True North Centre) was being built. There was a lot of flak directed towards the Free Press and other media outlets about championing the cause of the downtown arena development. I felt comfortable enough to tell people who didn't like the arena proposal, and who didn't like our support of it, to keep one point front and centre: it's not a conspiracy; we respectfully disagree. Gordie and radio station CJOB definitely support Upper Fort Garry. On the editorial page of the Free Press, the editorial board is more skeptical and would like to see a public-private partnership develop the site. The news coverage is, I submit, fairly balanced but in the end, the bias of the stories is whatever the people reading it want it to be. That is to say - once you write a story in the newspaper, you have to concede that people will read into it things that you never intended. This past week, the story was about a public campaign to raise money for the project. Some may feel our news stories were not critical enough, but that's certainly because they believe the project is pure folly. Fair enough.The bigger question here is whether or not it is responsible for a media outlet to campaign for a community issue. That is something that is constantly debated in a mainstream media outlet. Getting on the bandwagon is not a modern invention; in fact, if anything it's a throwback to a time when newspapers were more political, partisan and self-interested in public policy and economic development.The Free Press has been a champion of certain issues - especially downtown redevelopment (despite our abysmal decision to flee to suburban industrial park) - and we've lived with the fallout. Those who agree with us think we're fabulous; those who disagree think we're the guys who planned Watergate. The bottom line here, IMHO, is that anyone who tells you that a newspaper's ONLY job is to be blindly objective either doesn't understand the history of journalism, or is just plain pissed off that no one at the newspaper agrees with them. Newspapers have always had many parts to them, with many different mandates. News pages, columnists and editorial writers will occasionally align on an issue. More frequently, they exist at odds with each other on most issues. Keeping all this in mind makes you a better consumer of the news.Which brings me to another issue. The results of the Free Press Insider's Reader's Panel on the Upper Fort Garry issue is certainly worth noting. The Insider's is a voluntary panel of readers who have agreed to be polled on major issues on a continuing basis. I would never suggest it's science, but it's a step up from the hot-button daily reader polls many newspapers use. Why? Because it's harder, not impossible, but harder to hijack the Insiders. On the fort issue, three out of four Insiders want the property kept as a historic site. The sample was more than 3,000 readers. Not science, but worth considering.Now, as to what The Friends are proposing. This is the toughest part of the equation because, frankly, I've never been entirely satisfied that a historical site is all that much better than an architecturally appropriate development that tries to blend new commercial development with historical site. I like historical sites, not as much as my wife, whose fondness for "old things" as I call it knows no bounds. I think a historic site is completely appropriate for the plot of land under discussion. It's close to the River Walkway, the Forks and the Manitoba Legislature. I would also support the expenditure of public monies for a project like this. We don't build communities to be proud of by focusing solely on potholes; projects like the fort are part of defines us.So, after weighing all these issues. where would I come down on this? It's a worthy goal to save the site, and if The Friends can find the money, then we should thank them for not only taking charge on this issue but putting in the spade work to get it done. If the money and thus the support, the city and province should ensure the aforementioned commercial development maintains that balance between historic public space and upscale residential.I also think it's quite alright for Gord Sinclair, or other opinion writers, to get behind the project. That kind of support is completely transparent and as readers, you're all free to agree or disagree with the individual writer's arguments. Gord isn't right when he advocates the salvation of Upper Fort Garry. He's just passionate.Bottom line - I like the idea of filling in old parking lots with real development, and restoring historic sites. As long as it's something that generates visitors - I'm all for it. Whether it's a historical site, or a blended commercial-public project, is of less concern to me. On that note, I submit a final word from my favorite magazine.This fantastic story from the New Yorker on efforts to save a historically significant building from demolition reminded me a bit of the Upper Fort Garry debate. I have recommended this story to many people, and there always seems to be a slightly different reaction from each person who has taken the time to read it. You will find what you want to find in this story - sadness at the destruction of a unique, historic building, or frustration at the hoops that private developers are forced to go through when they are opposed by fanatics.I hope you all find what you're looking for.-30-

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About Dan Lett

Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school.

Despite the fact that he’s originally from Toronto and has a fatal attraction to the Maple Leafs, Winnipeggers let him stay.

In the following years, he has worked at bureaus covering every level of government – from city hall to the national bureau in Ottawa.

He has had bricks thrown at him in riots following the 1995 Quebec referendum, wrote stories that helped in part to free three wrongly convicted men, met Fidel Castro, interviewed three Philippine presidents, crossed several borders in Africa illegally, chased Somali pirates in a Canadian warship and had several guns pointed at him.

In other words, he’s had every experience a journalist could even hope for. He has also been fortunate enough to be a two-time nominee for a National Newspaper Award, winning in 2003 for investigations.

Other awards include the B’Nai Brith National Human Rights Media Award and nominee for the Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism.

Now firmly rooted in Winnipeg, Dan visits Toronto often but no longer pines to live there.


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