After suffering through a miserable third term, Sam Katz had to be concerned about his legacy as Winnipeg’s mayor.
Hence the wisdom of announcing his resignation from municipal life at Central Park, a revitalized inner-city amenity that serves recent immigrants and other residents of one of downtown Winnipeg’s most densely populated areas.
As a childhood immigrant from Israel, Katz always felt passionately about the reconstruction of Central Park and about Winnipeg’s inner-city population as a whole.
So even though this mayor has never been big on spending public money on outdoor concerts – that was former mayor Glen Murray’s specialty – it was not that weird to see his office arrange an outdoor concert at Central Park featuring the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, Rusalka and the Chai Folk Ensemble.
Or so it seemed. In retrospect, that concert served as the perfect platform for Katz to say goodbye to public life in Winnipeg.
Shortly after noon, Katz stood on stage at Central Park and confirmed what many Winnipeggers expected: Three terms in office was enough.
He won’t be running this fall in an election campaign that would have turned into a massive pile-on. A campaign featuring Katz would have been a referendum on his time in office, and the debate over that referendum wouldn’t have been pretty.
Sam Katz swept into office in 2004 amid a wave of popularity and optimism about the entrepreneur-mayor who brought the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd to Winnipeg, reinvented the Winnipeg Goldeyes baseball club and pushed for the construction of the riverside ballpark now known as Shaw Park.
Initially, some of that optimism was rewarded in the form of a red-tape commission and the rationalization of the way the city presented its operating budget. Katz also found ways to increase the capital budget, or spending on infrastructure.
But from the very beginning, Sam Katz demonstrated an inability to separate his private interests from his public life.
A promise to place his business holdings in a blind trust was dismissed because the act was not compulsory. Katz voted on a plan to pay cash to Walker Theatre creditors who had previously paid him for a fraction of what he put into a building now known as the Burton Cummings Theatre.
Katz served as both mayor and a director of Riverside Park Management when that non-profit organization – which sublets city land to the Katz-owned Goldeyes was engaged in a multi-year dispute over rent paid to the City of Winnipeg.
But none of this seemed to bother Winnipeg’s electorate. Sam Katz’s armour did not begin to crumble until his third term, when one of Katz’s former strengths – capital spending – became a major weakness.
A plan to place a water park and hotel on vacant land opposite the Canadian Museum for Human Rights was met with anger by many Winnipeggers.
Months later, voters learned the city built a new fire-paramedic station on land owned by Shindico Realty, a company whose directors used to be Katz’s partners in the Goldeyes.
Voters also learned the Winnipeg police headquarters project – whose necessity has never been demonstrated – was wildly overbudget.
Voters also learned Katz and Winnipeg chief administrative officer Phil Sheegl twice exchanged an Arizona shell company bearing the mayor’s nickname, Duddy.
Voters eventually learned Katz lobbied other councillors for Sheegl to become CAO even after the mayor said he did not.
As a result, Sam Katz’s mayoralty was over long before today. All his early achievements, in the short term, are forgotten due to his recent failures.
Katz supporters, and they do exist, note Winnipeg has experienced unprecedented growth while he was mayor. But it’s legitimate to ask whether this success has anything to do with him.
He should be justifiably praised for investments in Assiniboine Park, the Disraeli Freeway, bike-and-pedestrian paths and other forms of infrastructure.
Central Park is a great legacy. An incomplete Southwest Transitway, not so much.