It seems just about every Winnipegger is watching city council as it mulls over a plan to give $7 million to a developer to build a hotel and water park on city-owned land in downtown Winnipeg referred to as Parcel Four.
After taking a beating from their constituents, councillors decided Wednesday to delay final approval of a deal with Alberta-based hotelier Canalta. However, that deferral has not extinguished the intrigue in this story. In particular, how a dusty gravel lot located north of The Forks market and park, immediately west of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and immediately south of Shaw Park, home of the Winnipeg Goldeyes, has become the preferred site for a water park.
Council was never asked, so it could never officially designate Parcel Four as the site for a hotel and water park. The city is, of course, free to do pretty much whatever it wants with this land. But as an asset of tremendous value, located right near most of the city's major amenities and attractions, the lack of deliberation about the best use for Parcel Four has become glaringly obvious. And that raises many questions the city is working overtime not to answer.
How Parcel Four came to be connected to this development is unclear. The city first sought expressions of interest for the water park in the spring of 2008. Although it is not known exactly how many proposals eventually came forward, it seemed to boil down to three proposals from two different developers. Canad Inns suggested a water park and hotel addition at its Polo Park site. Creswin Realty came forward with a sprawling indoor/outdoor proposal for Kilcona Park and a smaller hotel and water park for Parcel Four.
In June 2008, the city announced Canad Inns won over the Creswin plan. The city never indicated publicly why Canad Inns triumphed, and according to Creswin, the city never issued reasons privately for its decision.
Ultimately, the city withdrew its support for the Canad Inns proposal, again for reasons that were never entirely clear. In a second expression of interest launched in May 2009, Shindico Realty, a real estate developer run by Sandy Shindleman, approached the city with a proposal from an unnamed hotelier for Parcel Four. That proposal never came to fruition, but according to city officials, it eventually evolved into the Canalta proposal.
According to the terms of both expressions of interest, the city was looking for a site downtown, close to transportation, existing amenities or as part of a larger development. In 2009, the city amended the terms to offer city-owned land downtown. Notwithstanding concerns about incongruity, those terms certainly make Parcel Four as eligible as any piece of land anywhere downtown. However, Parcel Four is unlike other city-owned land.
What separates Parcel Four from other land is its proximity to other amenities, in particular Shaw Park, home to the Goldeyes, the baseball team owned by Mayor Sam Katz. One of the directors of the ball club is Shindleman.
It certainly makes a lot of sense for Shindleman to look at hotel/water-park proposals near some of his existing businesses or investments. As a private businessman, he should be applauded for finding a proposal that not only met the city's terms but was located on a piece of land that would add value to one of his existing business interests.
Shindleman could not be reached for comment, but it's likely he would deny his interest in the ballpark had anything to do with his bids to put a water park on Parcel Four.
As for Katz, he is doing what he has always done, which is to maintain a paper-thin firewall between his private business interests and mayoral business. In this case, Katz has always been able to distance himself from the question of whether this development directly benefits the Goldeyes because Shindico was the agent that kept making a run at Parcel Four.
Despite the personal and professional relationship between the two men, Katz has always maintained Shindleman's business interests are his own, and not the mayor's business interests.
However, there is evidence Shindico was not alone in pushing the Parcel Four site. Remember, Creswin did produce a proposal for Parcel Four in 2008. However, according to Creswin head David Asper, they only did that because city officials identified Parcel Four as the "preferred site" for the water park.
Asper said after submitting the Kilcona Park proposal in May 2008, city officials specifically asked Creswin if they could come up with something for Parcel Four, because it was the preferred site. Asper said Creswin did produce a plan and drawings for the downtown land, and yet still lost out to Canad Inns.
Council did not give Parcel Four a "preferred site" designation. If not council, then who? Efforts to answer this question have been fallen on deaf ears. The city's director of property, Barry Thorgrimson, and chief administrative officer Phil Sheegl, who was director of property when the first expression of interest was issued, have refused repeated interview requests this week. Katz also wouldn't address it.
Answers to those important questions would in large part indicate whether Katz stepped aside from this deal early enough to avoid a conflict of interest. Katz did not recuse himself from this matter until April 17, the eve of the executive policy committee vote on the Canalta proposal.
Katz said he was stepping aside even though the hotel/water park actually would hurt his ball team because it would surface parking near Shaw Park.
You could hear developers all over the city chuckling at that argument; although Winnipeggers love convenient parking, it's hard to see how a hotel/water park hurts the ballpark. Either way, it was incumbent on the mayor to step away from this deal the moment it became clear a developer was moving on land beside Shaw Park. It's also important the mayor explain how and why Parcel Four became the city's preferred site.
Given the mayor's involvement with the Goldeyes, and the fact the city is offering a private developer $7 million in taxpayer support for a water park, it's important someone at the city show Parcel Four is just the location for this project, and not the motivation for it.