Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ballpark's spark

Katz's Canwest Park likely got ball rolling on growth in core

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As the signature profile of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights continues to rise high into the sky over the right-field fence this summer, the view looking out from within the cosy confines of Canwest Park these days is rapidly taking shape as second to none in almost all of baseball.

Over the left-field fence is the lush canopy of green foliage that lines the riverbank just beyond Waterfront Drive. Over centre field, the white suspension cables and tower of the city's architectural signature, the Esplanade Riel, soar into the sky. And now, in right field, a pair of towering cranes is rapidly shaping the unique form of the new CMHR this summer.

 

When it is all done, a $5 cheap seat down the left-field line at the home of the Winnipeg Goldeyes will afford fans of baseball, architecture and urban planning alike a million-dollar view of the most dramatic changes to this city's skyline since the 128-metre TD Centre was added to the corner of Portage and Main in 1990.

Not everyone, of course, will like what they see. Many Winnipeggers looking upon Étienne Gaboury's architectural masterpiece over the Red River still see only the infamous $1-million toilet housed in the Salisbury House restaurant that sits as the pedestrian bridge's centrepiece. (A smaller, but just as determined, segment of the bridge's critics remain disturbed by what they see as the phallic shape of the tower that affixes the bridge's cables.)

And then there are those who cringe at every glimpse of the CMHR, still seething over the massive expenditure of public funds in a building many Winnipeggers continue to view as a pet project of the Asper family undeserving of tax dollars.

Baseball is a ponderous game and there will be hours upon hours to ruminate under a warm summer sun upon the Freudian significance of Gaboury's tower or the proper role of the state in the financing of private projects that also have a broader public purpose.

Sam Katz will do no such nuanced ruminating in his owner's box down the left-field line this summer. Because what Katz observes rising over his outfield fence is cast only in hues of black and white -- the sweet and total vindication he regards as his reward for all the pitched and bloody battles he had to fight with the city to erect a ballpark on a vacant lot that was strewn with used condoms when he took it over.

Even against that tawdry backdrop, Katz says he still believes today it was a small miracle the park ever got built.

"Canwest Park should not be there," says Katz. "It shouldn't be there. And the reason is when you get a mayor and members of EPC (executive policy committee) who did everything humanly possible to make sure it didn't happen, these sorts of projects don't normally happen... We built the ballpark over what was a great deal of adversity, to say the least. Let's just leave it at that.

"So when I'm out there, sitting there with 5, 6, 7 thousand people, and we're looking out (over the outfield wall) and seeing what's happening out there now... I can tell you, yours truly, and 300,000 other people (every year), we love it."

Katz, of course, has many personal reasons to cheer his project. The construction of the ballpark, financed in part with an infusion of $4.5 million in tax dollars from the city, provincial and federal governments, has made Katz a very wealthy man as his Goldeyes continue to bring in big crowds and big dollars against a microscopic minor-league payroll.

But since constructing the ballpark, Katz was also elected this city's mayor. And it is from that backdrop that he argues that a lot that once served the most banal of purposes -- it was a civic snow dump -- has since taken on a significance far greater than anyone could have envisioned.

"This was always land that was going to have to get developed and somebody just had to start it going," says Katz. "What happened with Canwest Park is we showed what could happen there. And I can tell you there's going to be many more that will follow -- and they're following right now.

"So you know what? Yeah, we were right on that one. You're not right all the time, but we were right on that one."

Consider: In the decade since the ballpark was completed in 1999, in addition to the construction of the new Provencher Bridge/Esplanade Riel and the CMHR, the city also completed construction of Waterfront Drive just beyond the outfield fence, in the process sparking all kinds of new condominium development in the area. That, in turn, has given the downtown the oxygen on which any urban revitalization needs to thrive -- full-time residents.

Did it all happen just because of the ballpark? Of course not. Plans to develop Waterfront Drive, for instance, were in the works long before Katz put a shovel in the ground. But to argue that all that development was coincidental to the construction of Katz's park -- that it all would have happened with or without him -- would also seem to be an uncharitable rendering of recent history.

"There was no one piece that was the silver bullet," says Katz. "Not the ballpark, not Manitoba Hydro, not the MTS Centre. But they were all pieces of the puzzle."

Canwest Park has made Sam Katz a very wealthy and happy man. Indeed, you could probably make a case that the public profile it afforded him also made him this city's mayor. The private benefit to Katz the individual is clear, then.

But there has also been a clear and demonstrable public benefit to the ballpark that has nourished and enriched this city generally, from the smiles it has put on the faces of millions of baseball fans to the important development and revitalization that it has sparked.

So much so, in fact, that you would be hard-pressed to find, 11 years out, someone who doesn't think the initial $4.5-million public investment in the ballpark wasn't some of the best taxpayer dollars governments have ever spent in these parts. Whether history will be so charitable about the public investment in the CMHR remains to be seen, of course. What is clear is it will be something to gaze upon this summer and wonder, between cracks of the bat.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

eggleston sees big problem D8

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 26, 2010 D6

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