A wave of optimism

Mayor Katz still convinced Winnipeg wants a water park

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Seeing as Winnipeg struggles with a housing crisis, a crime problem and a shortage of cash for rapid transit, road repairs and sewage upgrades, it makes perfect sense one of the most contentious issues in town is the need to build a big, bright room full of waterslides, wave pools and lazy rivers.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 08/11/2009 (4779 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Seeing as Winnipeg struggles with a housing crisis, a crime problem and a shortage of cash for rapid transit, road repairs and sewage upgrades, it makes perfect sense one of the most contentious issues in town is the need to build a big, bright room full of waterslides, wave pools and lazy rivers.

For the past two years, Winnipeggers have watched with a mix of bemusement and bewilderment as the city has tried, failed and tried again to give away $7 million to someone, anyone who might be willing to build a 70,000-square-foot water park — an amenity Mayor Sam Katz believes will make ‘Peg City a more exciting place to live, work and wear a Speedo.

Back in 2004, one of Mayor Katz’s first moves was to cancel a $50-million bus-rapid-transit plan that probably wouldn’t have been all that rapid. Unlike the $327-million bus corridor Winnipeg is building right now, Katz cancelled a route that wouldn’t have seen buses travel from downtown to the University of Manitoba on a dedicated roadway of their own.

After deflecting a lot of flak, the mayor convinced the long-in-the-tooth Liberal government in Ottawa to divert most of the old BRT cash into a $43-million kitty for Winnipeg recreation projects. Eventually, $9 million was earmarked for pool upgrades in Kildonan Park.

But the pool project was scaled back when it became obvious it would go over budget. So city officials cooked up the water-park plan.

In early 2008, Winnipeg went out and offered $7 million to a private builder and eventually chose the Canad Inns hospitality chain, which had a proven track record of building hotels with water parks. But the cash was pulled off the table this spring, when the chain told the city it couldn’t proceed with a plan to build a $43.6-million aqua-palace at Polo Park.

At this point, it might have been obvious to anyone at city hall that 2009 might not be the best time to offer entrepreneurs cash incentives, seeing as banks may not be all that eager to lend money for private amusement parks in the middle of an economic morass.

Undaunted by financial reality, the city issued yet another call for would-be water-park builders and wound up with only one respondent: An unnamed entity that wants to build a $64-million luxury hotel on land northwest of The Forks, right across Waterfront Drive from the future Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

So what we have now is a proposal that should be dead in the water, as the only private company willing to cash a $7-million city cheque wants access to one of Winnipeg’s most desirable pieces of downtown real estate — a gravel parking lot the city has long prevented any developers from improving until the long-term needs of The Forks and the now-under-construction Canadian Museum for Human Rights are known.

Again, it should be obvious the time isn’t right to hand $7 million to a water-park builder. Or maybe the terms of the offer are impossible to meet, seeing as the city wants the private park to offer discounted or free admissions to people of limited means.

But the mayor refuses to consider spending the $7 million on other recreation projects. Winnipeggers want a water park and they deserve a water park, he says, equating the amenity with hockey arenas and football stadiums.

By now, many Winnipeggers are probably wondering what the heck is going on with our mayor, a common-sense politician whose track record suggests he should care more about guns and potholes than super-soakers and whirlpools.

Why does Sam Katz care so much about a water park? I’d argue it’s because he’s no different than any other parent who also happens to be a boss: His decisions are governed in part by a desire to please his kids.

In several scrums over the past two years, Katz has told reporters how much his two young daughters love playing in water parks. So last May, after the Canad Inns plan fell apart, I asked Katz if he would place so much importance on water parks if he didn’t have kids of his own.

"Yeah. Absolutely. I’ve gone to water parks when I was single, forget about being a family individual," he said. "Water parks make a major statement about your city, and I don’t know what’s more important than family. Family, to me, is what it’s all about. That’s what’s going to build this city and that’s what’s going to grow this city."

In the interest of fairness, I asked Katz the same question this week, and he still believes all Winnipeggers would attend a water park. Suggesting otherwise would constitute ignoring the will of the people, he said.

Sam’s message is simple: We can grow our city, if only we turn on the taps and let the good times flow.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

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