January 25, 2020

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Portage Place pause has political motive


When politicians are on the brink of an election, their forays into the public sphere tend to be regarded by many as strategic ploys to win the favour of voters. That currently appears to be the case with the federal Liberals and Winnipeg Centre MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette.

The governing Liberals have not entrusted this backbencher with the lead on many significant issues since local voters chose him over NDP incumbent Pat Martin in 2015.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS files</p><p>Winnipeg Centre MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette</p>


Winnipeg Centre MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette

But last week, less than three months before the Liberals try to retain Mr. Ouellette’s seat in the Oct. 21 election, he made an announcement clearly intended to enhance his profile in the riding that includes part of downtown Winnipeg.

Mr. Ouellette said his federal government is halting, at least temporarily, the sale of Portage Place. He said his government wants more time to consult with people who frequent the downtown mall.

To suggest the motivations for the Liberal intervention may include an attempt to bolster Mr. Ouellette’s personal re-election bid is not to discount the action he announced. There is merit to hitting the pause button on a sale that seemed to be proceeding with scant information about the proposed buyer’s plans for the mall.

Starlight Investments has offered $22.9 million for the building and $47 million for the associated land and parkade. When asked about their plans, Starlight officials declined comment, other than to say they include the possibility of student housing.

Such transactions typically occur between private corporations. Portage Place is unique because it was built on land partly owned by the three levels of government, under the auspices of a development corporation.

One would think the governments involved would seek to ensure the buyer’s plans will be good for downtown Winnipeg, but that responsibility does not seem to have been met by either the municipal or provincial government, at least at the public level. A city report says the plan could include a mixed-use development with rental housing on top of street-level retail and services, with the potential for two towers. Or it could not.

The absence of publicly available information indicates one of two possibilities: either the governments know the buyer’s plans but can’t reveal them under conditions of the proposed sale, or — to raise a more problematic possibility — both council and the province approved the sale with apparent indifference to how the buyer might transform this critical location on Portage Avenue.

The absence of publicly available information indicates one of two possibilities: either the governments know the buyer’s plans but can’t reveal them under conditions of the proposed sale, or — to raise a more problematic possibility — both council and the province approved the sale with apparent indifference to how the buyer might transform this critical location on Portage Avenue.

That left it up to the federal Liberals to stall the sale. It’s at this point that the motivation seems more inclined toward helping them curry favour with the people using Portage Place, many of whom vote in Mr. Ouellete’s riding.

Even before Mr. Ouellette asks their opinion, the users of Portage Place have made their desires clear in a mid-July forum with city council, in news stories and on social media. They’ve repeatedly said the sale is proceeding too quickly without knowing whether Starlight would maintain the mall’s important value as a meeting place or, as some people have called it, downtown Winnipeg’s "town square."

The views of Portage Place patrons are already well-known. The information that is lacking is the buyer’s intentions.

Mr. Ouellette is right to ask questions about the proposed sale. But instead of surveying the people in the mall’s food court, his questions should be directed to the corporate offices of Starlight Investments in Toronto.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

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