Friday, 29 May 2009

Asperations for a better Winnipeg

Yesterday, I attended the Chamber of Commerce luncheon featuring David Asper.

The topic was a fuzzy 'Winnipeg's Future' but I thought it would be interesting to hear about it from a guy who will be 'inside the van' given that the fate of both the HMCS Canwest and new stadium would be a part of it.

The premise of the address was that Winnipeg does too much planning with too little execution. He kicked off with three examples of the planning malaise:

The first was Debby the Polar Bear. Since 1967 Debby was an important part of the Zoo attracting over 15m visitors. During her lifetime, Churchill has been marketed as Polar Bear Capital of the world. Despite these successes, plans for improvements to Assiniboine Park and Zoo never got down to the specifics of what to do when Debby dies. A year after her death there is still nothing firm, though he pointed out with a touch of sarcasm that the Zoo is renovating the former panda enclosure so that it can house lions.

Asper then invoked the tortured spirit of the arena debate saying that it was "studied to death". From 1982, when the first serious discussion about needing a new arena for the Jets took place, until 1996 countless studies and reports were done. It wasn't until 5 years after the team left that a new arena was built.

For rapid transit buffs he spoke of the Wilson Transit Plan of 1959. It was the first major post-streetcar study of Winnipeg’s future public transportation needs. Numerous studies followed: 1966-69; 1972; 1974; 1976 (2 studies); 1978 and so on. Yet, five decades later, we still have the same bus transit system and the city recently struck a Rapid Transit Steering Committee to, again, look at what type of rapid transit is best for Winnipeg.

Aside from the never ending planning, Asper asked "what’s holding Winnipeg back from achieving greatness ?” He mused that perhaps we don't want to be successful - too stuck in the “gosh, golly, just from little ol’ Manitoba" attitude. Maybe we ARE the sleepwalkers of Madden's My Winnipeg ?! Of late, though, he feels that there have been “rumblings of change in the feel and spirit of Winnipeg” from that "old, debilitating, negative attitude".

He pointed to recent successes in a variety of fields:

- When Andrew Lloyd Webber wanted to premier his play, where did he come ? MTC. NOW it has been picked up by Mirvish to play in Toronto but it came here first;

- When gas prices soared and better mass transport was needed, where do they come ? To New Flyer for their vehicles and technology;

- When seeking new satellite technology, where do they come ? To Bristol Aerospace;

- Since H1N1 flu began spreading from Mexico what has been a focal point of the world ? Our virology lab.

Asper says that if we built on those underrated successes with a positive attitude and an ability to “bust through the policy paralysis” there is great potential:

- Why NOT Centreport and, once again, be a major rail, air and road freight centre;

- Why NOT be a leader in green energy and use that and our abundant hydro power hydro to the maximum leverage;

- Why NOT take the river front throughout the downtown into Point Douglas and make it like Paris with walking paths and pedestrian bridges all along it;

- Why NOT have a fully integrated system of bike and walking paths throughout the entire city.

- Why NOT an arctic / polar bear research centre at the zoo linked with ones in Churchill, connected by high speed rail ?

- Why NOT a landmark global vaccine research centre near the virology lab to strengthen our biotech industry.

On the subject of downtown, he felt the key priority is Portage Avenue. It has to be cleaned up, redesigned, and brought back to it's former glory. How ? Through better urban design, art and rather than allowing people to hang onto derelict buildings "like they’re clinging to a soaking old life jacket", give them a deadline to fix them up. If not, expropriate and renovate or tear them down and move on.

So that's the Asper vision. How does he propose we get this done ? Taxes.

Manitoba should add 2% to the PST for a limited time, say 5 years. That money, ($300m per year), would be dedicated to hard infrastructure projects. An Infrastructure Commission, an arms-length group removed from the political committee grist mill, would be given the list of projects, a chequebook and a 5 year mandate to get things done. Asper cited Ireland and New Zealand as jurisdictions that fund and carry out projects under their National Development Plans (yes, NDPs !) in similar fashion.

That's where we come in.

Asper stated the obvious: that no politician would ever get elected or stay in office on a platform of raising taxes and making big infrastructure spends. Yet, if we want things like a revamped Assiniboine Park or rapid transit to go from the neverending planning process to reality, those are the politicians we need: "We must embolden our political leaders to take chances."

It was an interesting and at times inspirational address and certainly hit one of the city's major problems on the head. I thought that it was a unique perspective from a guy that most people assume is 'on the inside' so really wouldn't have to worry about how well, or poorly, the system works.


Anonymous said...

Nice post. I tend to agree with the point about acknowledging our successes and strengths and working ourselves out of thinking like a small (sometimes second-rate or even undeserving) town.

Starting today, SpeakUpWinnipeg.com is inviting Winnipeggers to collaborate on writing a resume for the city - many of Mr. Asper's highlights should be front-and-center in our CV.


-Ian from SpeakUpWinnipeg.com

mrchristian said...

That sounds interesting - I will check it out !

cherenkov said...

Good post. Until now, all I heard about David's address was that he proposed an increase in the PST, to which I said "stick it up your @$$Hole, Asper boy". But now that you explained the premise, it makes much more sense. I still don't want to see our PST increase. I think our government needs to get it's spending under control instead. But I do agree with much of what he said.

Anonymous said...

Its all about investing cash in our City and in strategic ways.

We are to busy worried about spending it on potholes and bridges, and sewer plants.

The world is passing us by...