Dear Winnipeg

A Fun Blog About Infrastructure and Municipal Finance

The Most Expensive Recreation Project in Winnipeg History

Dear Winnipeg,

I want to talk about the proposed South Winnipeg Recreation Campus in Waverley West again. If you recall the last time, the City was planning on closing recreation facilities in older neighbourhoods while building a shiny new super-facility in Waverley West. It caused quite an uproar. [Lil Wayne would be proud!]

You’ll be disappointed to hear that nothing has changed. [David Bowie would be proud!]

Recently, the City has been trying to offload the Terry Sawchuk arena to the private sector after it was forced to close due to mould issues. People in northwest Winnipeg are starting to lose hope that their decades-old community centres will ever get funding for refurbishment. And a proposal for the possible closure of the aging Transcona Pool has worried residents there for years already.

But we’re still gonna build “the most expensive recreation project in Winnipeg history” in Waverley West.

According to the Free Press, Councillor Lukes has said she’s confident the city can afford the project AND find ways to update or replace aging rec facilities in older neighbourhoods:

“We’ve got a parks and recreation strategy underway that’s going to identify distances, uses of community centres. A lot of these centres are under-utilized, a lot of them are basically inoperable because they’re so old. So there is a lot of work going on right now to understand how to repurpose, how to sell, how to change… I think we’re really getting a handle on it.”

– Councillor Janice Lukes, Waverley West

Now, I like Councillor Lukes. I have always found her to be approachable, smart, and hard-working. So I must stress that this isn’t an issue with Councillor Lukes specifically. After all, this project has the “unanimous support of Council“. They ALL believe this. But let’s break that logic down:

  1. We neglect recreation facilities in older neighbourhoods for decades.
  2. They become “basically inoperable because they’re so old”, and “on the verge of being unusable”.
  3. Being unusable, people stop using them.
  4. Their being “under-utilized” then justifies that we “repurpose” or “sell” them. (ie. close them forever).

But it’s even hard to blame the Councillors here, since they’re just following what’s in the draft Parks and Recreation Strategies.

If you haven’t read those, I don’t blame you… they’re 329 pages of hardcore bureaucratese. It’s unreadable. [And that’s coming from a guy who reads a LOT of City reports…]

But it shouldn’t be surprising, when your Strategies are basically just a blueprint on how to decide which older facilities to close first, you want them to be as unreadable by the general public as possible.

Don’t believe me? The words “rationalize” or “rationalization” appear a total of 34 times between the two documents. If you’re a newbie to bureaucratese, to “rationalize” a facility, like a community centre or a pool, means to close it forever.

In the Recreation Strategy alone, the word appears, on average, once for every 6 pages of the document. I don’t know about you, but I’d call that a theme.

That is how, apparently, we can afford The Most Expensive Recreation Project in Winnipeg HistoryTM.

By neglecting facilities in older neighbourhoods until we are forced to close them.

But does that actually mean we can afford it?

How can we can afford The Most Expensive Recreation Project in Winnipeg HistoryTM when we don’t have enough money to save our tree canopy from devastation?

How can we can afford The Most Expensive Recreation Project in Winnipeg HistoryTM when we’re dumping raw sewage into the river, and we’re still $1.6 Billion short for the sewage plant upgrades that will help us meet the requirements of our Environment Act license?

How can we can afford The Most Expensive Recreation Project in Winnipeg HistoryTM when we’re only able to repair our roads on a 115-year replacement cycle?

To be absolutely clear here, I’m not saying the residents of Waverley West don’t “need” it. I’m not even necessarily saying that we shouldn’t build it.

What I am saying is that we can’t afford it. To say otherwise is dishonest.

The furnace is out, the roof is leaking, the foundation is cracked, and there’s no money to fix any of it. But we’re going to put an addition on the house. Because we can afford it. Right.

We can’t. We’ve done the math on that together already. So. Many. Times.

We have more infrastructure than we can ever hope to be able to replace. And you don’t get out of that by continuing to add more. Our City is slowly but surely going bankrupt because of it.

And reversing that trend means doing things differently than in the past.

So what does that look like? Well, in general terms:

  • Financial solvency is a pre-requisite for everything we do. No matter if you are a corporation, a non-profit organization, a charity, or a municipal government, if you are insolvent, if your liabilities continuously outweigh your ability to pay them, you will eventually go out of business. And then nothing you wanted or needed matters anymore. If a charity wants to continue to do good, it needs to stay financially solvent to keep doing it. If a municipal government is to continue to meet its residents’ needs (garbage pickup, fire protection, water & sewer, transportation, etc.), it has to stay financially solvent for as long as we want it to do those things (which I think we can agree, is forever). We need to do the math, always. Even if it leads us to conclusions we don’t necessarily like.
  • Since we already have as much infrastructure as most of us should ever live to see, that means we must grow the tax base WITHOUT adding any new infrastructure. From here on in, we can only repair and replace.
  • To even afford to do that, we need to return to a more traditional development pattern, where neighbourhoods are allowed to naturally grow and adapt over time. Contrast to the modern development pattern (of the past 70ish years) where entire neighbourhoods are built out all at once, then frozen in amber for all time through regulation.
  • That means land is a precious resource to a city… we must not squander it. We need to start making the best use of the land we are already using before we go on to use other land. A perfect example is with respect to greenspace… we should not be turning land set aside for greenspace into land for housing until we have made the best possible use of the land we have already dedicated to housing. And right now, 96% of all residential land in the city has only a single housing unit on it, and CAN only have that by the zoning laws we’ve put in. As a city, we will need to start accepting that having a tall house, or a duplex (or triplex) next door is a good and necessary thing… it keeps the city solvent, it keeps our greenspaces green, etc. It’s possible to have a mix of housing types and styles in a neighbourhood (and even some businesses and schools and churches nearby – gasp!), and the world doesn’t end.
  • But that will also require adapting our transportation system. More people in a neighbourhood is fine, as long as they don’t bring their cars. Plus, given that nearly 90% of our infrastructure is just “roads and pipes”, making better use of our infrastructure means aiming for a city where fewer people drive. It doesn’t need to be everyone, and it doesn’t need to be every trip, but it does need to be a significant shift. Our Climate Action Plan says 1 in 3 trips should be converted to other modes… our financial solvency may require a higher number than that even. But one thing nobody can really argue is that walking/biking/transit in Winnipeg really sucks in most places right now… making that better will require a HUGE shift in how we allocate money, how we prioritize who gets to move where and when, speed limits, etc. A transportation system is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The end we are looking for is financial solvency, economic activity and quality of life (and not necessarily in that order).
  • We can get more done, and better meet the needs of the community, by adopting a continual, incremental approach. Humbly observe where the struggles are, do the next smallest thing that can be done to address it, then repeat the process.

I’m hopeful that the next batch of Councillors we get after the 2022 election will understand this. I’m also hopeful that our new Chief Administrative Officer will understand this.

But ultimately, it comes down to US understanding this. Because we are not the City’s customers. We are the City’s shareholders: together, we own this place.

That means we don’t need to wait. We can get started right now, with the resources we have right now. Start with the next smallest thing you can do, then build from there.

And spread the word because we’re going to need all hands on deck for this. Going bankrupt may take a few years, but NOT going bankrupt? That’s going to take forever…

Tootles,

Elmwood Guy