What’s missing from the City’s new Infrastructure Report?
The City of Winnipeg Public Service unveiled a massive report on the state of the city’s infrastructure on March 16. It’s an attempt to “remove partisan politics from decision making about infrastructure”. The report attributes a replacement value to all of the city’s assets. The trouble is that there is a thin line between “removing politics” from decision making and removing democratic input.
I have now sat through at least three cases where city staff claimed that cost numbers alone would justify shutting and demolishing old city buildings. The most famous example of this came at Sherbrook Pool which staff argued was beyond repair and no longer needed. Luckily, former Councillor Harvey Smith did not listen to this argument, and succeeded in convincing former Mayor Sam Katz that the building was indeed worth saving. Removing “politics” from that debate would have brought on the bulldozers.
On a St. Vital level, I have now seen this argument play out twice. The St. Vital Library is just over 50 years old, but when I was elected in 2011 there was enormous pressure from staff to close and sell the building. Eventually, after much public input I decided that we should renovate, not demolish. This was not an easy fight but, with the support of then Councillor Dan Vandal, Council voted to renovate the library (scheduled re-opening in April, 2018). Again, if we just looked at “the staff numbers” – the library would have been demolished.
Finally, I continued the work of my predecessor, Gord Steeves, to keep the Old St. Vital Fire Hall (1914 construction, corner of St. Mary’s and St. Anne’s) from closing, despite the best efforts of city real estate staff to declare the building surplus and have it demolished. Through the combined efforts of Steeves, former MLA Nancy Allan and myself we were able to secure over $600,000 in early 2014 to renovate and restore the building. Despite all of this effort, city staff still tried to get the then-newly elected Mayor Bowman to change course, and unload the building in early 2015. To his credit, the mayor refused, saying in a masterpiece of understatement “this building seems to be important to Councillor Mayes”. Again – some democratic input saved a St Vital landmark, where the “objective” city staff would have sold the land off.
In the end, the new report does have some useful information – but we should not forget that heritage and community interests also have value.