Monday, August 27, 2007

Thoughts in Passing

I don't think anyone can not help notice that Winnipeg Sun boxes that have sprouted up all over town. For many weeks now, the Sun has been distributed as complementary papers from these boxes. When newspaper companies distribute free papers, it usually is a harbinger of bad times.

If I was a retailer, I'd be wondering why the heck I was giving up valuable space on my shelves to the Sun. If I was a subscriber, I'd stop the paper now.


Steven Truscott was acquitted to day. It has taken almost 50 years for this to happen. He wasn't exonerated though and to this day, the Crown believes it has the right man.

There are 15 cases in Manitoba that could be wrongful convictions. Hopefully, the investigation into the merits of those cases doesn't take 50 years.


Senator Craig of the U.S. Senate pleaded guilty to lewd contact in a Minneapolis airport washroom. Several months ago, there was a report of gay men using an Assiniboine Park washroom as a rendezvous point.

This type of behahviour in public spaces such as washrooms is unacceptable.

As far as the political implications for the Idaho Senator, it doesn't bode well for him with his defence of "I'm not gay" being the lasting memory of his time as a legislator.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

A Few Points

The recent announcement that the Manitoba government will allow 300 more slots at the South Beach Casino in exchange for the casino going non-smoking. It was probably the only leverage the government had on the native run facility.

The casino on Highway 59 just south of the beaches of Lake Winnipeg is modeled on South Beach Florida replete with a fake palm tree out front. Why couldn't they do something with an actual aboriginal theme? The building is an eyesore with a huge parking lot. Their website is not much better.

At the moment, they are expanding to include a hotel and a conference center. The expansions will now have to include room for 300 slot machines.

Confusingly, the profits from the casino will be shared with 13 northern First Nations who do not have the benefit of living on a major highway near Winnipeg. The details of the deal remain somewhat of a mystery. It is unknown why some reserves were included and why some were not.


In other aboriginal news, former Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations and now head of Grand Rapids First Nation is opposed to a national park called Manitoba Lowlands National Park.

Mercredi says that a park would not protect hunting, trapping and fishing rights of natives.

Some people on the reserve seemed to welcome the idea of a new park when interviewed on the CBC.

Perhaps they will turf Mercredi if the best he can do is oppose an idea rather than offering something more concrete for his people.


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Sunday, August 19, 2007

Highway 75 Part 1

Highway 75 is the main link between Winnipeg and the border and the crossing at Emerson, Manitoba. It is the eighth busiest crossing in Canada to the U.S. and for many years it was the most neglected.

It took decades to double the amount of lanes despite it being the most important route for international trade in the province. After the road was doubled, it sat neglected and deteriorating until the NDP found out in a poll that revealed people were dissatisfied with the roads in the province.

Dozens of announcements were made thereafter on road construction and the NDP were able to nip the anger many people in Manitoba felt about shoddy roads and bridges. I guess it just became too much to hear the same announcement year after year that the final 20 or so kilometres from Austin to the Saskatchewan border were going to be paved and see nothing happening. This year, to save from the embarrassment of Saskatchewan finishing off their portion the Trans-Canada, there is actual work being done to complete the stretch before the snow flies.

In that same vein, you can see sections of road like the Perimeter Highway finally being worked on after years of promises.

In terms of provincial highways, Highway 75 probably ranks near the top (if not the top) in importance. It has been woefully neglected after many years. Flood damage had made the surface a ripple of bumps that sent loads inside trucks flying. The concrete and asphalt in many sections was crumbling and in such poor shape that traffic had no choice but to slow down to safely traverse it according to media reports in 2006.

In 2007, construction all along Highway 75 is evident. It would appear that it isn't just an asphalt overlay either. In one stretch that I drove on a few weeks ago, there was both a paved shoulder and median paved section. At the moment, that type of style is the exception, not the rule. Most of the shoulder is made of gravel (unlike U.S. Interstates).

One year of construction is not going to solve all the problems of Highway 75 over night. The NDP shouldn't let their recent electoral win be a sign they should go back to sleep on infrastructure. I think that the length of time it took to double the lanes in the past by NDP governments was a result of anti-American attitudes coupled with an unwillingness to do infrastructure work on relatively safe Tory ridings. I think some NDPers had no wish to improve a highway for what they thought were shoppers heading towards Grand Forks and Fargo.

There are several remaining areas of concern when it comes to Highway 75. One of them is Morris, Manitoba. The highway passes right through this small town and traffic has to slow down as it rumbles over some of the worst stretch of road in many kilometres.

A by-pass around this town should be undertaken as soon as possible. For a highway as busy as Highway 75, it isn't safe nor serve an economic purpose having traffic slow down and even stop there at traffic lights.

Morris has never really taken advantage of the highway coming through. Unlike Steinbach, Winkler and Altona, the town has not shown any particular entrepreneurial spirit. It's main attraction is the Manitoba Stampede. It isn't a bad attraction but for years the town has done little to do anything to take advantage of being on a major highway. In the last years, only a motel and a service station have been built. With apologies to Morris, the town seems stagnant. One can well imagine what Steinbach would have done given the same geographic location on the same highway.

There are other instances all along Highway 75 where the lack of controlled access is an invitation to an accident. The government, at the very least, should begin to identify these problem areas and set a timetable for building overpasses. Highway 75 should be an almost seamless connection to Interstate 29 in North Dakota. The economic vitality of Manitoba depends on moving people and products along this highway swiftly and safely.

In terms of tourism, I have no complaints about the Manitoba Tourist office at Emerson. It carries everything someone would need for travel to Canada. It could probably do with some added attractions and longer hours but it is an huge improvement on what existed before which was nothing.

Similarly, the Duty Free store in Emerson serves a need and is done well.

From a purely cosmetic and safety perspective, the entire highway should have a consistent billboard policy. There are still the occasional trailer sign backed up into a farmer's field with multi-coloured letters on it. They look awful and are difficult to read. Several other billboards are tattered and not in use. A smart government would rid the highway and sight lines around it of these battered billboards and only authorize billboards in certain areas. I always wonder how it is the state like North Dakota are able to do this and even light their signs and yet in Manitoba, we have ramshackle, unlit signs strewn about. It really comes down to a lack of caring about appearances and a lack of effort in proper promotion.

The entire stretch of Highway 75 should be thought of as a portal. For those entering Manitoba, it should be a swift, safe and smart looking highway that builds excitement for the driver about coming to Winnipeg or heading to other destinations. For those leaving the city and heading south, it should be the ideal road to send goods or to travel to southern Manitoba and beyond.

The province can't afford to ignore this key highway the way it has over the last several years. Hopefully, construction started this year will continue into the next years.

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Saturday, August 18, 2007

Bits and Bites

I don't think anyone can be unmoved by the woman who discovered her dog sitting on a counter months after it was supposed to have been buried. The crematorium has been closed but questions of how the industry is regulated by officials and users of these facilities needs to be examined. Veterinarians need to be more aware of where the animals are going to be disposed of. The Winnipeg Humane Society only stopped using this company two months ago when they failed to pick up animals consistently. Obviously, not enough people seemed concerned about what happened to pets once they were removed from vet clinics and the Humane Society until now. That has to change.


Speaking of The Humane Society , they are few months from moving to their new facility off of Waverley. The Kent Road premises are not big enough to handle the amount of animals processed each year. The building had become long in the tooth and was not good for housing animals, displaying animals for adoption and not great for walking dogs.

I guess some of the major concerns about the move are:

How will it affect the volunteer base?

People in the east end of the city will find it not as convenient to get to the new facility. Having said that, perhaps the volunteer base will grow because they are more centrally located.

Is the Humane Society close to public transit?

Waverley has regular bus service heading towards the university. The problem is that the bus stop is some distance from the actual Humane Society building. The section of Waverley is a pretty windy section because of the railroad tracks. These tracks were the same ones that overturned a woman's scooter as she crossed. That whole crossing is not very people friendly for those wanting to walk or bike to the new building.

Is it is easy to drive to the Humane Society?

Well, there is a turning lane but getting on and off Waverley isn't a piece of cake. It may be a problem for many people.

In any event, the new building is totally needed and with any luck, some of the problems mentioned will work themselves out.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Assiniboine Park Zoo

It is time for the Winnipeg Zoo to go.

The city of Winnipeg shouldn't be in the zoo business. It should either shut it down or the city should sell it but there is no way it should continue funding it. By some accounts, the city pumps in $2 million a year into the facility. Anyone who has visited the zoo or Assiniboine Park for that matter has probably noticed the decay.

The last polar bear Debbie is in a compound that will not see another bear set foot in it. The compound is now too small to allow the zoo to take possession of another bear according to new guidelines.

And so goes.

The zoo needs $125 million in improvements. This is according to the city and the Zoological Society. I have no idea where that money is supposed to come from. The city doesn't have it. In fact, the rest of Assiniboine Park is as needy as the zoo is for refurbishment.

There has been an attempt to turn over the whole park to a non-profit organization but there has been little explanation of how this would work. It may be an attempt to do something like what New York did with Central Park. In the case of New York, 85% of the budget for the park comes from non-profit organization. Similarly, the Central Park Zoo is run by a group separate from the city of New York.

I don't know that the zoo in Winnipeg can be run that way but the opportunity should be presented to non-profit and profit groups alike to take over the zoo and remove it from the city payroll. If there are no takers, the city has to honestly look at closing the zoo.

There is no doubt that there are amazing workers taking care of the animals at the zoo but the deterioration of the facility is a reflection of a lack of resources in city coffers. Some might say that zoos should be retired in principle. I won't go that far but I do think that they should not be run by city governments. Certainly, Winnipeg doesn't want to be the focus of public attention like another city zoo in Canada has been. The Calgary Zoo has had a number of deaths in its gorilla population.

The big complaint of many people who flee to rural areas outside of Winnipeg is that taxes are too high. The $2 million going to the zoo would be a good start on trimming the budget.

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Polo Park Part 4

After location, the next important decision a mall manager can make is content.

In Polo Park's case the first thought was the anchor stores that were to be the main draw. Initially, those stores were Eaton's and Sears and in the grocery department, it was Loblaw's and Dominion which in a unique match-up stood across from one another within the mall. In the center of the mall were the jewelery stores facing off against one another.

Dominion stores went out of business and this became the impetus for many malls across Canada to do the renovations that they did in the 1980s. Loblaw's eventually became Real Canadian Superstar.

After the 1986 renovation of Polo Park, the anchor stores were Sears, Eaton's, Zellers and Safeway. There was a Coles and a WHSmith in the book department. There was a barber and hairstylist, a record store, some banks, a Boots store from Britain, shoe stores and men and women's fashion stores. Some of the youth oriented stores were Roots and Club Monaco on the second floor.

The food court was an important addition for the mall to remain competitive with developments in St. Vital Centre and elsewhere in the city.

In 2007, prior to the mall renovation some of the stores and services have changed with the changes in technology. There are now a few cell phone and electronic companies hawking their wares such as Telus and The Source. An old standbys like RadioShack is no longer in the mall.

Polo Park has reinforced its reputation as being the number one spot for jewellers in the province with nine of some of the most prominent names in the field facing off against one another in the mall, many near the center of it.

As one walks around the mall though, aside from the food court in one place and jewellers near the center of the mall, it is hard to get a sense of theme. Children's clothing is spread out all over the mall over different floors. Men and women's apparel is spread out with some popular stores placed in odd places where traffic is lighter.

It isn't like this in other malls where conglomerations of certain stores create an energy that attracts people.

How is that Lululemon or Billabong end up way out on the second floor surrounded by stores that create no synergy between them?

Perhaps the mall management will try to remedy the situation once the renovations are complete but some of the stores have been where they've been for some time.

One of the unfortunate oversights in the mall has been the lack of any bookstore for some time. That will soon be corrected with the addition of McNally Robinson in the spot soon to be vacated by SportCheck. This is a huge plus for the mall and big improvement on the old Coles and will be about the size of their main store at the Grant Park Shopping Centre.

Aside from a general re-organization of stores in the mall to play to certain themes, mall management ought to go after certain stores that would be unique to the Winnipeg market such as AĆ©ropostale and Hollister.

I'll reserve further judgment on Polo Park until renovations are done. It is quite clear though that mall improvements have been needed for quite some time. That goes for the entire surrounding area in terms of traffic flow, parking and overall visuals.

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Saturday, August 11, 2007

Polo Park Part 3

Polo Park is going through it third major expansion since its inception. This does not include development in its parking lot of restaurants such as Earls and Joeys but rather expansion and renovation to the mall proper.

As an aide before I get too far, it should be mentioned that the Polo Park website is so far behind the times that they don't even have Joeys listed as being located on Polo Park property. I'm sure Joeys is impressed after being there for some time now and are probably why they are paying for Polo Park management in the first place.

At ant rate, this post will talk about the inside of the mall and the lay-out of the mall.

First, let me say that if people thought the outside of the mall was ugly, the inside doesn't get much better. The 1986 expansion that put a second floor on the mall was so fraught with problems as to defy belief. The entrances in any location in the mall do little to show off the mall or to give someone direction as to where to go. One of the the worst sections is the north entrance by Sears. For decades, it has been a wind tunnel for people. For this reason and for the waste of space it represents, renovations are taking place at this portal. A large Sportchek is being built at this entrance.

It remains to be seen what sort of improvement this will make because once inside the mall, a visitor still has to pass by the blank wall of Sears for some distance until well inside the mall.

The 1986 expansion placed three escalators in the mall and one glass elevator. Other elevators exist in the Bay and Sears but if you are in a wheelchair, it can't be easy to get the second floor unless that is where you entered in the first place via the second floor parking deck.

There is a glassed roof in a few places but its use of natural light is done so poorly as to make it almost useless.

The center of the mall, where a set of escalators and the glass elevator is located, has a small open space that serves a variety of needs. One of the main things the space is used for it the Santa display for several weeks before Christmas. The space is underutilized thereafter and doesn't serve a role as a either a spot for people watching or where people might meet a friend before going shopping together.

One of the main problems in Polo Park is the food court. Hemmed in as it is beside Sears on the second floor, it is not pretty not is it easy to get in and out of. Originally built with 500 seats, there are often no seats to be found. It is that busy at times. Only a few of the restaurants, Moxie's and A&W have seats of their own away from the maddening crowds. Anyone hoping to have a dining experience where they can relax and chat in the mall would find it extremely difficult to do so. Moxie's is probably the only choice but for years that has meant fighting past the crowds in the food court to get to its entrance.

No doubt mall management have known about the problems of its food court for some time and this is why renovations are taking place in this area now. I'll reserve further judgment until I see what they have done.

I don't know how much of the present renovations on the inside can or will address the things mentioned here. At the moment, there appears to an attempt to beautify the inside by ripping out tired facades and flooring. Some mall stores are all also taking advantage of the time to do renovations or change their location in the mall altogether.

It has been 21 years since the last major upgrade and Polo Park simply was not keeping up with the latest models in look and substance.

Malls in North America have become destination spots. Many of the news malls in the U.S. have all manner of entertainment in them including dining, shopping, theatre and recreation . In the last several years, Polo Park has been concerned about getting income from the large parking space around the mall. The construction of Earls, Joeys, the Silver City movie theatre and Pier 1 Imports all took precedence over what was happening in the mall itself.

The synergy between the mall and a stand alone restaurant or movie theatre is difficult to see. Good for mall management in terms of rent but not so good for retailers inside the mall. Someone going to Silver City is not necessarily going to Polo Park.

In the U.S., many malls build movie theatres right inside the mall. Polo Park used to have a theater in the basement on the west side but they treated it as an afterthought. I'm sure St. Vital Centre benefits more from Silver City inside the mall than Polo Park does from its stand alone Silver City.

More in Part 4.

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Friday, August 10, 2007

Polo Park Part 2

Last time, I talked about Polo Park and how it contributed to the demise of retailing downtown, how it was physically unattractive and how it was affecting traffic in a district that was never meant to serve as many vehicles as it does now.

Today, I'll take back some of my criticism laid at the feet of Polo Park. To be fair, the downtown demise of retailing was being duplicated in every major urban area in North America. Large department stores like Eaton's and The Bay were inevitably going to challenged by specialized retailers and they knew it. That is why these two particular stores were on the ground floor when it came to mall development. They became the anchor stores in new developments along with Simpsons Sears (later Sears).

Eaton's was the first to feel the change to suburban retailing. They dumped their catalogue division in 1976 putting hundreds of Winnipeggers out of work in the process.

The big department stores became victims of the success of other retailers in the mall. In short, they couldn't compete with the variety offered at some of the clothing and shoe stores and other specialty retailers in the mall. Worse, the dominance the big department had in appliances and televisions was being challenged by new retailers located near large malls. In Winnipeg, this was the introduction of Advance and Krazy Kelly's and later Future Shop as stores to go to in search for your TV, stereo and with Future Shop, your fridge and washer/dryer.

It was all too much for Eaton's which collapsed in 1999. The name was revived by Sears for a short time and they tried to operate a few of the old Eaton's locations but that experiment ended a few short years later in 2002.

The Bay, which long coveted a spot in Polo Park jumped at the chance to occupy Eaton's old location which put a big question mark on their downtown department store which remains to this day.

So, in 2007, the mall is going through its third major renovation. What does the future hold?

Continued in Part 3.

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Thursday, August 9, 2007

Polo Park Part 1

Shopping malls have their fans as well as detractors.

Winnipeg had one of the earliest malls in Canada with Polo Park built in 1959. Most people don't know that name came from the old Polo Park Racetrack that existed on the property before it became a retail area.

Once the racetrack was torn down, two open air strip malls were constructed facing one another. It was called Polo Park. In 1963 a roof was added and the mall became one of the first enclosed malls in North America.

I think many people in northern climates saw the benefit in the idea when it first came out. Anyone who had to trudge the cold distance between The Bay and Eaton's on south Portage Avenue will tell you that. Still, as the mall became more and more of an attraction for shoppers, it caused the slow demise of downtown retail shopping.

In Winnipeg, that decline was assisted by a number of factors such as one way traffic on streets to help with flow. In essence, it made people pass by retailers fast as well. So fast, in fact, that they kept driving past those stores until they either closes or joined the exodus to the suburbs. We'll save that for another post though.

Back to malls. Well, what can one say about Manitoba's largest mall? Well, for one, like a lot of malls it is ugly. Even the 1986 expansion did little to make the outside appearance nicer. The Eaton's and Sears buildings did nothing for their exteriors and overall look even today is a mix-matched brick. By comparison St. Vital Centre was positively gorgeous right from its construction in 1979 to its renovation in 1998. It has the same brick facade and looks far more open that Polo Park's wall of brick.

Just as a side note, both Polo Park's and St. Vital Centre's websites suck. They should have makeovers and Polo Park's should have some history to it.

Any hope that Polo Park will be beautified has been lost forever due to parking decks that are on the eastern and northern parts of the lot. The city planners forced the parking decks on the mall in 1986 and later on when Silver City was constructed where the old Chi-Chi's and Fingers restaurants were (anyone remember those?). I can't recall when Silver City went up at Polo Park. Anyone out there remember? I'm going to say 1990s. In any event, while the city knew that Polo Park didn't have enough parking for a mall double in size, they let the construction proceed so long as a second story parking deck was added. I think everyone would have to agree that the parking deck that was built has to be the ugliest and most ill-conceived contraption ever attached to a mall.

With the old Winnipeg Arena now torn down and the CKY building sold, I expect we are going to see an addition to the mall in the form of a mall extension or of additional retailers who like to be near malls but not in them. Some hope for an IKEA at the old arena site but the company has strongly denied that. Whatever goes there, it will add to the congestion along poor old Omand's Creek, especially if a further addition is made to the parking deck. Empress was never meant to take the traffic flow it does now.

Continued in Part 2.

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Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Lazy, hazy days of summer

It is once again another summer of construction in Winnipeg. The long backlog of avoiding re-building infrastructure has finally caught up with the city as well as the province.

I headed to the U.S. last week for a vacation with my wife. We arrived on the day that the I-35W collapsed in Minneapolis. It was horrible to see. It was more horrible to know that more bridges and overpasses across Canada and the U.S. also fall under the category of being structurally deficient.

I have to say that coverage in the print press of the collapse was sub-par. The best coverage, as one might expect, was the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. My wife and I spent a hour each on the front section reading about the accident.

In Winnipeg, it has been noted that a few bridges are in need of repair in a bad way. The Arlington Street bridge and the St. James bridge were noted prominently. I have no idea what the timeframe for replacement of these bridges are and I'm surprised no one has asked. Given how much traffic is likely to go over the St. James bridge in the future, it should be a primary candidate for replacement. I think we have only gotten a vague idea of what is planned for Route 90/Kenaston and the bridge. Those plans ought to be announced soon. It isn't like this main artery is going to get any less busy what with the Kapyong Barracks re-development and with Waverley West being constructed.

Manitoba has seen more than it fair share of bridges and overpasses being damaged by trucks this year. We certainly don't want to see a bridge collapse because of neglect.

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