Friday, August 30, 2013

Eric Robinson Should Go

Deputy Premier of Manitoba Eric Robinson

Osborne House does a lot for Winnipeg and the surrounding community. It is a women's shelter that is there when women need it the most: at their most vulnerable. It is for all women regardless of their background. Eric Robinson sullied that reputation by attaching race to their fundraising motivations.

The suggestion that those who organized a Burlesque were "ignorant white do-gooders" was bringing in race into a the discussion based on Eric Robinson's own prejudices and race based beliefs. The fact that one of the prime organizers was black from a mixed white and aborginal family appears not to have been known by Robinson. His assumption was it was white people, they were ignorant and they were go-gooders.

Let's go over that again. Robinson believes that people associated with Osborne House fundraising are white, ignorant and do-gooders.

The government did not want this view known and in a freedom of information request redacted those words. However, typical of government, the blacked out areas were not adequately invisible due to cost saving paper that was near transparent. You could see Robinson's views plain as day.

Several days earlier a NDP caucus member was disciplined for trying to out a Conservative MLA as gay. It was repugnant and the NDP were forced to act.

Days later Greg Selinger was defending Eric Robinson and saying the apology on the subject made things right. But was it an apology? No. Robinson said he was entitled to his beliefs on race. The no apology apology stands and Robinson remains defensive and defiant. Selinger is in his corner but questions remain about Robinson's ability to do his job given the views he says he is entitled to have.

Robinson was perfectly entitled to his view on Burlesque. He was the one who added a race component. It was totally uncalled for.

The government blacking out Robinson's views is also astounding. It is hard not to think that their solution to the problem is thicker paper and blacker ink rather transparency.

It seems unlikely that Robinson can represent all Manitobans because he seems to have learned nothing from this ordeal. One can imagine him representing his government at various events with: Hello ignorant white do-gooders of...Osborne House, Winnipeg Football Club, Manitoba Theatre Centre, Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce...

No apologies for you ignorant white do-gooders even if you happen to be black, Asian or Hispanic.

Eric Robinson should go. Will he? Probably not. Selinger is stuck now.

The aftermath of this is that women are increasingly feeling this NDP government is out of touch. This just added fuel to the fire.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Oil Through Churchill

Oil pipeline across Manitoba
Make no mistake...oil is going across Manitoba now. It is shipped by truck, rail and pipe. We are likely to see even more over the next few years.

The increases in rail and truck traffic has spiked enormously. Literally tens of thousands of tankers are moving across North America filled with oil where just even a few years ago almost nothing went that way.

As Lac Megantic can attest to, there are dangers involved that need to be addressed.

You don't have to be a wooly eyed environmentalist to be horrified by loss of life and destruction that happened in Quebec. Seems a pretty high cost of doing business.

And oil spills from pipelines seem to happen with regularity as do refinery disasters.

The long terms costs to the environment and to people's health are well known. Smog and particulate matter are undeniable. Water contamination is a fact. And scientists say our need for oil comes at the cost of global warming.

Most of the increase in rail oil traffc has happened without anyone knowing about it. It should not be surprising given that pipeline approvals are slow or not coming at all. The insatiable demand for oil had suppliers seek out other methods of transporation.

The state of North Dakota has lept up to become the second largest oil producer in the U.S. in a very. very short time. Only Texas is bigger now. Unlike Texas though which has built pipelines and supply routes over a long time, North Dakota is experiencing boom growth that outpaces present infrastructure. The rail lines in the area were set up for agriculture not oil. Burlington Northern Santa Fe Rail has announced hundreds of millions of rail expansion for the area.

Pipelines just aren't getting approved or built fast enough.

The people who have successful blocked pipeline development probaby had no idea that rail traffic would leap to 500,000 tankers of oil this year from a few thousand maybe even five years go.

According to some environmentalists, there is no safe way to transport oil and that every drop burned is destruction of lives and eco-system. This might be true. However, there are no alternatives that are cheaper or as easily available. Even reducing enegy needs doesn't make the need go away.

In short, the economy and people's lives depend on energy and no collectivist anti-development pro-environment opposition will change that.

So here is the conundrum: we need oil and people will suffer and die without it. The result of our need for oil is that people will suffer and die because of it. Yeesh. What to do?

 It seems clear that since oil is not going away too soon that government and industry have to take a stand on safety. If people feel they are easily sacrificed, they will resist at every turn oil exploration, transport logistics and general use that may affect them negatively.

Port of Churchill
The announcement that Omnitrax Canada is going to experiment with a shipment of oil from Alberta through the northern port of Churchill has got some environmentalist up in arms. Omnitrax has tried to keep the rail, port and Churchill Fuel Terminal viable as private enterprises but the main trade passing through for decades has been grain. In October, they hope to send oil via the deep water northern port via a 330,000 gallon tanker ship.

Many people forget how the federal government stepped back from investing in Churchill and the north. First the military pulled back and then space-based rocket testing and then it looked like the very lifeline of the port, rail and grain trade was about to end. Lloyd Axworthy helped with the privatization that saw big U.S. operator Omnitrax take over.

Town of Churchill
The Town of Churchill depends completely on the rail link and the port for its long term success.

Presently, Omnitrax is completing a $2 million construction project to accommodate the new oil business. They also announced that former Brandon Member of Parliament Merv Tweed is becoming President of Omnitrax at the same time. Tweed announced his resignation as MP and hours later he was standing out front with his new job.

It is only two years ago that Brad Chase, formerly an exec at Kleyson took over the top Omnitrax job in Winnipeg with its 16 employees on Carlton Street.

Obviously, the heavy duty politics of having 10 ships a year pick up over 3 million barrels of oil a year using the rail, port and fuel terminal needed an inside guy to shepherd it through. Tweed, with his Conservative connections and loyal service to Stephen Harper, seems to fit the bill.

On the face of it, it would seem that federal Conservatives would embrace a new transport route for oil via the north. Stephen Harper travels to the area every year making announcements about how important the area is. It is true that tens of millions have been spent on the route to Churchill from the The Pas as well as port improvements. However, the prime minister has fallen short of re-establishing a permanent military presence in Churchill for both the navy and air force.

Instead Harper has announced three different military bases for Resolute, Nanisvik and Iqaluit. None are established and ships that were supposed to be ready this year have not even begun construction. Snowmobiles won't be purchased till 2021 and there are no plans to replace the rifle that ranger use which go back to World War I.

It is seven years of unfulfilled promises in the north but it meat for the partisan masses in the south in that it all sounds good.

The focus should have been for the military to make sure Churchill became the navy port of the north. It is already a deep water civilian port. It is where any icebreaker and tugs should be based and the launching point for economic development and the establishment of a security and rescue presence.

But back to oil...

Churchill's fuel depot already receives oil along the rail line. Over the last 15 years, it has received 2.5 million barrels of mostly gas and diesel over the rail line. Still, it is a big difference receiving those type of deliveries every year not to mention the shipping aspect through Hudson's Bay.

I'll repeat that: Omnitrax wants to transport 3 million barrels over softening permafrost for a shipping season that is growing but is still four months long.

The tracks will need greater monitoring, more safety checks and lots of consultation. It appears that many people in Churchill might support the movement of oil through the port. Others don't even want the fuels that comes through now and might even support closing the rail link to the port for environmental reasons.

It will be a battle for sure and it might be one that Omnitrax might not win. And if it doesn't, is the future of northern Manitoba in jeopardy? If the grain industry declines at the port, the very lifeblood of the rail and port could falter. I don't think the government will buy the rail and port back if private industry fails.

Things might move faster than anyone realizes as it seems rail traffic and oil is growing swiftly.

This could be a very good thing for Manitoba. It could also be terrible if a disaster happens as a result of transporting oil through vulnerable areas. But why should the north not have economic activity that happens every day in the south?

Lip service can't be given to safety and environmental concerns but nor should the impact on the economy.

The government needs to be strong and represent all the interests of the province both economic and environmental. It remains to be seen whether the provincial NDP or the federal Conservatives are prepared to do that.

Both seem very nervous about the prospect of a lot of oil heading through North America's only deep water port in the north.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Why is Target Failing in Canada?

Target has not even been in Canada for that long and it is already pulling in satisfaction numbers that are below industry standards. Heck, even Zellers probably did better.

Costco tops the Forum Research poll that came out this week for Canada and retailers.

The list ran this order:

Not very good numbers.

Now this list is for those people who have been to the stores in Canada since they have opened.

So what accounts for the dissatisfaction? The details are a bit sketchy but in a nutshell people are no doubt comparing Target USA with Target Canada and finding it wanting. Even more troubling for Target in Canada is the fact that their numbers are dropping. A previous poll found higher numbers than they have now.

It is no easy task to create a new national store with 124 stores, three distribution centers. They certainly can't blame Zellers staff since they only retained 1% of them.

In Winnipeg, we have one major Target renovation of the old Zellers at Grant Park underway and new construction of the the Super Target at old Canad Inn Stadium site at Polo Park. Quite simply, a lot of Winnipeg does not have a really local Target yet. There are no Targets in west Winnipeg. Many people in the city have not been to the ones open yet.

Analysts are saying that Target needs to do well with their grocery so that they get more regular visits. Walmart has recently upgraded its grocery sections to counter Target and Loblaw's/Real Canadian Superstores.

Loblaw's is set to buy Shopper's Drug Mart and Sobey's is buying Safeway.

And there is Target will sub-par numbers for satisfied customers.

What is the solution? Price and selection and location, location, location.

Can Target do it? Well, they have had a reputation for being a tough competitor. Most Canadians won't give up on them yet but they are showing dissatisfaction now.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Dirty Donkey/Colour Me Rad

What are they?

Well, essentially they are private companies venturing into outdoor fitness events with the emphasis on fun.

This past summer, two companies from the U.S. came across the border after successfully introducing 5K runs in the U.S. where participants are hit with colours consisting of cornstarch over their white clothing. The colour is thrown, shot through water, cannons and squirt guns.

The East Indian community's full moon spring festival Holi is the inspiration for the colour event.

There is no timer on the five kilolmeter run. It isn't for experienced runners to show fast they are. It is often novice runners, people out for a fun outdoor event, families and friends and those looking for photo friendly activities.

And oh yes, colour runs are all about the photos. It is the quintessential social media event in that pictures will flood the Internet.

It also makes for good TV news in an increasingly negative new cycle.

The colour runs evolved from the dirtier obstacle course races that started in the western state such as Tough Mudder, Spartan Race and Mud Hero. In Winnipeg, the races are called the The Dirty Donkey.

The mud races requires a little more fitness on the part of the participants but once again the day is about fun and there is so much mud that people are completely covered by the end.

 In an day and age of isolation and individualism, these events really crank up the fun factor, get people out of their comfort zones, encourage more outdoor activity and perhaps lifestyle changes and give the attendees a cool factor that is visually demonstrated in Internet pictures.

Often, these private events are partnered up with local charities but make no mistake, it is a business venture as only business could spread this idea so fast and to so many countries in a year.

The thing to remember with all of these events is keep your eyes and mouth closed!

Monday, August 12, 2013

University of Winnipeg United Health and RecPlex

United Health and RecPlex
It is kind of a mouthful of a name and almost feels like it was designed by committee. The United Health and RecPlex. One can guess that at some point, it will be renamed just as the Duckworth Centre was. A suggestion: the Axworthy Health and Recreation Hall.

For many decades, the University of Winnipeg was centered on pretty much one fill city block. The only outside buildings off that one block was continuing education. Today, the campus spreads out north, south, east and and west of the main buildings.

The one square block campus more or less changed in 1984 when the Athletic Therapy (later the Duckworth Centre) building was completed and occupied for sports and classes. I attended classes in the year it was complete but back then the building still felt like a foreign body attached to the main building. It didn't help that the new building pretty much faced the loading zone and garbage pick-up of the university.
New structure is a continuation of Duckworth

200 car parkade feature of complex

Over the years more activity of a university nature started to expand across the street. The university daycare and Menno Simons College took up residency in the 1990s and there was more activity there and on the street in front of Duckworth Centre. However, it was not until the Duckworth Centre expansion in 2008 that added a fitness center and cafe that a greater component to more people on the street along Spence was achieved.

Still, the university recognized in the 2000s that Spence Street continued to be a bridge too far with parking, buses and non-university traffic dividing the campus. With assistance from various funding sources, the street was closed in favour of a roundabout on the north side and a bus loop on the south side in 2009.

North side Spence Street roundabout

South side Spence Street bus loop
A Promenade was created for the campus to link east and west components of the university and form a better pedestrian experience for people. Of paramount interest was trying to connect the campus to the science faculty, student daycare, McFeetors Hall residence and large parking lot two streets over between Langside and Furby.

Bus path and walkway looking east to university from Young Street

Walkway leading from west campus/Langside to university
A rudimentary link between east and west campuses and it is widely used. I say rudimentary because it started as a rather un-glamourous sidewalk from Spence to Langside with Furby Place included if you go further.

In short, it is a cut through between houses and apartments on a number of streets.

The refurbishment of the front of the university was complete in 2007 and the walkway to the west campus was done in 2009. The first was done up right, the other is a work in progress.

Although the closure of Spence and the attempt to link the main campus to the west campus was excellent, the university still had land on Spence in front of the Duckworth Centre that was now old and a bit of an eyesore. It was a square block of parking, field and small apartment the older two connected buildings that formerly held the daycare and Menno Simons College.

The square block of land for the new rec place
A municipal and provincial election helped secure a promise for a new fieldhouse rec center that would serve an inner city university and surrounding community.

Construction is well under way and while I had a hard time figuring out the configuration at first, it is plainly a terrific spot for the new building. It is clearly visible under construction now from Portage Avenue.

Looking from Spence Street

Along Spence near Duckworth Centre

The square block gone and under construction
So what does this new $40 million include with this new United Health and RecPlex include? Well, it will connect the new fieldhouse to the Duckworth Centre and the recently completed fitness center. In 2008, a $3.5 million expansion of Duckworth added 6000 square feet for student work out area, coffee shop and expanded athletic therapy clinic. All of Duckworth will now be connected straight into the new fieldhouse.

I have talked about the new rec center but was is in it? Well, by the specs, it is supposed to a three story, 189,000 square foot addition to the Duckworth center connected by an pedestrian overpass.

Upon completion, the field house will look like a part of Duckworth
The most noteworthy feature about the field house is how open it is.

Open field house
The field house can accommodate soccer, football, ultimate and baseball.

A regulation 60 metre rubberized sprint track.

Retractable batting cages,

Meeting rooms including one for the community and soundproofed for powwows and drumming.

There are food and beverage kiosks.

The entire building will be energy efficient.

Of particular note is the addition of 190 underground parking spaces.

There were some surface parking present in the block that will comprise the field house but this will a very big gain in overall parking. Unbeknownst to many people, there is a similar sized parkade under the Duckworth Centre.

The University of Winnipeg has been consistently been in the top 10 for most expensive parking in Canada. In some universities, according to Maclean's, parking problems have resulted in professors quitting.

I guess it would be easy for some social activists to say too bad, so sad but they should remember that Tommy Douglas began his activism in Canada over a $65 parking ticket. If the father of Canada's social democratic movement once said he was prepared to vault the barricades for good parking, you better believe it is an issue.

The university has acquired a few more surface parking lots as it has expanded but it has lost spots as well on the street as well as where they are building.

The underground parkade at the field house at the very least will be appreciated by any faculty that the university tries to recruit in the next years. As far as students go, any solution involving cars will be an expensive option.

The new United Health and RecPlex is scheduled to be complete in summer of 2014.

So much of what is happening at the University of Winnipeg is like moving chess pieces. It is hard to see how things will unfold until they are done. However, it seems clear the present and the future of the university look brighter now than they did in the a large part of the 1980 s and 1990s.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Sak's Coming to Winnipeg?

There had been rumbles about Hudson Bay Company taking over Sak's Fifth Avenue department store for months. Compared to HBC founded in 1670, Sak's is a relative newcomer started in 1867 and in its present department store form from 1924.

From the start Sak's represented luxury on a scale rarely seen. There have been bumps along the way such as The Depression and wars and business cycles up and down. The department store adapted expanded and extended their brand to other markets through stores and their discount luxury line over many years. The Off 5th stores started in 1990 and now outnumber the department stores. The online store was around from 2000.

Sak's has expanded under licence to Mexico and the Middle East.

The recession has hurt many businesses, especially retail but Sak's has a great name, great real estate and great product.

The savvy shopper in recent years has out pressure on company's like Sak's by shopping online and waiting for steep discounts or deals on shipping. This has marked many retailers the last years. best Buy has closed stores because too many people came in, tested the product, got an education in it and then went home and ordered it cheaper online.

The wait for sales has become a huge game and often retailers blink first.

Add to that the ridiculously low shipping costs subsidized by the U.S. government. The U.S. Postal Service loses $25 million a day every day. If the U.S. wanted to see more people go back to stores, they would stop the post office from losing money and raise stamp prices.

In Canada, HBC has fared a lot better in its turn around with new ownership in the form of Richard Baker from the U.S. and his investment finance group. The group had previously bought the prestigious U.S. retailer Lord and Taylor in the States. In both cases, the two department stores have done very well recovering.

In the case of the HBC, it has shed itself of Zellers, got a pocketful of cash from the stock market, signed some excellent deals with suppliers, upgraded their stores made some money.

The nearly $3 billion deal to buy Sak's is a very interesting play by HBC to face head on the challenge of Nordstrom's arrival sometime in 2014. It is also an indication they are prepared to challenge Holt Renfrew for supremacy of the luxury market in Canada. There is some indication that their plan is a sound one.

There are still some challenges from Sak's shareholders to be sure. Other companies might try to make a play for Sak's. It ain't over yet.

But if it does succeed, what will it mean for Winnipeg? Well mostly, Winnipeg would land maybe one or two Off 5th stores. HBC has indicated that they will put the Sak's discounter in 25 locations. To be sure, at least one will be in Winnipeg. Most of the discount stores are between 25,000 and 28,000 square feet on average. Could this part of HBC downtown and maybe a spot in Polo Park?

There is an indication that HBC might also open full Sak's stores in four of five markets. Most certainly Winnipeg stands a good chance of landing a store if they decide to do one 1 store per market. There is already word that some markets such as Ottawa might be too crowded for a store so Winnipeg might be good with no Nordstrom's coming and a more stripped down Holt Renfrew in place.

And where to place a Sak's? Well, the rumours all week have been the old Zellers location in Polo Park is excellent. Downtown is a possibility too in a building the company owns.

If HBC decides to become a Real Estate Investment Trust as they say they'd like to, it might unlock a complete redevelopment of HBC downtown. What this entails could be a complete demolition of the old parkade and construction of a new one with other mixed uses such as a hotel, offices and condos.

And let's not forget Seasons of Tuxedo. This is the type of store they want. Could be a Sak's or an Off 5th.

Unless the deal is scuttled though, bet on seeing a roll out of Off 5th in 2014 and Winnipeg will be included. As far as Sak's, we can hope. It will bring lots of competition if they do come.