UCN student housing: Process an affront to democracy

To the Editor:

On Oct. 4, I attended a meeting at City Hall to hear what Colleen Smook and Ron Matechuk were going to present city council. I was surprised to see council present the audience a major development Agreement between the City and the Province of Manitoba for a UCN campus and family housing. Over 30 pages were handed out and people were asked for questions. It was impossible for anyone to absorb all the information. It took me two days to digest the documents afterwards. The UCN project is claimed to be the largest public investment project in Thompson's history to be located on our community's "Parks and Recreation" zoned area. Thompson deserves a new UCN campus. The students of the North deserve a new campus, as education is critical to our future success. Most people understand and agree.

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However, this development agreement was presented without two weeks due notice to the general public, voted upon at the same meeting, and then signed by the province days later. The city just sold our Rec Centre grounds to the Province of Manitoba, an absentee landlord! This agreement will alter our community and neighbourhoods forever, and most people have no idea what just took place. This is not how municipal democracy is supposed to work.

To provide some related background ... In the Winnipeg Free Press recently, UCN President Denise Henning stated, "UCN envisions partnering with a proposed wolf centre of excellence and the aboriginal arts centre." Spirit Way Inc. (SWI) with UCN initiated both projects. Over the past 18 months I've worked with their senior management and science department, and with the help of funding from Thompson Unlimited, to develop an action plan that would present Thompson as the Wolf Capital of the World, in the same manner as Churchill has become the Polar Bear Capital of the World. This provides many economic development and public relations opportunities. In 2009 UCN and Thompson Unlimited hosted a Manitoba Wolf Workshop and were invited to present their wolf plans to a science and wildlife conference in Denver. Currently, we have 13 organizations in North America interested in partnering with Thompson such as Defenders of Wildlife in Washington, D.C. to host a Wolf Research Symposium in Thompson; Elderhostel North America for wolf learning vacations using UCN facilities, Biosphere Expeditions from Europe to launch a scientific wolf research project using tourists as helpers, to twinning schools in Thompson, Minnesota and Mexico on a collaborative youth multi-media project. All of these initiatives require a high standard wolf park. Anything less would open us to criticism.

Over the past 100 years, many countries killed most of their wolves because of human/wolf conflict issues. Today the world has a new infatuation with wolves, and Northern Manitoba is one of the few places where wolves still live in a pristine environment with relatively little impact from ranchers, towns, roads, etc. Outside organizations are amazed by Thompson's gigantic wolf mural, wolf statues and wolf rockface sculpture. Thompson's public art has received praise from Greece, Mexico, USA and Canada and continues to attract attention.

Twenty months ago, SWI received approval from the mayor and Thompson Zoological Society to build a new world-class wolf park at the Thompson Zoo. This would allow UCN students on campus to use such a facility for science and animal behaviour studies, student internships, work experiences, etc. The wolf park would be managed as a viable business unit with new revenue from science, education, and tourism uses.

SWI, UCN, and Calm Air brought zoo and wolf experts to Thompson to provide the best advice. We hired a zoo consultant and a landscape architect. We visited wolf parks in Minnesota and British Columbia. SWI raised over $200,000 (for a $253,000 project) including a large donation from a senior UCN person. We offered the services of our zoo consultant to the City of Thompson to help them prepare a long term plan to integrate the wolf park into a newer, simpler zoo. Unfortunately, that did not happen.

I'm explaining this to show how much work has gone into this project in partnership with UCN. During our consultant's research in 2009, she began to identify issues with Manitoba Housing and Renewal Corporation's (MHRC) plans for student family housing that would conflict with the baseball diamonds, zoo, and wolf park. Our architect found some drawings we weren't supposed to see or circulate. Red and Jack Sangster had already raised their baseball concerns in 2009. The UCN Master Plan drawings in March 2009 did not even show a zoo in the area.

Last April, I attended a public presentation at the Thompson Wildlife Association building where MHRC architects showed the first family townhouses to be built about 60 feet away from the Wildlife building and nearby zoo property. The planners were not aware that there was a shooting range next door, which might be disturbing to parents and children. No one had consulted with the Wildlife Association to explain what was to be constructed in front of their building. How could MHRC work on a housing development with the city for a year and not know what was close by?

The UCN project manager stated that UCN was a "complex project", and they wanted "public input to get it right." Our ad hoc committee had long conversations with UCN to recommend the housing be moved a few hundred 100 feet south to allow everything some room. Otherwise it could jeopardize future plans for their Wolf Centre of Excellence. The vice-president encouraged me to talk to the project manager. I prepared a report for discussion. Steve Ashton's office said he agreed with me. We were called in for a meeting with the mayor. Several of us were scolded and chastised like children for seemingly delaying the UCN project.

On May 3, our committee presented the wolf park plans to the council to start construction in June. We had been working on this for almost two years and raised over $200,000. It would be 2011 before any new wolf pups would be introduced or any operating expenses/revenue to be incurred. That would allow time to finalize the business plan and governance model.

After nearly two years and a week before construction was to start, Mayor Johnston presented SWI with a City of Thompson Memorandum of Understanding for the wolf park project. It was such a one-sided document that it was unanimously rejected by the ad hoc committee and SWI Board. We learned that this document had not been approved by city council or even shown to the council representative on the zoo board or SWI. We lost our construction supervisor and summer student grant. The mayor's unilateral action has placed the Wolf Park project and all the partnerships with the 13 organizations mentioned in jeopardy. It has placed SWI in an awkward position as we hold a huge sum of other people's money. If returned to the donors, it has personal tax implications for them. It tarnishes SWI's reputation to secure funds and complete projects. It made UCN people ask "Don't they (city council) see how important this is to us? It shouldn't be either/or. It should be both."

During this process many other questions about the UCN development came to light:

Why were the original six UCN sites not shown to the public in 2006 for their full input as the Rec Centre site was not the first site recommended by the architects?

Why has the public not been told that MHRC's goal is to develop 200 housing units in the Rec Centre grounds that will take over or isolate all outside rec facilities developed by thousands of hours of volunteer work over 50 years?

There are separate architect firms working on the campus and the MHRC housing and they disagree on the housing type and location. One argues that townhouses with courtyards and basements are not the right housing for this congested area. A former senior Northern Planner feels the same. Why should Winnipeg or The Pas people get the say in how this will proceed in our community? We can have a campus and our rec facilities and a wolf park;

Why have no housing options been considered along Thompson Drive that could disperse the congestion?

What will be the tremendous traffic issues for Westwood residents every morning and lunch hour when another 1,000 to 1,500 people work and live at the campus site on top of the R.D. Parker traffic, bonspiels, hockey tournaments, etc?

Where will Nickel Days and the King Miner Competition move to and how will that work?

What are the costs of relocating all these events and facilities and who pays?

Will this development put people at risk if there is a fire (as happened at UCN in The Pas) or bomb scare and emergency vehicles need quick access through only one entrance on Thompson Drive? How does that work in winter during a snowfall, or when the high school and two daycares will be unloading people every morning?

What are the actual costs to the taxpayer for a ring road, traffic lights, and snow removal from tight parking lots?

What are the operating costs of the UCN Polaris buildings the City will be responsible for over the next 10 years?

Where will the kids go to school that live in UCN family housing at the far end of the Rec Centre?

Are kids at risk by building housing along a dangerous river?

What are the social impact and costs for 200 housing units isolated from the rest of the community?

Sorry to make this so lengthy. Over the past year, I have been approached by three groups to help them face City Hall on this issue, and I have declined because I see value in working with UCN on the two projects. This is a difficult letter for me to write as our committee has tried for a year to find a balance to make this all work. The straw that broke the camel's back in my mind was the council meeting on Oct. 4. With due respect todeputy mayor Harold Smith and Coun. Charlene Lafreniere, they work for MHRC and UCN - the developers! How can they possibly be neutral or objective or say this is a good agreement for Thompson and approve it? The fact that the city sought a legal opinion on their potential conflict of interest proves there was a concern. This development still has many unanswered questions. The chair should have asked them to declare themselves, if not voluntarily remove themselves from all discussion at that meeting.

That council would present such a very important document on the same evening while the ink was still wet and vote on it is not right. Or the fact that this is the middle of an election campaign and it's the end of their term. That is not right. It is also not right for the City to now declare an important rezoning hearing for the Rec Centre for Nov. 8 when most people have no idea what is going on, as their focus is on an election campaign. This hearing should be postponed for 90 days.

My sense is the most people want a UCN campus and understand the need for housing. We now have two opposing camps in Thompson with entrenched positions on this issue. This is not healthy. Most want to keep our Recreation Centre as well, and that's a message that must be sent to the Province. We want this to work for all Northerners. Thompson citizens deserve to be fully informed with accurate information without fear of scolding or reprisals.

Volker Beckmann


© Copyright Thompson Citizen


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