Mayor Sam Katz delivered his tenth State of the City address on Friday afternoon at the Winnipeg Convention Centre in front of hundreds of Winnipeggers attending the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce Membership Luncheon.
In his speech, Katz announced a sponsorship agreement with the Kinsmen Club of Winnipeg who are donating $1 million dollars to the renovations of Sherbrook Pool, soon to be renamed Kinsmen Sherbrook Pool. Katz said the deal had been in the works for the past two months as part of an effort to reopen the pool. The Mayor made the announcement near the very end of his speech, acknowledging representatives of the Kinsmen Club of Winnipeg and Kinsmen Jackpot Bingo who were in the audience.
First, the bad news
After Mayor Katz was introduced, he didn’t waste any time at the beginning of his address, as he immediately spoke about the water crisis currently effecting hundreds of Winnipeg residents.
“Before I say anything, I’d like to say that my number one priority right now, is helping all Winnipeg families without water services.”
Katz spent the next few minutes explaining how the city is confronting this ongoing challenge, including providing effected homeowners with temporary water supplies and access to City of Winnipeg facilities equipped with showers. He emphasized the city bureaucracy is working on this problem on a 24-hour basis in its attempts to restore water service.
“No question, this has been a tough winter,” he said. “And it’s not over yet.”
The water crisis wasn’t the only political hot potato the Mayor tried to handle early on in his speech as he turned his attention to other hot button issues that have kept city hall hopping this past year. Included in this were the cost overruns at Winnipeg’s new Police headquarters, which Katz said he regretted but will ultimately lead to the opening of the new police HQ this summer.
“Chief Clunis is confident the new headquarters will serve the Winnipeg Police Service better, and so am I,” said Katz.
The Mayor applauded the effort to build modern, strategically located fire halls, which he said were desperately needed in a city that has not built major EMS infrastructure in decades. However, he did admit the city made a big mistake in this process.
“We built a firehall on land that the city did not own. This is something that should not happen, and must never happen again.”
Katz’s address came just after the Chamber handed out its 2013 Volunteer of the Year Awards, and the Mayor used it as a way into his half hour speech which heaped enormous praise on a city that he has lead since 2004.
“It’s very humbling to follow the recipients of your volunteer awards,” he said. “Because these are people who demonstrate what makes our city a fantastic place to live.”
Katz encouraged people to look at the many great things happening in Winnipeg.
“At one time we thought we were on the cusp of a renaissance. Thanks to you and people like you, I believe we’re living in that renaissance now. It’s exciting for me as I hope it is for you, to see the transformation Winnipeg has undergone in the last forty years.”
The Mayor said he believes there’s much to inspire and motivate Winnipeggers when one looks at the city through three different lenses: economy, opportunity and community.
Katz pointed out that, with a growing population (increase of 70,000 in the past decade and projected increase of 90,000 in the next decade), combined with a strong housing market (more housing starts at a level that hasn’t been seen in 25 years), along with major private and public construction, Winnipeg is making a name for itself.
“KPMG has rated us as the most cost competitive city in which to do business in Western Canada,” he said confidently.
“With a healthy population growth, and healthy economic growth, Winnipeg offers a healthy climate of opportunity for business people and job seekers alike.”
On the campaign trail?
At some point the Mayor’s State of the City address seemed to morph into a campaign style speech, which some may have thought it was from the start.
Katz emphasized the need to keep taxes low, pointing out that the city’s business tax was at 9.7% when he first came to office. Now it’s 5.7% and council has created a small business tax exemption, “…which means 41 percent of Winnipeg small businesses do not pay the tax at all,” Katz said triumphantly to a smattering of applause; to which he responded, “You like that, feel free to applaud.” More clapping ensued.
The Mayor also tried to explain the conundrum facing nearly every civic politician in Canada: the attempt to keep property taxes to a minimum and still have enough to maintain city services and rebuild crumbling infrastructure.
“Lower taxes encourage more business investment and job creation, and at the same time we all need to fix our streets,” said Katz.
Balance is needed, he said. We have some of the lowest property taxes in the country along with a major infrastructure problem that “is not going away.”
The Mayor said he doesn’t have a magic wand, but instead he plans to use determination and focus.
In the 2014 budget, Katz said, “two-thirds of this year’s property tax increase will be dedicated entirely to fixing our streets.” He tallied the city’s commitment at $84 million toward fixing Winnipeg’s infrastructure.
“No council has ever done that,” he said emphatically.
The Mayor also praised the Province of Manitoba for its recent $56-million in new funding towards the fixing of infrastructure.
Power of P-3’s
In his speech, Katz made special mention of the positive impact of public private partnerships (or P-3’s). “It’s another way we have been able to achieve the most with our infrastructure dollars,” he said.
Calling Winnipeg a pre-eminent leader in implementing P-3’s in Canada, Katz praised the efforts behind these kinds of projects, which he said are not the right business model for all projects, but on the ones for which they are suited, Winnipeg has achieved great success.
He highlighted several local major projects of this kind that came in on time and on budget, that received critical acclaim and international recognition, such as the Chief Peguis Trail extension and the Disraeli Bridge construction.
“Managers from all over Canada are calling our staff to find out how we did it,” said Katz proudly.
The Mayor said he is hopeful about Winnipeg’s growth and ability to keep competitive, acknowledging the city’s double A bond rating.
“All of us at City Hall are proud of what business in Winnipeg is accomplishing,” said Katz to an audience of mostly business people. Katz applauded Winnipeg’s innovative start ups that stay in Winnipeg and encourage others to do the same; he pointed to companies who choose Winnipeg as their headquarters, and other businesses that are growing and expanding.
Quoting from a recent Downton Biz report, the Mayor said,”Winnipeg’s downtown has unparalleled present day momentum.” I see opportunity all around us, he said. A whole new look and feel which the city is proud to be a partner in this growth.
He pointed to the restoration of the 1904 Union Tower, abandoned for decades, and now the spectacular Red River College’s Patterson GlobalFoods building, University of Winnipeg’s $217-million investment in renovations and new construction, redevelopment of Southwood Golf Course with an Active Living Centre, and renovations to the RBC Convention Centre. Katz said it’s the sports, culture and entertainment that will make Winnipeg a meeting place like never before.
Predicts enormous impact from CMHR
The Mayor then turned his attention to the fall opening of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, and how significant, in his view, this is going to be to the city.
“We pride ourselves on being the heart of the continent,” said Katz, “but this museum is going to add a whole new dimension to that sense of what it means to be a citizen of Winnipeg.” Katz went on to predict that the CMHR will “become one of the great markers of our identity.”
As the Mayor came into the home stretch of what could be his final State of the City address, he wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to pat himself on the back for what could either be seen as, a bit of campaign style boasting of a mayor who plans to run again, or the writing of his own legacy before departing as mayor.
“When I championed the idea of the Assiniboine Park Conservancy back in 2005, there were plenty of sceptics,” Katz said. The nature playground, Qualico Family Centre, Polar Bear conservation centre and the soon-to-be Journey to Churchill are realities he said because of important decisions made in the face of negativity.
The Mayor also commented on the city’s growing recycling collection and garbage composting which he said has helped make for a cleaner and more environmentally sustainable city.
“Winnipeg has a spirit,” said Katz, who singled out the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, Chair Folk Ensemble and Rusalka Ukrainian Dance as examples of ambassadors who will carry that spirit around the world this coming year.
The mayor finished his address by extolling the virtues of a city that is progressive, and is developing innovative strategies for police, fire and health services to deal with poverty, helping to reduce its cost on peoples lives and on city coffers.
He said it’s good the city is renovating community centres, developing a long term library renewal strategy and upgrading city swimming pools. But, he said, Winnipeg hasn’t reached its full potential until it’s a home for everyone, suggesting that the fight against poverty is a community effort that must continue.
We have the heart to do it, he said. “People in this city are among the kindest, most compassionate people in Canada.”
Katz acknowledged representatives of two agencies in attendance who would be receiving a portion of the proceeds from the day’s luncheon; Making Waves Winnipeg, a volunteer run, non-profit organization that offers swimming instruction to people with intellectual and physical disabilities, and the Inner City Youth Football Program, which gives kids in grades 4, 5 and 6 the opportunity to play football after school. Katz also thanked Albert El Tassi of Peerless Garments for donating $5,000 each, to the two agencies.
“So what is the state of the city today?” asked the Mayor at the end of his speech. “We have lots of work to do. To focus on core services, restoring infrastructure, fighting poverty and making Winnipeg a better city for everyone.”
“We are working together, we are making progress and we are having real success.”
Mayor Katz wrapped up with a couple of quotes. One, from an Australian newspaper, the Sydney Morning Herald:
“Winnipeg is an extraordinary city. Fresh and intriguing. A surprise package that will leave you delighted at having made the discovery.”
The other, a sentiment coined by the late John Hirsch, who said Winnipeg is kind of magical, where anything is possible.