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Column: Making Winters Work

My column in today’s The StarPhoenix

A well-travelled friend once told me that Saskatoon and northern Saskatchewan were the greatest places on Earth to be in the summer and the world’s worst places to live in the winter.

How much I agree with him depends on the wind chill.

Winters here are long and dreary, and they last from October until May some years. Not only does the snow linger, for many of us, the winter mindset dominates our thinking on all sorts of policies and decisions even during the heat of summer.

We argue about new ideas for the city all of the time. “We can’t have bike lanes because it snows half the year.” “The winter is too long to waste money on a pedestrian bridge.” “Money on parks is wasted because they never get used in the winter.”

There is much we don’t do because of this white stuff – even when we are complaining about the heat in the summer.

Other cities aren’t held captive to winter in the same way.

Many Nordic cities with far worse winters than ours have excellent bike infrastructure and keep the trails cleared year-round.

Edmonton struck a committee last year to help manage winters better.

I am not sure if I agree with the approach that Winnipeg and Calgary have taken with elevated walkways, but I was able to walk all over Winnipeg in -40 C temperatures with only a light jacket.

A report prepared for the Minneapolis-St. Paul region mentioned that nine of the 10 happiest American states are ones that feature cold winters, and listed examples of cities that do winter really well.

In Germany, Austria, and France, people look forward to outdoor holiday markets where they can find a festive atmosphere along with holiday decorations, seasonal gifts, and warm food and drink.

New York City has imported the idea and has set up massive outdoor markets across Manhattan. Before you scoff at the idea, look at the large crowds that come out in any weather to Wintershines. People will come if you give them reason to do so.

December is easy, but we have to make February tolerable. Winnipeg is doing an excellent job. The city pays a lot more for winter snow and not only can you drive around, the sidewalks are cleared. Imagine being able to drive and get around on foot. It can happen.

Winnipeg has also installed heated bus shelters at a growing number of stops. Even in -40 C with a brutal wind, I was able to take off my tuque, gloves, and unzip my jacket while waiting for a bus.

The city has slowly added winter warming shacks as attractions along its rivers. It started as a local idea, and now gets international attention from architects and designers. Those shacks get you out of the wind and give you an excuse to brave the elements.

No matter the weather, thousands of people are having fun all winter long.

Adding a few warming huts each year would make a cold and windy Saskatoon riverfront a lot more tolerable. It would also help connect the different business districts which are spread out because of our river.

Holiday seasonal markets would also be perfect in the Saskatoon Farmers Market. Who knows? It could even one day expand into something other than a weekend destination.

The first step is not warming huts or outdoor markets, however – it is to convince council to get serious about residential snow removal. And our business improvement districts must get serious about keeping sidewalks clear.

Then it relies on everyone figuring out ways to make winters more enjoyable.

Maybe it’s a restaurant opening its deck on milder days, or community associations holding outdoor parties in the winter, like they do in the summer.

It requires the city looking at ways of making our parks winter-friendly, perhaps with more fire pits, or ensuring bike lanes are cleared all season long.

It’s bus shelters that actually do keep us warm. Once we figure out how to shed the shackles of a cold winter and enjoy it, we will find out that even our summer months can get better.

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

Stuck in the Middle

I have linked to the Winnipeg centric photography of Bryan Scott before.  I have said for years that him and Sam Javanrouh are two of my favourite street photographers in the world.  Scott has a new book out called Stuck in the Middle and it is about what makes Winnipeg, well Winnipeg.

Stuck in the Middle

Here is an excerpt

For the sake of an exercise, pretend you’re a god. You can go anywhere you want, by any mode of transportation you desire. What you’re most likely to desire is to travel as far away as possible from the coastlines of the continents, where the vast majority of humanity resides. This is a logical desire, as all gods consider homo sapiens a nuisance, if not a pest species.

In geographic terms, they call such a place a pole of inaccessibility — the farthest location you can travel from any coast. In Eurasia, discriminating deities will wind up in the Gurbantºnggºt Desert, an arid patch of western China’s Xinjiang province, a few kilometres from the Kazakh border. In South America, misanthropic multi-dimensional beings may escape to the savannahs of the Mato Grosso plateau to enjoy the quiet company of Brazilian cattle. In Africa, the ultimate escape will place you among the pigeons and parrots of the Bengangai Game Reserve, near the tri-border confluence of South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In North America, however, the farthest place from anywhere is already occupied — by Winnipeg, home to more than 700,000 people and zero gods. More than any other city on the continent, Winnipeg is stuck in the middle.

Head east from Winnipeg in a car, and it’s a 2,700-kilometre drive to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which flows into the Atlantic Ocean in the general vicinity of Rivière-du-Loup. This coastal Quebec town is the birthplace of Alexandre-Antonin Taché, the first Archbishop of St. Boniface, a Cassandra figure who tried and failed to prevent the 1870 Métis unrest that established Manitoba and paved the way for Winnipeg to be a provincial capital.

Drive west from Winnipeg, and it’s 2,300 kilometres to the Pacific coast city of Vancouver, a railway terminus whose early growth originally mirrored that of the Manitoba capital, once Canada’s biggest railway hub. But after the 1914 completion of the Panama Canal, the Port of Vancouver became a more profitable shipping route, and Gastown assumed Winnipeg’s role as Western Canada’s most important city.

Drive south from Winnipeg, and it is 2,750 kilometres to Corpus Christi, a Texas city on the Gulf of Mexico. Visit the suburb of Flour Bluff, and you may find yourself at the corner of Winnipeg Drive and Manitoba Drive, where a series of nondescript bungalows pays homage to hopelessly bored Prairie-dwellers who actually did get in their cars and drive until they could not go any farther.

You cannot travel by car directly from Winnipeg to the Arctic Ocean. But it’s only a 1,700-kilometre train ride to Churchill, Manitoba’s seaport on Hudson Bay. The Scottish settlers who helped found the Red River Settlement that would eventually spawn Winnipeg had to travel through the vast emptiness of Hudson Bay, whose shores are patrolled by polar bears. Open up a Lonely Planet guide to Canada, and you will find as many pages devoted to Churchill as there are to Winnipeg. In the eyes of international tourists, the permafrozen tundra is more attractive than a city that simply has the reputation of being among the coldest in the world.

If you insist on technicality, the North American pole of inaccessibility actually is embedded in the South Dakota badlands. But Winnipeg has more than just geographic reasons to claim the continent’s extreme centre.

As a city of 700,000, Winnipeg is too small to be cosmopolitan but too large to be folksy. Big-city complaints about violent crime compete with small-town gripes about the absence of privacy and if you’re single, a terribly shallow gene pool. Major amenities such as NHL hockey are balanced off by a minor-league transportation network saddled with only a rudimentary rump of a rapid-transit system.

Far from the moderating influence of the seas, Winnipeg is subject to a highly variable, mid-continental climate, where winters are frigid, summers are steamy and both spring and fall can involve either extreme. The annual mean temperature of 2.6 C belies the 86-degree spread between the city’s hottest and coldest recorded temperatures.
Winnipeg also falls smack in the middle when it comes to economic growth, chugging along at a modest pace during the entire postwar period while almost everywhere else underwent rapid expansions and precipitous declines. Winnipeg’s eggs are divided among many economic baskets — transportation, manufacturing, insurance, food processing — as if the gods designed a living embodiment of a balanced stock portfolio.

But none of this speaks to the real manner in which Winnipeg is stuck in the middle: It is a city that inspires a profound sense of ambivalence among its residents.
This has nothing to do with apathy, as there’s no such thing as a Winnipegger without a strong opinion about the city. They either despise it or adore it, depending on the nanosecond and whether or not the bus came on time, the street happened to get plowed or the Blue Bombers won the previous night. While ambivalence of this sort is present in any city, only in Winnipeg does it serve as the defining character of the populace.

In many ways, Winnipeg is a fascinating place. It was born of an act of violent resistance, a unique occurrence in this country. It was the fastest-growing city in North America for a time. It was the site of one of the largest workers’ revolts in the Western World. It was threatened with destruction by floodwaters twice in half a century. It is the second-smallest city on the continent to boast a major-league professional sports team. It boasts a selection of architectural wonders that ranges from surviving railway-boom warehouses to 20th-century modernist buildings to a handful of hyper-modernist structures.

Yet Winnipeg is also the very vision of homogeneity and inefficiency. It’s a low-density city that can barely afford to maintain its sprawling, aging infrastructure. It is not overly walkable or pedestrian-friendly. It makes artistic decisions based on politics and political decisions that appear to be inspired by Dadaism more than any political philosophy. It has a disturbing tendency to allow property owners to neglect and eventually demolish heritage structures.

Winnipeg tends to infuriate Winnipeggers, who sometimes question why they live in the city. But when they consider the alternative, they dare not dream of living anywhere else. Even Winnipeggers who do depart for Toronto, Calgary or Vancouver never assimilate or fully lose their regional identity. They remain stuck on their birthplace, in the middle of the flat, snowy, bug-ridden, flood-prone and isolated prairie, where everyone seems to know everyone despite the impossibility of the arithmetic involved.

To add another onion layer to this already-tired analogy, Winnipeg is also stuck in the middle of two possible destinies. One involves maturation into a medium-sized city that learns to live within its means by choosing to reinvigorate its inner core, increase the density of its older neighbourhoods and build new residential areas that make financial and environmental sense.

The other is a slide back to mediocrity by conducting postwar development business as usual: the endless construction of new single-family homes, sprawling out into a distance where the roads and sewers and water pipes will never be as good as the day they are laid, because no future government will be able to maintain them.

Winnipeg is a city on the precipice of a momentous decision, one that really amounts to the cumulative result of a series of smaller decisions. For now, it stands between two futures and potentially many more. Pray to whatever deity you like to ensure the right choices get made.

This looks to be an amazing Christmas gift for any urbanist (or Winnipeg resident) on your list.

100 Ideas to Improve Saskatoon: 4. WInterize Meeswasin

We all love the Meewasin Valley but its location makes it cold in the winter.  The wind whips through the South Saskatchewan River valley and brings either cold or humidity up onto the paths until it chills our bones.   It’s isn’t that winter friendly.

While Meewasin Valley does do a good job in keep its trails clear of snow (ahem, City of Saskatoon, it is possible), a walk from the Mendel Art Gallery to the Farmer’s Market is enough to make you question your desire to keep living here.

To steal an idea from Winnipeg, how about some warming huts places along the river.

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Winnipeg’s huts are designed by architects around the world and are a combination of temporary and year after year structures and they go a long way in making it easier to get out and enjoy the winter in Winnipeg.  In Saskatoon it would go a long way in allowing us to connect our downtown from the Mendel all of the way to the Saskatoon Farmer’s Market, even in the dead of winter.

Housing homeless tackled

Excellent op-ed in the Winnipeg Free Press by Sam Tsemberis and Vicky Stergiopoulos

In Canada, we conducted the largest randomized controlled trial of its kind in the world on homelessness by comparing housing-first to services as usual (the At Home/Chez Soi study) involving 2,255 participants who were homeless across five Canadian cities (Moncton, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver). The one-year results, recently reported by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, indicate HF is significantly more effective than services as usual in providing stable housing for people who had been homeless for years and who have complex clinical needs.

Also compelling was the finding that for every two government dollars invested in the HF program, $1 was saved. Savings were even greater for those who used services the most, with $3 saved for every $2 spent.

It’s no wonder the federal government supports housing-first: It is highly effective and can save money.

So Canada is on the right track. We have both funds and evidence-based policy for moving forward on homelessness. However, we still face two major hurdles in order to successfully meet a housing-first model.

First, the majority of programs currently funded across the country can be described as providing services for people who are homeless. Shelters, drop-in centres, and especially transitional or short-term housing programs must be helped to shift resources to programs that end homelessness instead. We will need to invest in providing training and consultation services to communities so they will obtain the guidance and support, timelines, and performance indicators necessary to move the system toward this new, much-needed direction.

The second hurdle concerns implementing housing-first programs so they are consistent with the basic principles of the model that achieved the outstanding outcomes in the At Home/Chez Soi study. Housing-first moves people rapidly from shelters or the streets into stable housing and provides evidence-based clinical and social supports to address social, mental-health, health, addiction, educational, employment issues and others. By providing services using a team approach and co-ordinating housing, clinical and social supports, this model reduces problems associated with fragmentation of services and improves inter-sectoral collaboration that usually plagues individuals and families seeking treatment.

In other words, housing-first, if implemented properly will transform public services across the country as we know them, and to do this effectively, teams will need adequate support and guidance to do so.

The Wound Inside

Lukas makes his rounds as a caseworker, delivering meds, gifts and good cheer to participants while exposing the dark history behind the addiction issues that plague Winnipeg’s Aboriginal homeless population. This short film is a chapter from Here At Home, a web documentary about mental health and homelessness that takes us inside the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s At Home pilot project.

Transparency in the Mayor’s Office

The debate around Mayor Don Atchison’s journal has gotten a little weird.  It started with council asking about him releasing his schedule and quickly went to Darren Hill tweeting in council chambers and some allusions to conflict of interest.  It’s not city council at it’s finest.

Gerry Klein suggested that the mayor adopting a smartphone to keep his schedule could help fix the problem and then use it to post it online. 

It’s about time that the mayor catches up to the latter part of the 20th century and begins to use a digital device and mobile technology to help him manage his time. When he does that it would be a simple matter to post the information on the mayor’s website, which is remarkable now for being among the most static and uninformative Internet pages on the entire web.

He’s right, we could probably scrounge up an old smartphone that will sync  up with Google Calendar pretty easily.  I have a Blackberry Curve that I can contribute to the cause.  While I am being flippant, this is a problem rooted in transparency and technology.

The real issue is that technology flattens any organization.  What used to need to pass through gate keepers, now can be easily assimilated.  Councillors have a right to expect this information to go to them while part of the problem is that historically the Mayor’s office (according to Atchison) used to decide who gets to go.  This problem is made worse by the fact that both council and the public assume that an invite to the Mayor means that you want the local councillor there as well (which is the Mayor’s defense, I never think that way).  The solution is not opening up Atchison’s journal but opening up the invitation process when you ask the Mayor to an event.

The mayor’s website is a static block of text and a contact form.  It could be much more than that, especially when you look at the sites for the Mayor of Calgary and the Mayor of Vancouver.  In some ways I am surprised that Atchison doesn’t have a better website.  He’s a good story teller and evangelist for the City of Saskatoon and it would be a great platform for him to expand his audience.

With Calgary and Vancouver, they use totally different domains from the city page and while I prefer mayor. saskatoon.ca or more personally mayor.saskatoon.ca/atchison/ (there is some method to that madness that I will get into later) but either way works.  If you want to invite the Mayor of Calgary to an event, they have a contact form that asks a variety of questions about the event, how to get there, and if you want the deputy mayor in case Nenshi can’t make it.  Pretty straight forward.

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It would take minutes to change the form to give you an option of inviting other city councillors (or making it clear you only wanted the mayor) to your event.  Not all mayor’s adopt this view.  To invite Winnipeg mayor Sam Katz to an event, you need to (snail) mail him an invite two months ahead of time and wait for a reply.  I am not sure how to invite the Mayor of Edmonton to your event.  I am sure there is a way but it’s not on his website.  What I am getting at is that there is a really easy way to deal with these kinds of issues, even if not all cities adopt them.

Of course it’s big news because Yahoo! has a new CEO but one could use their Upcoming service to announce which public events the mayor will be attending.  A blurb of selected events, contact information for others to attend, and even some follow up photos would extend the Mayor’s personal reach, help him politically, and promote the city.  He could also do what Nenshi does and that is tweet about it while he is there but one thing we learned this week is that the Mayor isn’t so fond of social media.

While we are the topic of Nenshi’s website, it is an example of how accountability and privacy can work.  Nenshi posts many of his meetings that he hosts.  He excludes meetings with City of Calgary employees, staff, media, and government but does include meetings with individuals or small groups.   According to the City of Calgary’s Mayoral Office

Publishing the Mayor’s meeting list was something we intended to do on a quarterly basis starting this spring. But while preparing the first list, we received legal advice that we could be contravening the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act by publishing people’s names without their consent. So, beginning May 1, 2011, the Mayor’s Office required that anyone meeting with Mayor Nenshi provide a signature approving to have their name published.

Quite a few colleagues have said, “It’s an incomplete list” and they are right.  Nenshi needs the privacy to conduct some City of Calgary, personal, and even political business in private yet when he is operating at the Mayor of Calgary, it needs to be made public (even if people like me want to see the complete list) 

Here is June’s public meeting list in it’s entirety.

  • Debbie Newman, Calgary Drop-In and Rehab Centre – June 8, 2012
  • James Murray – June 12, 2012
  • Carlos Salazan – June 12, 2012
  • Bhavini Pasel, Standard & Poors – June 26, 2012
  • Stepehn Ogilvie, Standard & Poors – June 26, 2012
  • Ian Merrit, Fraser Milner Casgrain – June 27, 2012
  • Joan Durshinim, Brookfield Properties – June 27, 2012
  • Ian Parker, Brookfield Properties – June 27, 2012
  • Martin Sparrow, Dialog – June 27, 2012
  • Earle Arney, Dialog – June 27, 2012
  • Sally Hodges, Project Ploughshares – June 28, 2012
  • Karen Huggin, Project Ploughshares – June 28, 2012
  • Douglas Roche, Project Ploughshares – June 28, 2012
  • Bev Delong, Project Ploughshares – June 28, 2012
  • Don Douglas, Calgary Airport Authority – June 28, 2012
  • Doug Mitchell, Calgary Airport Authority – June 28, 2012
  • Tony Kay, UK Counsel-General – June 28, 2012

The lists are both interesting and what you expect.  Dignitaries, politicians, business people, community groups… the kind of people that you expect the Mayor of Calgary to be meeting with.  A website like this for the Mayor could be easily powered by WordPress, easily updated and include future trips (like when he is going to Singapore) as well. 

As for Atchison’s request that all of Saskatoon City Council do the same thing, he’s right.  They should. (and many are willing)

On not making some councillors aware of a trip to Singapore for the World Cities Summit two weeks ago: He said he told CKOM and CTV about the trip in his weekly appearances last month. Other councillor’s make international trips under the same protocol, he said. “By the same token I don’t know what my colleagues are doing either. Their budgets are wide open to use as they see fit. As long as their expenses come in as they’re supposed to, that’s it. They’re all reported at the end of the year.”

He said if he releases his schedule so should all of council, out of fairness. “It’s all or none, ” he said.

Instead of giving out the information for the World Cities Summit to CKOM and CTV, he could announce it the entire city on his website and post his monthly expenses along with the rest of council (also, it’s a pretty big expense not to send out a media advisory for).  As for the city, it needs to create mayor.saskatoon.ca/atchison/ for the mayor (and you leave it online when the mayor has retired or has been defeated as an archive of his time in office).  For councillors you give them a council website at council.saskatoon.ca/hill/ for Darren Hill, council.saskatoon.ca/lorje/ for Pat Lorje and so on and so on.  The U.S. Congress does the same thing.  It’s their space for official business on.  When the election comes (starting August 31st), they are locked out from the pages until they are re-elected.   Each councillor has a choice between a couple of City of Saskatoon templates and a set up install of WordPress.  You put the same requirements on them for reporting, expenses, and schedule as you do for the Mayor.  Atchison is right that if he has to do it, they all have to do it.

I’ll be honest.  I have been at every council meeting of 2012 and there have been some vote changes that have made me wonder what was going on.  Who met with who (or even what kind of money exchanged hands).  Some transparency is needed.  The technology is there, it’s free, it’s easy to use and it would mean a more coordinated council and a better informed electorate.  How hard could this be?  Everyone else is getting it, why can’t Saskatoon?

Column: Let’s Put More Fun Into Winter

In today’s The StarPhoenix

While the winter has been mild so far, it still is winter. That means dressing in layers, being cold and not being able to enjoy so much of what makes Saskatoon great – mainly spring, summer and fall.

Even though winter is our dominant season, we don’t do a great job of enjoying it, despite our best efforts.

We have the PotashCorp Wintershines, Icecycle and, of course, the Meewasin Skating Rink by the Bessborough. Many of you join me in the middle of winter at the Conservatory at the Mendel, as we soak up both humidity and colours that are not brown or grey.

Thousands of us head out to Credit Union Centre to watch the Blades win a game before their inevitable second-round playoff collapse. Of course, we have to make sure to pack the booster cables to help out anyone whose car has frozen up because the game went into overtime.

So despite our best efforts, it’s several months of bundling up, being cold and freezing an ear occasionally. For those who don’t have a car and rely on public transportation, this can be a long season. Yet, as other cities can tell us, it doesn’t have to be quite so bad.

We could learn something from our neighbour to the east; Winnipeg. I was cruelly sent there twice last February and it was -40 C both times. Winnipeggers have pretty much given up and admitted they can’t survive the elements. So they have created miles of enclosed skywalks that go through the downtown.

The covered walkways connect and dissect malls, office towers and even the MTS Centre. They create two levels of the city, with higher end stores being connected to the walkways and a lower class system of stores at street level that is somewhat unsettling.

While the walkways were interesting, what really got my attention were the heated bus shelters interspersed in key areas in downtown Winnipeg.

These shelters are actually enclosed, with doors that shut. Despite the frigid temperatures, I was able to walk in, take off my tuque and gloves and unzip my jacket and remain comfortable as I sent a couple of emails on my Blackberry.

The bus signs with real time updates outside the shelter provided information on when the next bus would arrive, which allowed me to zip over and grab a coffee and still get back in time knowing I wouldn’t miss the bus. If that isn’t enough, there are web apps, mobile websites, Twitter and SMS updates to track your bus and provide warnings of service interruptions.

Unlike Saskatoon’s bus shelters, these are architecturally complementary to the environment, incorporating the same design elements as neighbouring buildings. The cost of these heated shelters means they are not all over Winnipeg, but are in 71 strategic locations throughout the city.

Not only does Winnipeg do a good job in making sure you are comfortable getting downtown, but once you are there it makes it easier for you to enjoy the area. It has held an international design competition for the past couple of years for warming huts at The Forks. In addition to doing fun stuff like flooding 1.2 kilometres of the pathways for skating, the warming huts make it easier for people to stay out there longer. This year’s competition was for five warming huts (there are seven from previous years). The 2011 huts were designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry and others from as far away as Norway and the Czech Republic.

Such a venue is something that the downtown Saskatoon part of the river valley practically begs to be used for. For the first century of Saskatoon, we grew in a culture of scarcity.

Winter was something to be endured and complained about, because we lacked the resources and the vision to do anything about it – except for a ski jump that used to propel daredevils over the South Saskatchewan River.

Not everyone has the means or the desire to flee Saskatchewan’s cold in the winter. For those of us who stay, the more ways we have to embrace winter life in the city, the better.

Winnipeg’s bus shelters were packed with people and the purchases they made downtown. You can believe that an outing to The Forks for skating and curling also included stops at restaurants and shops.

A vibrant winter culture means a growing winter economy, something that means more jobs, more tax revenue and more thriving business downtown.

Saskatoon is becoming a world-class city in the summer; we just need the vision to keep it going 12 months of the year.

jordon@jordoncooper.com

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

Column: Handling debt poses challenge

Today’s column in The StarPhoenix.

The StarPhoenix Former mayor Henry Dayday wrote to council in May questioning how much debt the city was taking on and how Saskatoon residents were going to pay for it.

He pointed out that the city has $175 million in debt on its books and potentially another $225 million related to new projects, which will take a toll on cash reserves and add a lot of new debt.

As he sees it, it’s a total that was expected to push the city to its debt limit of $400 million, which is starting to remind some of us of the 1980s.

A look at the city finances leaves a couple of impressions. First, $400 million in civic debt is a lot of money and to be at our debt ceiling makes many people nervous. It’s like when you’ve run up your credit card to the limit. Not only can you not do anything until it’s paid down, but paying it off takes up a lot of money that could be spent elsewhere. Let’s hope the city at least gets reward points.

Does that mean that civic finances are in bad shape?

Some on city council say it does, but Standard & Poor’s recent report on city finances maintained our AAA credit rating. The bond rater does mention some clouds on the horizon – higher debt from the capital projects and some pension liabilities. Reading the S&P report shows it’s concerned, but not especially so, about Saskatoon’s debt level, which it expects to peak in 2014 at about 30 per cent of revenues. It’s a lot of debt, but it’s not crippling.

Looking at other western Canadian cities, an independent benchmark of Saskatoon’s finances and services (we are compared to Regina, Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg) was tabled on Feb. 23. It shows our credit rating to be higher and we compare favourably to other cities in most services offered and how much we pay for them.

The only area we really lag behind is in mosquitoes per capita (Winnipeg), NHL franchises and CFL teams.

Not surprisingly, we will soon lead the group in large, box-like riverfront art galleries.

When it comes to debt per capita, Saskatoon is at $526.91. Regina is at $549.80, while Calgary leads at $2,310.61. Moose Jaw has the highest per capita debt of Saskatchewan cities, at $1,168 At $400-million debt, our debt per capita would start to look like Moose Jaw’s – high, but manageable. As for taxes, our per capita tax burden compares well not only to that of other western Canadian cities, but it’s around half of the Canadian average.

It’s not how much debt a city has, but how it will pay for it. It’s a question Dayday raises and one worth exploring. Looking at growing cities with high debt levels, Red Deer’s debt limit is 1.5 times city revenues and it is approaching 90 per cent of that limit.

Its plan is to pay down its $183-million debt $2.1 million a year, which is similar to trying to pay off your credit card by making the minimum monthly payment. Calgary budgeted debt reduction into its mill rate increases in an attempt to lower its burden, despite its growing economy and larger tax base.

Paying off civic debt is not a lot of fun and a mill rate increase may be something that Saskatoon may have to do. In his letter Dayday says: “The city has been experiencing a boom period, but as in the past we know that times change.”

In the 1980s it was low commodity prices and in the ’90s it was taming a massive provincial deficit that made for a most significant challenge. Both held the city back, which contributes to the spending debate now.

How many of these capital projects have been discussed and planned for years?

Before we get too caught up with what to cut, we need to have a discussion about what those challenges in the future will be. Rising energy prices, the lifeless and debt-ridden American economy and global warming. Two of those issues will reshape Saskatoon beyond recognition both positively and negatively, and all three of them, if handled poorly, could severely hinder the city’s ability to pay off its debt.

You have to start the discussion somewhere, so in next week’s column I will look at how rising energy prices will reshape Saskatoon.

Here are some of the background links.

Next week’s column is about the impact peak oil is going to have on the city and how it will affect our long term future.  This won’t get much more of a passing mention in next week’s article but both the Rockefeller’s and Bill Gates are betting on algae being the future of carbon based petroleum.   That being said, Shell is betting against it.  It’s an interesting possibility, even if it won’t come to market in time to stop massive crude oil price shocks.

Atlanta to Winnipeg

Ever since Winnipeg decided to build the MTS Centre to only hold just over 15,000 people, I have questioned whether they would ever get a NHL team back.  Well it appears they will but the question remains, will it be sustainable in the smallest hockey arena in the league.  The Boston Globe doesn’t think so.

All of which is to say that Manitoba has the kind of open space and passing lanes that could turn even Dennis Wideman into a Norris Trophy candidate. If the NHL is going to land there again, the initial pop will be enthralling, intoxicating. Returning an NHL team to that bit of Canadian soil would be like bringing Paragon Park back to Hull. Initially, everyone and his cousin would rush to the rink.

Until the L’s piled up.

Until Winnipegers realized the sticker shock of $120 lower-bowl seats and $250 suite seats (extra for the handwarmers).

Until American TV interests made it clear that they would prefer to air senior women’s bocce tournaments out of Biloxi to anything happening in Winnipeg. Shortsighted, perhaps, but there is a reason TV is referred to as the small screen.

For all Winnipeg has to offer, in terms of city size and sheer love for everything connected to the vulcanized rubber and carbon stick industry, it remains a real stretch for big-time hockey.

As for stadium size, The MTS Centre (15,015) is smaller than Rexall Place (16,839) by over 1000 seats and is over 6000 seats smaller than many new arenas.  It’s even smaller than the old Winnipeg Arena (although it does have luxury boxes and other revenue streams that it does not).  There also is the question of corporate sponsorship.  While Winnipeg is home to an impressive amount of crown corporations, is there the corporate money to keep paying for the boxes and paying top dollar for sponsorship money?

I think it is going to be tight.  Winnipeg doesn’t have the wealth that Edmonton does and even the Oilers have struggled at times to fill Rexall Place (which is still a great place to watch hockey – not the Oilers but a good hockey team) and the Flames had a hard time filling the Saddledome this year.  I am not talking about the 2011 season but in 2017, things could be a lot tougher than people want to think about.  Oh well, they can always move to Kansas City. via

Thinking beyond commuting

During the winter I tend to drive to work and once spring comes, I walk the 16 blocks to work and once spring comes, I can see myself stopping by Collective Coffee on the way home for a coffee or a cold drink to go… so much so that I am wondering if I can get a volume discount deal.

The walk through Riversdale and Caswell Hill is a great one.  Since a lot of our former clients live in some apartments near the Centre, I often run into them on the walk home and have a chance to chat and see if everything is fine and depending on if I take Avenue C or D home, I get to ask myself again what AODBT was thinking with their exterior design of their offices,  and if Safeway looks slow as I walk by, I can go in and see Wendy for a couple of seconds, while trying to steal her mayorship on Foursquare.

I never take the bus to work because it takes me longer to get there as it does to walk which is fine.  When I was in Winnipeg, I was surprised to see the amount of people taking the bus and I was surprised to see how comfortable it is, especially downtown.  Heated bus terminals with doors that close, up to the minute updates on how far away a bus is, and bus shelters that look like they were designed by an architect, not a bulk Plexiglas salesman all add up to a much better winter transit experience.  I know Saskatoon has been trying to add a couple of shelters a year but as I was driving down Warman Road near Assiniboine Drive, this is what I saw (photo from Google Street View)

Google Street ViewShelter from only three sides.  Small, no seats inside (those outside seats probably are used a lot during February), and what kind of protection from the cold is that going to give you?  What’s scary is that it may give you more protection than some of the other bus shelters.  The shelter near the Saskatoon Farmer’s Market doesn’t even have this much protection (Google Street view’s shots are older than the shelter) and the downtown terminal doesn’t fare much better.

Google Street View of Downtown Bus MallAlthough there are benches and it is a little bit more sheltered than your average street but still it isn’t the most pleasant experience and that is what is missing.  For all of the effort into upgrading the Saskatoon fleet of buses, we are forgetting the most unpleasant part of any bus excursion, waiting for the bus.  As I checked out Google Street View of this shelter on Portage Avenue in Winnipeg, I realized it’s architecture matched the building.

Google Street View This shelter is integrated into Portage Place and serves the IMAX theatre.

imageSaskatoon's new bus shelter design The shelter’s aren’t that cheap, between $23,000 to $44,000 each to build but in these two cases, they add a lot to the downtown.  Winnipeg has 6000 stops, around 800 regular shelters and 71 heated shelters.  Saskatoon has under 700 stops and hopes to get to just over 200 shelters.  None heated that I know of.  According to this post by Sean Shaw, the city is considering GPS tracking on all of it’s buses and I assume (hope actually) they are planning to bring online a real time bus tracking service as well.   Saskatoon’s long term ten year transit plan includes adding more bus shelters.  The plan recommends adding up to 215 (unheated) bus shelters (30% of our 700 bus stops), or 22 per year over the course of the plan, up from 3 or 4 per year that are currently installed. This would include shelters at all DART stops.

Why the interest in public transit?  If we are entering into an age of resource scarcity, public transit becomes a bigger and bigger part of our everyday lives for more and more people who will be using it in far different ways than we did before.

When I was going to school, I got on the old #13 bus on Redberry Road and road it to the University.  My bus driver saw me running towards the bus and one day said, “I’ll pick you up at your house.”  which saved me from having to wait outside.  The bus driver on the afternoon route would drop me off at my house which is the closest thing I have ever had to a car service in my life.  I never used the bus for anything other then going to and coming home from school.  It’s all it was.  The bus was full of commuters from Lawson Heights to downtown.  It was the same for them as well.  Most took it to avoid paying for parking.  I know Saskatoon has cheap downtown parking and it’s awesome but this was cheaper and I am sure many of them got picked up at their home and dropped off as well.

Yet when I wanted to shop, run errands, or go out; I drove.  So did most of the people I took the bus with.  With gas hitting $1.25/litre this summer (as gleefully predicted by the oil industry) a quick trip to Wal-Mart, even in my Festiva, starts to add up to real money.  Even more so for those that are apartment owners who have to deal with rising rent costs.  As I have said here lots, most of the staff that I work with that are renting have $100/month rent increase every year and salaries don’t keep up and that money has to come from somewhere (CTV Regina has a great video on this topic here).  If public transit can save that money, it’s good for them and the environment.  I don’t know how high gas prices have to get to drastically change transportation patterns but if it gets to $2.00/litre gas or even $1.75, you will see more and more people using public transportation for more and more other than commuting.

If I am a business owner, I start to see bus stops as a competitive advantage downtown and If I am a mall owner, I want to take advantage of transfers.  When I road the bus home to Lawson Heights, I either got off and walked home on a nice day or miserable days, I sat on the bus because I didn’t feel like getting out and having to freeze while waiting for the next bus.  If I am Confederation Mall, I am trying to do everything that I can do to get people off the bus, if even for 20 minutes to run in and spend some money in the mall.  The same with downtown business owners.  A heated bus shelter like the one at Portage Place that makes it easier for transit riders to get off and stay for even a short while is a big bonus to business.

Are heated bus shelters going to sweep Saskatoon?  Even in Winnipeg they are only 1.1% of their total stops and less than 10% of their sheltered stops.  Saskatoon has 600 bus stops and even 20 heated shelters downtown, SIAST/University, along 8th, 22nd, and at the malls would make a huge difference in how people moved around in winter.  You could also see them being incorporated into new buildings or incorporated into existing places where it made economic sense.

Saskatoon may be too small to build a light rail transit system but we big enough to start investing in making city transit a more and more important part of our lives.  Better shelters that contribute something architecturally to the community as mini terminals start that process in helping us all adjust to an age where public transit is a bigger part of more of our lives.

North America – Western Europe equivalent latitude maps

These cool maps comes from Matt Haughey who was wondering about bike race conditions on different continents on Metafilter.  Click on either map for a full sized view.

europe_usjuxv2 europe_usjuxv3

I hate Saskatoon

While in Winnipeg, we went to the Olive Garden.  I am not a big fan of the Olive Garden but it’s fare is passable and as I was getting ready to order, another table sat down and started to bad mouth Saskatoon, our weather, our culture, and the fact that there is nothing to do in Saskatoon.

Granted there isn’t an Olive Garden here and there isn’t anything to compare to The Forks but c’mon, the Olive Garden is over rated and I’ll take dinner at Alexander’s any day of the week.  Maybe they were just upset with their breadsticks.

Back to hating on Saskatoon.  How does anyone in Winnipeg complain about Saskatoon weather.  Yes it gets cold here but Winnipeg had to install miles of tunnels and covered skywalks just to avoid the cold during the winter and hide from the mosquitos in the summer.  Somehow Winnipeg has managed to make it worse by creating the world’s worst wind tunnel.  While entering the Winnipeg Convention Centre, the temperature probably dropped another ten degrees Celsius as the wind was brought downward and forced through their sheltered driveway.  Brilliant.  Of course the reason why I was so cold is that I had to park in Portage la Prairie because Winnipeg has almost no available downtown parking.  This was verified by the Winnipeg Parking Authority website which tried to assure me that Winnipeg has lots of parking.  Right, which is why you have a parking authority and a website which says there is lots of parking. 

While I don’t mind the fact that someone could love Winnipeg, the hatred on Saskatoon was a little over the top.  Sure we don’t have  an NHL team or anything but the Winnipeg Jets thought Phoenix would be a better option and look how that has turned out for them.  They do have a CFL team in the Winnipeg Blue Bombers but in my seven days in Winnipeg, I never saw a single Blue Bomber shirt, jacket, or even a hat while several times people came up to me an shook my hand for wearing my Rider green (I did get one death threat while walking down Portage from a carload of guys in a rusted out 1991 Chevy Caprice).

Now Winnipeg has built a gorgeous downtown stadium which is both cutting edge but too small for a NHL team at around 14,000 seats.  This move seems to be based on the idea of torturing Winnipeg Jets fans forever and it seems to work as they all know that a) they have a cutting edge stadium b) it’s too small for a NHL team.  Of course they did avoid the mistake that Saskatoon made in that we built our stadium on the outskirts of North Battleford.  Not our best move.  We’ll call that  one a wash.

The lack of culture gets me a little bit as well.  I’d refute that but I am too busy enjoying the Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan, the SaskTel Jazz Festival, the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra, the Mendel Art Gallery, the Persephone Theatre, Fringe Festival, or even heading down to the Roxy or Broadway Theatres.  Winnipeg has it’s cultural richness as well but Saskatoon is not a barren cultural wasteland either.

Yes our downtown architecture is largely bland and uninteresting but there are signs of even that changing.  We have our weaknesses but I’ll take Saskatoon any day.  I like walking outside.

Update: While it was mind numbingly cold in Winnipeg, I did get out with my camera(s) and take some photos of Winnipeg, The Forks, and St. Boniface Cathedral.  The architecture of Saskatoon just doesn’t compare with the architecture of Winnipeg.

Heading back to Saskatoon…

Trip two to Winnipeg is almost done.  We are checked out of the Polo Park Canad Inns a while ago and I am spending the next couple of hours in workshops discussing the ins and outs learning about HIFIS and how we can use empirical data more effectively in Saskatoon (and across Western Canada).

Believe me, driving 32 hours to and from Winnipeg on two separate drips isn’t my idea of fun which means that I better have gotten something out of his.  Now I did pick up three different Foursquare badges (Crusty’s Pizza, Old Spaghetti Factory, Aaltos Garden Inn) but more important than that, I figured out some better ways of communicating poverty and the narrative of homelessness using empirical data both locally but also Saskatoon wide).

One of the things that was said in a workshop is that the data that we collect says more about the shelter (occupancy, turn aways) than it does about those who are homeless which I immediately agreed with.  It was the bit that tied together some other themes I have been working on.  On one hand I hate anecdotal evidence about homelessness in Saskatoon.  Several organizations have tossed around the number that there are 3000 homeless in Saskatoon which is preposterous yet at the same time I know there are guys sleeping in abandoned buildings and condemned houses.  In the summer there are several homeless encampments in the city but to be honest, what I know about them is just anecdotal and isn’t based on anything factual.  So now I need to figure out a way to document and tell that story with data, not just wild figures.  I have some ideas but I need to freshen up on statistical models a bit before I talk about them.

Until then I have an eight hour drive back to Saskatoon which will put me back in the city just before midnight, depending on how long we stop in Regina and if it’s at Boston Pizza or at McDonalds.

Saint Boniface Cathedral

Saint Boniface Cathedral in St. Boniface / Winnipeg ManitobaSaint Boniface Cathedral in St. Boniface / Winnipeg ManitobaSaint Boniface Cathedral in St. Boniface / Winnipeg ManitobaSaint Boniface Cathedral in St. Boniface / Winnipeg ManitobaSaint Boniface Cathedral in St. Boniface / Winnipeg Manitoba

While exploring Winnipeg, a co-worker told us about the basillica in St. Boniface.  Since I was driving and am a sucker for a great looking church (or ruins of a church), we headed right over there.  We jumped out to take some photos.  By the time I had snapped 12 photos, my hands were so cold I could not operate my camera any longer, my ears had frozen, and I was having trouble enunciating.  Welcome to Winnipeg.

The weekend

I am back from a week in Winnipeg and have just enough time to do some laundry, hug the kids, toss the ball to the dog before I have to head back to Winnipeg for some more meetings.  Of course it wouldn’t be so bad if the drive wasn’t so unbelievably boring.  The scenery doesn’t change from the time you leave Lumsden until you get to Winnipeg.  It’s just flat.  No rolling hills, no nothing.  Just windswept prairie.  There wasn’t even radio for part of the trip.

I did bring a couple of cameras along with me and manage to take some photos of what I found interesting in Winnipeg.  First of all, since it was mind numbingly cold there, I could not help but notice that they have some great covered and heated bus shelters

Bus shelters in Winnipeg

Bus shelters in Winnipeg

Each bus stop has two entrances/exits which keep the garbage from blowing in, a common characteristic of the city of Saskatoon bus shelters.  The doors also keep the heat in which are located under the bench seating.  The other feature that I liked is that it looks like there was some architectural creativity put into their design, not all of them are alike and quite a few had some great design characteristics (I would have taken more photos but I was driving).

As you can see, they also include real time updates on when the next bus is going to be there, which is quite helpful when out exploring the city and on an unfamiliar line or when you are trying to figure out if you have time to run to Tim Horton’s before you next bus comes along.

Bus shelters in Winnipeg

So there is at least one thing that Winnipeg does better than Saskatoon.  I may be hard pressed to find another one.