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Ottawa favours cultural centre Print-ready version

by Rod Nickel
Saskatoon StarPhoenix
May 4, 2005

City urged to use $10 million on River Landing project

River Landing is in line for a $10-million federal boost, with the federal Western Economic Diversification department pressing the city to spend its centennial funds on a downtown cultural centre.

The centre, planned for a roughly two-acre site on the former Gathercole site east of the Idylwyld Freeway, is expected to include a new home for Persephone Theatre, public gathering space, a landmark with an observation deck, other attractions and shops.

"We believe that's the best candidate," WED director-general of operations David James said in an interview. "We're going to put federal funding in an envelope and see if the cultural centre comes to a conclusion. We would very likely be interested in making a positive recommendation (to federal ministers)."

The cultural centre exemplifies the kind of project Ottawa had in mind for its centennial funding as it's a "landmark facility" that leaves a legacy for generations, James said.

"The cultural centre is our No. 1 choice. If in summer it looks like it's coming together, we'll take it forward but if it stalls we'll look at other options."

City of Saskatoon has called for expressions of interest from groups interested in space in the centre. Meewasin Valley Authority and Tourism Saskatoon are considering submitting a proposal that would include a Joni Mitchell Discovery Centre, a river interpretive centre and offices for the two agencies.

WED administers the distribution of federal centennial funds. It's unlikely to meet resistance from Mayor Don Atchison, who had earlier suggested using centennial funds to build the landmark.

"I think there's a good opportunity for it to be spent (on the cultural centre), a good chance of that," he said Tuesday.

Authority to decide how to spend the money lies with Ottawa, but it would like to form consensus with the city and community as a whole, James said.

At least some city administrators may also support the request.

Joe Kuchta, a former Gathercole Initiative Group (GIG) supporter, wrote to city council recently, reporting that a community services official confirmed to him that the money is going into River Landing.

Paul Gauthier, the city's general manager of community services, said in an interview that city administrators have formed no consensus on how the money should be spent.

Spending the money on River Landing would face a few political obstacles, starting within the mayor's office. Atchison virtually ruled out spending public money on the Gathercole site more than a year ago when it was embroiled in a fierce debate over demolishing the former technical collegiate.

"For the life of me, I can't believe we would take federal, provincial or municipal dollars on a site where the private sector has been knocking at the door," he is quoted as saying in the Jan. 16, 2004, StarPhoenix.

Atchison's stance is less black and white now.

"The money from the federal government that I could not see myself (committing to the site) was to upgrade the Gathercole building itself," he said Tuesday. "We have to get full value for that land. I don't think we should give that land away for free. I'm still interested in people bringing money to the table."

The possibility of the city spending public money on the site galls former GIG supporters because part of the city's rationale for demolishing the collegiate was that it would cost too much to restore it. Kuchta couldn't be reached for comment Tuesday.

The cultural centre's anchor tenant, Persephone, will raise some of its own construction budget privately, but also has a $1-million city commitment in hand and will tap federal and provincial governments for contributions. A proposed mineral spa on the same site will be privately financed, although it stands to cash in on city downtown housing incentives.

To date, public money has gone into developing the old Gathercole site's riverfront, demolishing the collegiate and installing underground infrastructure. The three levels of government committed $29.3 million in December to the west side of River Landing, a site Atchison has always maintained is more needy of government funding than the east site.

City councillors may present another obstacle to spending centennial funds on River Landing. Coun. Elaine Hnatyshyn said Monday she's not aware of any decision, while others are more interested in building an Olympic-sized pool than spending federal largesse on River Landing.

A use for Regina's share of centennial funds hasn't been publicly announced but it's widely expected to fund an RCMP museum.

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Added to Library on May 5, 2005. (1193)

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