Winnipeg council to debate controversial ballpark parking-lot lease

Councillors will be presented with three separate motions at city hall Wednesday challenging the way Winnipeg is handling a lease on a piece of city-owned land used as a parking lot during baseball games.

Councillors will be presented with three separate motions at city hall Wednesday challenging the way Winnipeg is handling a lease on a piece of city-owned land used as a parking lot during baseball games.

Canwest Park, home of the Northern League's Winnipeg Goldeyes baseball team, opened in 1999 just north of The Forks and east of Portage and Main. ((CBC))
Council will vote Wednesday on whether to renegotiate a lease agreement for the parking lot used by fans watching games at Canwest Park, the home of the Goldeyes, the baseball team majority-owned by Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz.

Last week, the city's executive policy committee voted to recommend the city forgive Riverside Park Management $233,000 in outstanding property taxes levied on the land, and to amend the lease to reduce future taxes.

The first motion councillors will consider Wednesday comes from Coun. Russ Wyatt, who says he's uneasy with council being asked to forgive the tax bill.

"I think council owes it to itself to request an independent legal opinion," he said. "I think it's important that we ensure that it's a transparent process, that it's open."

Another motion comes from Coun. Jenny Gerbasi, who is calling on council to enact strong rules regarding conflicts of interest. Throughout the debate over the parking lot, Katz has rejected all claims he is in a conflict of interest — but at least two city councillors have renewed calls for Katz to put his business holdings in a blind trust while he holds office.

Katz will leave the room during the discussion of the matter.

Councillor wants to see company's books

A third motion comes from Coun. Dan Vandal, who wants Riverside Park Management to open its financial books so everyone can see if the tax forgiveness is justified.

More than 284,000 fans attended 44 games at Canwest Park in 2008. ((CBC))
"Who exactly is Riverside Park Management? Let's look at their governance structure, what they've done in the last few years, and basically open up their books to city council and to the public," he said.

Riverside, a not-for-profit company, pays $1 per year to the city for the parking lot land and the land occupied by Canwest Park; the Goldeyes team, in turn, pays rent to Riverside Park for the use of the land.

Financial documents obtained by CBC show that in 2005, the team paid $21,000 per game, totalling just over $1 million, to Riverside Park.

Not much is known about what Riverside Park does with its money; it is responsible for paying taxes to the city on the land it leases, and it took on debt to build the ballpark.

The company was headed by Mayor Sam Katz for a decade until April 2008, when Jason McRae King, a senior manager at the Goldeyes, took over.

Scouts, guides deal with Goldeyes

McRae King said last week that several community organizations, such as Boy Scouts, Girl Guides, and amateur baseball groups, benefit from the not-for-profit organization.

However, when contacted by CBC News, officials with scouts and guides said they had never heard of Riverside Park.

"If we're going to a baseball game, we deal directly with the Winnipeg Goldeyes," said Elaine Cullingham, executive director of Manitoba Girl Guides.

Mike Pabst of the Boy Scouts of Canada agreed.

Officials with both the guides and scouts said they don't get tickets for free; instead, they negotiate a price that usually includes a drink, a hot dog and a souvenir for children attending games as a group.

In August, when 30 to 40 scouts went to a game, they each paid $12 for a ticket, hot dog, drink and chips. Every couple of years, approximately 800 guides attend a Goldeyes game, eat supper at the ballpark, then camp out on the field; the cost is about $20 per person.

A spokesperson for Baseball Manitoba said the group is given the use of Canwest Park as many as 10 times a year for free under an amateur sports access agreement. However, he also said those arrangements were made through the Goldeyes, not through Riverside Park.

Riverside Park Management did not respond to CBC's calls for an interview.