Winnipeg Wave Pool to Cope with Brutal Winters

Commentary, Climate, Frontier Centre

The bitter cold has made this winter a depressing time for citizens, especially global warming activists. For the first time in years, the surfaces of the Great Lakes have frozen over. Near record low temperatures here has created havoc in the form of water main breaks.

Those who can afford it preserve their sanity by escaping from Winnipeg, the world’s coldest big city, to warmer climes. But what about those who don’t have the time or the money for temporary refuge in the sun?

How about a water park complex with a huge indoor wave pool? A letter to the Free Press on January 24th by Bruce Rathbone, a local businessman, spelled this out as an intriguing and comparatively inexpensive opportunity for an artificial respite from father winter. The concept would recycle the city’s old arena at Polo Park, scheduled for demolition under the terms of the agreement with True North, the consortium building a new arena on the downtown Eaton’s site.

It’s a brilliant idea. The building can likely be saved if it is converted into a facility which does not compete with the new arena. An indoor water park is not a hockey barn. Tear out the chairs and install slides on the sloped seating surfaces. Throw in a few suicide slides for the scooterpants crowd. And how about side-by-side slides for racing? The ice surface becomes a wave pool. It would make a statement, as one of the largest in Canada (see Finally, crank up the heat, bring in some sand and, voilá, a spot to surf, splash, soak and have fun.

Like the successful water park at the West Edmonton Mall, the Winnipeg Arena is located in the city’s premier shopping area with ample parking. Convert the arena’s north side into hotel suites, with balconies overlooking the aqua park. Open up the south end with a glass atrium to let in natural sunlight on bright, clear, winter days.

Of course, further research would be needed. But the popularity of the Edmonton water park and the high demand for the four indoor wave pools built in Calgary, plus the fact that Manitoba has no such amenity, suggests that it would fly. Done right, it would become a major tourist attraction for the winter weary and draw frozen souls from across southern Manitoba and the northern U.S. states. To savour the latest water park technology, they would spend money and generate new cash throughout the city’s economy including, dare one say, real tax revenues.

The idea intrigues David Angus, the President of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce. He says it would complement promising efforts like the Rotary Club’s “10,000 Snowmen” project, designed to improve the city’s winter “brand”, by filling a badly needed indoor recreation gap in the city’s long winterlude. “I would buy a family pass in a flash,” he remarked recently. Such a project would nicely complement ongoing Chamber efforts to overcome the negative image of Winnipeg’s infamously cold winters.

How many other families would buy one? Likely thousands. Calgary charges about $895 for a family pass in its biggest wave pool/recreation complex, so some quick math suggests a potential for millions in annual revenues. That might seem high to some, but it’s a bargain compared to the cost of a southern winter vacation. Single admission passes and the usual discounts for children, seniors and low income groups would expand its market.

How does one overcome the formidable political barriers that tend to snuff out innovative ideas and new development in a nationally recognized rule-choked city? One hopes that the simple economics of avoiding one more windswept parking lot, while creating a source of revenue and taxes from an asset that must otherwise be destroyed, might prevail. Recycling a major piece of city infrastructure instead of demolishing it makes sense.

City councillors should put this idea on the agenda and commission a cursory market analysis and business case. A quality, self-sustaining wave pool facility may be the silver lining in the controversial True North project, and all groups should work to accommodate a creative recycling of the older, but still valuable arena infrastructure.

Ideally, it would be insulated from politicians so that it pays taxes instead of consuming them. The operation and redevelopment of the arena by a private business group, with the city transferring the land and existing facility as its contribution, would mirror the successful formula at the Forks. This framework would free up room for more capital to make the new facility a dramatic architectural attraction, with a soaring glass atrium.

Bruce Rathbone is not interested in participating in the old arena’s redevelopment, but he strongly believes that Winnipeg needs this kind of escape, that the opportunity is viable on its own since there are no alternatives. The fantasy of global warming notwithstanding, he is right.

The closest Canadian wave pool to Winnipeg operates in the community of Melfort, Saskatchewan, population 6,000. If Melfort can have one, Winnipeg, population 650,000, can have one, too.

This is a rare opportunity to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear

More ideas for Winnipeg, see Winnipeg Policy Blueprint