Friday, September 28, 2007

Free markets 2, monopolistic buraucracies 1

Mo Razik of the Independent Specialty Wine Stores of Manitoba, had an article in the Winnipeg Free Press that soundly put to rest many of the paranoid inanities that the Manitoba Liquor Control Commission uses to defend their control over the sale of alcahol in the province. Article here.

"[T]o begin, revenues are generated by the provincial government through a multitude of taxes on products and incomes of individuals and corporations, and thus, it is well known, that the government could achieve the revenues it needs to provide social services without being directly involved in liquor retailing."

"If it wasn't for competition with the private wine stores... MLCC stores would likely still be closed on Sundays, might not be accepting credit cards, and would probably be offering consumers a much smaller selection of uninteresting wines in dank and soul-less shopping environments. These positive changes at the liquor marts are... a tribute and a testament to the hard work and risk that the private wine stores have undertaken for the past 13 years."

Monday, September 24, 2007

Restriction of trade

Manitoba Liquor Control Commission president Don Lussier wasted no time in submitting an article to the editors of the Winnipeg Free Press, defending the monopoly on liquor trade his Commission enjoys, which was questioned in the paper by a Mr. Bruce Clark last Friday. Mr. Lussier's rejoinder was published the next day, mere column inches from the 135 year-old bastion of classic Liberalism's decree of support for "Freedom of Trade, Liberty of Religion, and Equality of Civil Rights."

Bruce Clark's article can be found here
Don Lussier's rejoinder is here

This isn't the first time MLCC has rushed to defend its existence in the Free Press. In December of 2006, union boss Peter Olfert submitted an article. Found on the MGEU website here.

Forced to write this article by virtue of the fact that there is not yet a monopoly on opinion (like the one that more "socially responsible" nations like Venezuela have), Mr. Lussier is forced to pull out the usual tricks to defend the MLCC's inefficient economic monopoly. He insults private businesses--from the corner store proprietor to the supermarket general manager--when he writes "One of the areas often over-looked in a comparison between private and public liquor retailing models is social responsibility. As a public retailer, the MLCC ensures that social responsibility... Programs and controls are in place in both retail and licensed establishments to prevent minors from purchasing alcohol and to prevent over-service of alcohol., as if a private retailer could not ask for ID the same way they do when selling cigarettes, or the way a licensed pub, nightclub, lounge, etc. does.

As if the local grocer isn't bad enough for being so iresponsibly profit-hungry that he'll sell booze to kids or to an overly intoxicated person, he also does not contribute to provincial coffers the way a liquor monopoly can. Lussier writes: "Every Friday, the MLCC makes a deposit into the provincial treasury. This... is used to help fund Manitoba's health care, education, social services and community support system," seeming to forget the host of taxes that private enterprises pay, and the additional tax dollars an expanded liquor market would generate.

He then goes on to say the MLCC: "score[s] very high in friendly, knowledgeable service, and availability of products. In fact, the level of service satisfaction with Liquor Mart customers is around 98 per cent -- a percentage that would be the envy of any retailer." Certainly, which such good selection, capable staff, and high customer approval, they would be at an advantage over other liquor stores in a free market. Manitoba Telecom Services, which was de-monopolized in the 1990s, is now thriving competitively, and there is no reason the MLCC's 46 stores couldn't do the same. Indeed, competition would entice them to offer even better service and selection.

The garnish of Mr. Lussier's cocktail of propaganda is his personal jab at Bruce Clark in the final paragraph, where he suggests that Mr. Clark--a native Winnipegger--stay out of Manitoba. "If price is your only motivator when it comes to buying a bottle of alcohol, then perhaps Palm Springs, Calif., is the place for you."

At its origins, the Liquor Control Commission's monopoly on liquor sales was an attempt for the government to replace gangsters as suppliers of booze to consumers, paradoxically in efforts to appease the temperence movement. It now exists by virtue of the fact that Manitoba has an overwhelmingly entrenched mindset of socialism, provincialism, monopolism, unionism, and a near-chronic fear of the open market. Manitobans who differ, as we all know, all too often take Mr. Lussier's advice to stay away.

Since market freedom is more attractive to people than moral obligation to a secular state, the monopoly on liquor trade is a losing game. Monopolies do not make ours a "have province", healthier, or better able to mitigate the overwhelming social problems that plague urban and Northern Manitoba. (Even the provincial government using capital works projects, suburban sprawl, and collective bargaining as a way to create economic growth cannot offset this.)

Myself, I plan to continue buying my wine from the friendly, knowledgable staff at private wine retailers like Fenton's at The Forks or DeLuca's in the West End. For the rare occassion that I purchase hard liquor, it will be from Manitoba's 47th liquor store: North Dakota.

Monday, September 17, 2007


I've known for some time now that newspaper reporters are regular readers of The Rise and Sprawl, but I can't help but wonder if newspaper editors are among the growing number of visitors to this site, since this story was in Sunday's paper, two days after I published this post on Friday morning.

But perhaps that's not any indication, since the Free Press' story was probably in the works long before my post. Also because it unfortunately only mentions "smart commuting's" positve impact on the environment, and not on it's more efficient use of time, space and infrastructure and the more tangible benefits this gives to citizens. Given the emphasis on the issue of "gridlock", you would think that this would have been taken into consideration.

Speaking of dissonance, its funny to see that in 2002 the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (rightly) believed Winnipeg's then undervalued real estate market was a bad thing caused by stagnation, but in 2006, they found Winnipeg's improving real estate market as a bad thing caused by land use planning.

Still, it's better then their belief that helping low income people own financially onerous, continually devaluing automobiles would be good policy.

Dallas Hansen wrote an excellent article on the inability to build anything in Winnipeg that can capture the essence--the scale, the geometry, etc.--of traditional architecture, though other cities like Chicago (to which we once famously aspired to) seem to pull it off quite nicely.

Friday, September 14, 2007


In a type size not seen since V-E Day, the Free Press proclaimed GRIDLOCK is plaguing streets in the traditional central business district, as well as in the central business district of the future--the teeming mess that is Kenaston/McGilvray. But fear ye not, for by the time commuters get to sit down to the paper, the problem should be all over with, thanks to some of the current road construction projects wrapping up. In journalism, I guess timing isn't everything.

But while this wave of heavy traffic may subside, it doesn't mean that traffic troubles that aggrevate couriers, commuters and pizza drivers will be going away. Nowhere in the article was their anything about aways to reduce traffic.

Nowhere was there a mention of building an underground rapid transit--something the Free Press advocated in 1963, '64, and '65--that could move thousands of commuters to their jobs and schools unimpeded by the traffic above.

There was no mention of the effect on traffic that the continued de-centralization of Winnipeg's population that is encouraged by government-backed suburban sprawl and--wait for it--more roads, or how re-populating neighborhoods that exist a little closer to work might cut down on the time commuters are losing to "gridlock".

And there was no mention of changing the habits of commuters. No mention of revisiting the idea of bridge tolls, or HOV and bicyle lanes on Winnipeg streets. This morning (on my eight-minute walk commute), I watched a man in a pick-up truck honk at a cyclist who had the audacity to take up a small portion of a lane, rather than the entire width and greater length of the lane, like the rest of the motor vehicles around which incedentally, were almost all occupied by one passenger--the driver. Instead of honking, this obnoxious yokel in the pick-up should have thanked the cyclist for making such an efficient use of the road space, and thus allowing him to get to work a little quicker.

Coun. Scott Fielding, who in the article talked about his election promise to get road construction crews working evenings is a good idea, but won't reduce traffic. Traffic, it seems, follows the principle of Say's Law, where supply creates the demand. For example, the editors of the Winnipeg Tribune in September 1955 believed that removing the last of the streetcars and opening the Midtown Bridge that month would eliminate traffic congestion in the central business district, and commuters would no longer idle on a clogged Donald, Portage, Main, Osborne or other major streets. Anyone who has sat in rush hour traffic on these streets in the last 52 years care to tell me how that worked out?

And for sixty years, every decision involving downtown and street planning in the City of Winnipeg, from Garnet Coutler to Glen Murray (as bad as any of them), has ultimately adhered to the wishes of traffic engineers that believe that congestion can be eliminated by making cars move faster. In turning streets into quasi-freeways that are terrible and degrading places to walk alongside, traffic engineers have brought just as much damage to Winnipeg's urban health and quality as any expressway system would have done. All without solving the traffic problem drivers suffer today. So if this kind of car-first planning has had no effect on traffic flow in the long term, and has had a very negative effect on quality of life, why does the city continue to let traffic engineers take them for a long, snails-pace ride?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Western Canada's first skyscraper

It was with a sense of relief that I learned that the Union Bank tower on Main and William ave. will be receiving $1-M from the Federal government to assist with its renovations. And it was with cautious optimism that I read in the Free Press that Red River College may expand into the tower. Whether RRC moves in or not, it seems clear that the building has a vital future, and that it may be possible to come up Main street and see the lights on in the Union Bank tower once again.

On Monday, it was possible to see clearly into the windows of the ground floor for the first time in at least seven years, and I saw for the first time, the interior of the vast banking hall in its dusty glory. Not quite matching the grandiosity of the interiors of the Bank of Commerce or Bank of Montreal, which were designed a decade later in 1912 and '13 respectively--the apex of both local and global wealth, optimism, and the Beaux-Arts architecture movement--but is quite formal and grand just the same.

Winnipeg's contemporary pop history would say that the Union Bank tower was Winnipeg's--and thus Western Canada's--first skyscraper. This is a common claim (the Winnipeg Sun calls it "the first skyscraper in Western Canada", and even the City's own building conservation list suggests it was the first, but this is not true. The Union Bank tower is Western Canada's--and perhaps all of Canada's--oldest existing skyscraper, but it is not the first. The first skyscraper in Western Canada was the Merchant's Bank, built in 1900--four years earlier than the Union Bank.

The Merchant's Bank building stood at the South-east corner of Main street and Lombard (formerly Post Office) avenue for 66 years, from its construction in 1900 until it was demolished by the Richardson Company in 1966 to accomodate the Modernist configuration of their skyscraper and plaza at Portage and Main. It was the first steel-framed tall building in the city, and thus the first skyscraper. At the time it was built, the world's tallest skyscraper was the 30-storey Park Row building in Manhattan, while the Merchant's was only seven stories tall--a similar relation to height that the Richardson building has with today's tall skyscrapers.

It's understandable that the importance (nevermind the existence) of the Merchant's Bank building is largely unkown today. After all, it's been demolished, and once a building in Winnipeg is demolished, it dissapears from the city's collective memory just as really as it does from the city's physical environment. How many people know that the McIntyre block (1898) was the first office building in Western Canada, that the Child's building (1910) was the city's tallest for over 50 years, or that Charlie Chaplain performed his vaudeville act at the Dominion Theatre some 40 years before it became the birthplace of Manitoba Theatre Centre? Information on these lost places is hard to find, and the most I've ever seen written about the Merchant's Bank was on a plaque in the vacant-for-51-weeks-a-year "Gateway to Market Square" between Market Square and Main street--itself the site of dissapeared history

Winnipeg's history includes buildings that are no longer there. It is too late to save the Merchant's Bank, or the scores of other buildings lost to demolition, but it might not be too late to save the memory of them. If we only remember the history that is still with us, then history will constantly be up for revision according to whatever property owner gets a demolition permit, and any building could be "Western Canada's first skyscraper."

Main street c.1928. The Merchant's Bank building is seen on the right, the Union Bank tower is in the distance on the left. The McIntyre block is the tall building on the left

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Heroes and Villians

The latest chapter of the Ryan Block/King Building fiasco at King street and Bannatyne continues three months after City inspectors were forced to break into the Ryan just to see just how bad Bedford Invesments had allowed the building to become. Today, the Free Press reports (with less apparent sympathy for Bedford Investments, I might add) that the City's Property, Planning & Development department is planning to shore up up the building regardless of Bedford's wishes. They may even muster the cajones to send him the bill.

It is important for people to remember that Bedford Investments has owned the Ryan block for at least the past 17 years. The building got to its deplorable state under their ownership. It wasn't like someone dropped the deed for a crumbling, rotting building on Ken Reiss' doorstep, rang the doorbell and ran away this year; he let it crumble and rot all that time. It went from good to bad because he refused government grants to renovate, and--according to a reliable source--spent fire insurance money from the fire that occured on the third and fourth floor, on paving the parking lot next door.

Even before it got to the poor condition it is in today, and the Ryan could have been viable with a much smaller investment than would be required today (with the help of heritage grants offered to him), Mr. Reiss and Bedford Investments wanted to have the building demolished. They've tried to have it taken off the heritage building list twice in the last three years.

Thankfully, the days of Exchange District property owners like Ken Reiss--the self-proclaimed "biggest investor" and booster--are drawing to an end. A new generation of property owners (most notably Mr. Jorgenson who recently purchased the Royal Albert Arms hotel, and creator of the Demolition by Neglect Facebook group) are making Ken Reiss look not like a booster, but a villian.

A decade ago, many people would have been more sympathetic to Bedford's self-imposed "predicament", or would have seen the Ryan block as small, insignificant, and not worth the effort. Today, more and more people are recognizing the basic idea that in historical neighborhoods, the whole is better than the sum of its parts; that together, every building--not just the biggest, most ornate or historically significant ones--make the Exchange District the place it is. Demolition--even of crumbling "eyesores"--doesn't make historical neighborhoods more enjoyable or economically viable, it makes them less so. A lack of buildings and an abundance of large surface parking lots is bad for business.