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Anger grows in St. B
Furor over Sals on footbridge unleashes pent-up frustration

By Mary Agnes Welch
maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

Friday, February 18th, 2005 - THE backlash in St. Boniface against the decision to award Salisbury House the contract for a restaurant on the Esplanade Riel points to the area's deeper discontent with city hall, community leaders charge.

"This is a symptom of a much larger problem. This is just a piling on," said Daniel Boucher, president of the Société franco-manitobain.

"The lines of communication have not been that good recently and anger is running quite deep."

Many St. Boniface residents say the Salisbury decision betrays the original vision for the pedestrian bridge that links the French Quarter and The Forks.

Instead of another outlet for the Sals chain that is renowned for its hamburgers, they had hoped for a high-end bistro serving French-influenced delicacies.

Both St. Boniface Coun. Franco Magnifico and Mayor Sam Katz fired back at critics yesterday, saying St. Boniface's needs are a high priority at city hall.

They also said the francophone community failed to put forward a viable, French-inspired proposal to fill the empty Esplanade Riel plaza.

That left the city with no choice but to award the contract to Salisbury House.

But Boucher said discontent with the Katz administration has been percolating for months, starting last fall with the announcement that mandatory bilingual service would not be part of the search for a tenant on the pedestrian bridge. It was a requirement during the first round of bidding, which produced only one viable proposal that council ultimately rejected.

"That was not a good way to start," said Boucher.

Since then, Boucher and other leaders point to a litany of projects meant to spur a renaissance in St. Boniface that they say have been delayed, rejected or left mired in confusion.

That includes a two-year-old deal to bury the ugly Manitoba Hydro towers that run through the French Quarter and plans to redevelop the rundown Pointe Hébert neighbourhood and the old Le Rendez-Vous nightclub.

And, last month, city hall informed the Franco-Manitoban Cultural Centre (CCFM) that it could not contribute $500,000 it promised to renovate the cultural hub and build a new theatre for the Cercle Molière, Canada's oldest drama troupe.

"It may cause us to reconsider the project as conceived or it may sabotage the whole thing or we may have to start digging around for other funding," said Paul Léveillé, Cercle Molière's administrator.

The federal and provincial governments have each chipped in $1.9 million to the $5.4-million renovation, but Katz recently told the CCFM that a $57-million budget shortfall this year prevents him from contributing cash promised by former mayor Glen Murray.

Katz said yesterday he supports the CCFM renovation and hopes to deliver the funding from the Winnipeg Development Agreement, a $75-million pot of money meant for community projects.

Roland Marcoux, president of the Old St. Boniface residents association, said many have begun to wonder if Katz understands the issues in the neighbourhood and in the francophone community.

"It's a question of playing a leadership role and having some vision and not letting the city bureaucracy make decisions," said Marcoux. "I'm losing a lot of confidence in this guy."

On Wednesday, Katz and his executive policy committee chose Sals to set up shop on the $22-million footbridge connecting the city's French Quarter to The Forks. The move came after months of delays and a tortuous search for willing bidders.

Of the four bids the city received, Sals offered the city the most lucrative deal, though the city is still on the hook for more than $400,000 in improvements to the bridge's central plaza.

Many residents, community leaders and business people in St. Boniface view the bridge as the symbolic link between the city's francophone and anglophone cultures and a celebration of the city's French roots.

Katz and Magnifico were greeted with boos when they attended an event Wednesday night at the Festival du Voyageur, though Katz said the negative feedback was the work of only five or six people in the audience.

Boucher said community leaders will gather in the next few days to decide whether to launch a petition, letter-writing campaign or some other push to get city hall's attention.

But Magnifico had some testy words for his ward yesterday, saying he inherited a host of problems and promises from former mayor Murray, including the empty plaza on the Esplanade Riel.

"One thing St. Boniface better understand in a hurry is that these aren't my problems. These are problems left by the previous administration," he said. "If they want to blame me, they can go ahead."

Magnifico also said he knows many influential, wealthy French-Canadians who didn't make a play for the bridge restaurant.

"If it's such a wonderful idea and such a viable project, put your money up, hire some people, open a restaurant," he said.

Katz echoed Magnifico's comments, saying he encouraged St. Boniface's economic development agency, Entreprises Riel, to beat the bushes for a better tenant but got little response.

"If you're not happy with this scenario and you want to know who to blame, take a good look in the mirror," said Katz.

Magnifico said he would meet Salisbury House officials today to try to persuade them to tweak their plan to better reflect Franco-Manitoban culture.

Sals plans to open a more upscale location with a lounge for musical acts and a patio.

The perceived snub of St. Boniface by city hall was a common topic yesterday evening at the Festival du Voyageur.

"I must say I'm really disappointed," said Renaud Lafond, 24.

Lafond, a student at College Universitaire de Saint-Boniface, said it doesn't seem that Katz has a feel for St. Boniface.

-- With files from Jason Bell

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