Plans in works to make Winnipeg North American import hub
Source: Bruce Owen , Winnipeg Free Press
Published: September 10th 2008

WINNIPEG - There's not a heck of a lot there now - mostly empty fields and the odd goose taking a breather before heading south for the winter.

But in the months and years ahead, those fields northwest of the Winnipeg James Armstrong Richardson International Airport could help the city become the place it was always meant to be - the gateway not only to the north, but every direction in between.

That process began Wednesday when the government of Manitoba Premier Gary Doer introduced legislation designating the area around the airport as an inland port.

The plan is to use the airport and its geographic location in North America as a hub to import goods from Asia and Europe and then distribute those goods throughout the rest of Canada and parts of the United States by air, rail and truck.

The inland port designation - made official under the province's new CentrePort Canada Act - also helps qualify the province and city for millions more in federal money to build new roads, rail lines and add new infrastructure like sewers and utilities around the airport.

"This is not going to be Winnport, this is going to be a success," Doer said Wednesday, referring to a similar plan 20 years ago that never got off the ground. "We have everyone working together now. Why didn't past endeavours work? I don't think everyone was at the table."

There are already some infrastructure-improvement plans underway. About $150 million has been committed by the federal and provincial governments for highway improvements. The next step is realigning rail tracks.

Bob Silver, co-chairman of Doer's economic advisory council, said the hope is that when these things start coming together, more private investment will follow.

Millions more in infrastructure funding from Ottawa is available, but the province wants to push ahead quickly with the plan before other Canadian cities, like Edmonton, get their fingers on it.

"We see this as the best economic opportunity for the province," Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce president Dave Angus said of the CentrePort project.

But some critics say the plan is out of touch with economic and geographic reality. They say Minneapolis-St. Paul is better suited as a distribution hub, as it's closer to major markets and also connected by rail to ports on the West Coast.

"All they're doing is banging their head against the wall," trucker George Smith said, adding higher Canadian fuel prices means more goods go through the U.S. rather than Canada.