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Downs' location boasts limitless potential: Ex

KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
The Red River Exhibition Association has its eye on Assiniboia Downs.

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KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS The Red River Exhibition Association has its eye on Assiniboia Downs.

The Red River Exhibition Association wants to take over Assiniboia Downs but its sporting aspirations aren't limited to horse racing.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS archives
Harvey Warner, president of the Manitoba Jockey Club, says Red River Exhibition Association proposal is riddled with errors.

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JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS archives Harvey Warner, president of the Manitoba Jockey Club, says Red River Exhibition Association proposal is riddled with errors.

Garth Rogerson, CEO of the RREA, said with 194 hectares at its disposal at the western outskirts of town, the development possibilities are virtually limitless.

He'd like to present a multitude of different events, including concerts and monster truck shows, with horse racing adding to the entertainment options.

He wants to work with neighbouring property owners, including the Chipman family, which owns the MTS Iceplex, to build facilities that will benefit the entire community.

"The Iceplex is so successful. Maybe we could partner up with them to expand to two more ice surfaces. We could build it on to the end of the (Iceplex) parking lot," he said.

It's no secret Winnipeg has a large network of beaten-up arenas that are beyond their expiry dates because there isn't the public money to replace them.

The RREA plan could reduce the province's annual subsidy to the horse-racing industry from $10 million to $5 million. With the province projecting a $567-million shortfall for the end of this fiscal year (March 31), such a proposal has caught the eye of Finance Minister Stan Struthers.

The Selinger government has committed to balancing the province's books by 2016 and he realizes it's not going to get there with a nickel-and-dime strategy. When asked if he'd be looking at reducing expenses by at least $100 million in the upcoming year, he replied "probably."

"It's rare you get the chance to expand a facility, improve its use, grow the economy and at the same time, reduce the burden on Manitoba taxpayers," he said.

"We're going to work with the Red River Exhibition to make sure we give this plan every chance to succeed."

The fly in the ointment is the Manitoba Jockey Club, which has run racetrack for 20 years and needs to agree to the plan. That's going to be a tough sell with Harvey Warner, president of the MJC, who feels the province and RREA have been negotiating behind closed doors.

If Rogerson is given the go-ahead -- or if another plan from another party is brought forward and approved -- it will continue the remarkable transformation of a part of town that was little more than empty fields just a few short years ago.

The Iceplex, which attracts hundreds of hockey players per day to its four rinks and the Pointe West Autopark just a few hundred metres to the south, have become a destination location all on their own.

And things are only going to get busier. This spring, Shindico Realty will begin preliminary work on Westport Festival, a 600,000-square-foot commercial development just west of the Perimeter Highway. Construction will follow in the fall with a string of ribbon cuttings expected in the spring of 2013.

John Pearson, a commercial broker/developer and retail specialist with Shindico Realty Inc., said he is currently in discussions with numerous potential tenants, including hotels, restaurants and retailers, but he won't divulge any names until the deals are signed. Just because it's a little out of the way for many Winnipeggers doesn't diminish the potential for the area, Pearson said.

"There's no greater concentration of entertainment and recreation anywhere else in the province when you combine horse racing, the Iceplex, the Blumberg golf courses, baseball diamonds, soccer fields, hotels, 16 automobile brands. The whole area is already a very established attraction," he said.

geoff.kirbyson@freepress.mb.ca

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