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No one thinks developer's crazy now

Arnason brought Venice to Gimli in Siglavik, a subdivision with houses on canals, bays

School teacher turned developer, Willie Arnason, enjoying a tour of his Siglavik development.

BILL REDEKOP / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

School teacher turned developer, Willie Arnason, enjoying a tour of his Siglavik development.

GIMLI -- People didn't just think Willie Arnason was crazy. They thought he was so crazy they told him that to his face.

They thought he was so crazy no one locally wanted anything to do with his residential development, a subdivision like no other, a subdivision built on water with canals like Venice, Italy.

Besides, Arnason was a school teacher all his life. Why was he pretending to be a developer now? What did he know about construction? It was a joke.

And finally, there was the 400 hectares he purchased. It was swamp. It was worthless. It was 1.5 kilometres of solid cattail until you reached Lake Winnipeg, except for Willow Creek that ran through it.

Today, Arnason is hailed as a visionary. But few people outside Gimli know the story.

"I think it's magnificent," said Arnason, too old to put up a front of false modesty, on a recent boat tour of the 85 homes in his subdivision. I agreed. We travelled at trolling speed along the front streets -- man-made canals and bays he dug out of the marsh -- of his development. There were beaches in front of some homes where kids were swimming, one person was out kayaking, and some people were just puttering around in their front yards.

Arnason would retire early from teaching, sacrificing much of his pension, and go nearly $3 million in debt. "I wanted to live out my dream," he explained. What did his wife think? "She thought I was crazy, too. But she always stood beside me."

Arnason grew up on an Interlake dairy farm and left to obtain three degrees: bachelors degrees in agriculture and education, and a master's in economics. He taught economics in Winnipeg high schools, finishing his career at St. John's Technical High School. He is from the famous Arnason clan in Gimli who developed Willow Island, and that includes his brother Ted, a former Gimli mayor, and writer David Arnason (his nephew).

Arnason began his dream project in the early 1980s. First, he built a cofferdam to hold back water so earth moving equipment could carve out channels. Then he used the excavated earth to build up land to put houses on.

Arnason used three contractors, sometimes promising them lots for payment, but he also did much of the work himself. He learned his skills on the farm, and from his brothers who ran Arnason Construction. He did everything from digging canals to building homes, including the subdivision's first building, a log house.

Arnason also single-handedly dug the kilometre-long channel through wetlands to reach Lake Winnipeg. Willow Creek is unreliable because its outlet silts up. But digging underwater is enormously difficult. "You have to feel around under the water with the hoe to see what you dug and haven't dug." He got up at 5 a.m. until past midnight. "I did that day after day." He once got the backhoe stuck up to the windows. It took days to dig himself out.

"At that time, I almost did what I wanted to do. I could never do that today," he said, meaning there would be too much bureaucracy and regulation with building in a marsh.

He used five creditors and wasn't always forthright with them about who else he had loans with. But he never missed a payment. He borrowed from a friend and sold a land holding, as well.

Siglavik took decades to get to where it is today. As late as 2004, only about 40 homes were up. People buying homes or lots were all from elsewhere. That started to change in the last decade as people in the Gimli area got over their skepticism.

"It's an incredibly unique development, to have these canals there. People really like living there," said Bill Barlow, a former Gimli mayor, who remembers the raised eyebrows on council over Arnason's plans.

Does a marsh mean hordes of mosquitoes? For one hour in the evening, when the wind dies down and the sun starts to set, the mosquitoes can be unbearable, said realtor Dave Humniski, of Interlake Real Estate. Otherwise, there are fewer mosquitoes here than in Gimli because Siglavik is all open, and winds off the lake blow the pests away, he said.

Humniski should know. He's lived in Siglavik for over 20 years. Fishflies don't land here either, he said. But the odd critter does saunter in, like the skunk Humniski was trying to evict from under his boat house last week.

Flooding has not been an issue so long as people built to the 719.5 feet above sea level prescribed by a Manitoba Hydro engineering study. That keeps houses dry from the highest fall wind surge ever recorded (3.7 feet in 1932), at a lake level of a maximum 715 feet, and still have a safe buffer from flooding. Siglavik roads are even higher than bordering Highway 9.

One of the wonderful things about Siglavik is it's not like a typical new development where all the houses are cookie-cutter imitations of each other. Here, it's like when you cruise a lake shoreline and the cottages are all different, except for modern prefabricated ones.

Everyone has lake access. Some houses are listed at $500,000 or more. But it was never intended as an exclusive subdivision -- Arnason doesn't believe just one type of person makes a community. There is a mix of house sizes, most in the 1,500 to 2,000 square feet. Lots are half an acre or more, Humniski said.

Arnason, now 80, continues to build an adjacent subdivision called Miklavik. Mikla means "big" in Icelandic, and vik means "bay." Sigla means "sailing," so Siglavik means Sailing Bay. Sailing events for the Pan Am Games were held just beyond Siglavik's borders on Lake Winnipeg.

"You put a car on one side, a boat on the other, and away you go," Arnason said.

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

History

Updated on Monday, July 14, 2014 at 7:39 AM CDT:
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