A Manitoba Infrastructure and Transportation proposal to build three overpasses along the Trans-Canada Highway in Virden has put the brakes on plans to expand Virden Recreation and Watersports, which can be seen in the background.
A 15-year-old Manitoba Infrastructure and Transportation proposal to build three overpasses along the Trans-Canada Highway in Virden has stymied a Virden businessman wanting to expand his shop.
Norm Murray had bought some land along the major twinned highway, so that he could build a large shop and showroom and move Virden Recreation and Watersports to a larger location.
He said he assembled the land parcel, took three years to get the land rezoned, and had got approvals for every step he needed to undertake through the Trans- Canada West Planning District. He just needed Manitoba Highways and Transportation approval to go forward with the plan.
That’s when his proposal was rejected — not once, but twice — because of plans drawn up in 1997 to eliminate traffic lights on the highway to allow for a freeway.
"They told me they were saving the land so they could build overpasses sometime in the next 50 to 100 years," Murray said. "Now they told me they would have to complete the overpass at Highways 1 and 16 (west of Portage la Prairie) and then they’d have to do the two in Brandon (at First Street and 18th Street) and then one of the three they’d need to do in Virden would be next."
A provincial government spokesman said it was not possible to disclose the development plan for the Trans-Canada Highway at Virden by press time.
Murray said if he’s allowed to move to the highway, he would be able to build a $1.5-million building and lot, run a $10 million business and pay an estimated $700,000 back to the provincial government in provincial sales tax. That doesn’t take into account the taxes paid by his 20-30 employees and the economic spinoffs that come with employees living in a town.
"In 30 years, if the business stays the same and the taxes stay the same, this company would have submitted $21 million (to the government) and they are worried about having to expropriate the land and not having to buy the building back?" Murray said.
"They won’t even make a deal for the land I’ve already got there because they have no money. They could take it to Treasury Board and it would take a year for a decision, but they don’t know if Treasury Board would do anything because they don’t have the money to buy the property."
So instead, Murray is stuck between a rock and a phantom overpass. Arthur-Virden Progressive Conservative MLA Larry Maguire said Murray could theoretically build on his land and have the province expropriate the land right afterwards.
"If the province would make a deal with him that they wouldn’t expropriate for three years to be cautious, the PST remittance alone would cover the cost of his building," Maguire said. "That would allow him to go to the bank and build a new building. What bank will give you any money if the government can walk in and expropriate the next day? Nobody in Virden wants this. Nobody has even complained about (the lack of an overpass) to me."
Murray is not the only businessman in the Virden area affected by this policy, said Virden Mayor Jeff McConnell. There were proposals for an oilfield service company to set up shop at the junction of the Trans-Canada Highway and south junction of Highway 83, but the MIT plan created enough roadblocks for the plan to be scuttled, McConnell said.
"We have been trying to find ways to get permission to develop this and other properties covered by this because it’s obvious this thing will not move forward for years, if ever," McConnell said. "We are now being stonewalled into a position where we can not develop properties that are ready for development because of, quite honestly, an unnecessary overpass."
McConnell said businesses along the highway are the town’s gateway and an ability to make a quality first impression with tourists and passersby is compromised by this policy. He cited the example of a Petro-Canada gas station that sits boarded up and without a tenant, though it has a restaurant.
"If someone wanted to go and develop something there, they’d have a very difficult time doing that," McConnell said. "If they wanted to change anything on the outside, the odds are they’d have a very difficult time because Highways is not keen on allowing development in that space whatsoever and a lot of those properties are ready to be redeveloped. They have been there a long time."
Murray said he has spent approximately $22,000 in legal fees so far as he fights to be able to expand his business, and he had a deal to sell his existing land and building on King Street three months ago.
"I had to give the deposit back because I couldn’t get approval to build the new store," Murray said.
The issue has even been raised with Premier Greg Selinger, during a May 8 debate at the Manitoba legislature. Then, Maguire asked Selinger about the freeway policy and asked him to look into it. Selinger pledged that Local Government Minister Ron Lemieux would discuss the matter with local officials. McConnell said those talks have taken place, but as the issue is primarily an Infrastructure and Transportation issue, a meeting with that department’s minister, Steve Ashton has been sought. McConnell said he’s still waiting for that meeting to take place though they have met with the department’s deputy minister.
"That was a good meeting, but it’s bearing little to no fruit," McConnell said.
Maguire said these problems can be resolved by Ashton signing off on a plan to allow for these developments to take place and have deals in place for businesses if the land had to be expropriated later.
"The issue is not whether overpasses are a good thing or not, but that businesses are being inhibited when there is no intention and no plans on the books to develop these things."
Area residents aren’t simply waiting for government to act, as petition signatures are collected for Maguire to present to the legislature once it goes back into session in November. The petition is at Virden Town Office, Maguire’s Virden office as well as Virden Recreation and Watersports.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition October 23, 2012