Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Another independant coffee shop gone

The Gourmet Cup coffee shop in Portage Place mall is closing down this Friday. The coffee shop, located near the Edmonton Street entrance, used to have that corner of the mall to itself. Now, with Timmies to the left of it and Starbucks to the right, The Gourmet Cup is stuck in the middle of a corporate coffee juggernaut.

Although the competition certainly can't be helpful, the owner does not blame the competitors. His lease is coming up, and if he were to renew the lease he would be required to invest in capital improvements to the store, and it would simply take too long to make that money back. The customer base in the area is dwindling, and the mall isn't getting any busier. He is aware that IBM, which is attached to the mall via skywalk, is moving away, and apparently Manitoba Health workers are leaving the area as well. Regardless of what investments he makes in his store, "that doesn't change Portage Place" and it's grim future.

The owner is a friendly guy who jokes with the customers and adds a personal touch to the coffee buying experience. He thanked me for my support over the years, although I feel partly to blame. I used to go to his shop regularly prior to getting booted from my previous job, and though I am still a short walk away I find myself going to Starbucks far more often because that is where my new colleagues go. I guess that's my confession for the day. I kill small businesses.

The owner, being the nice guy that he is, doesn't blame me either. He just seems tired of grinding out a living in a declining market in a mall that has seen better days. He plans on taking a break for a while, but expects to start something up again somewhere else. "I have too much debt to retire", he joked.

Friday, September 28 will be his last day open. I encourage you readers to go down there and buy a coffee and a muffin or a bag of beans, and make his last day a good one.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Southside Golf Course Vandalized.

If you read the post title to mean that Dan Vandal had a killer round of golf, then I'm sorry to mislead you. What I mean is that the Southside Golf Course has been damaged by vandals.

Late Thursday night, fools in a GMC Sierra pickup truck drove on to the golf course and spun circles on four of the greens doing substantial damage. Holes 1, 7 and 8 all have damage on large portions of the greens, but they remain playable in parts. The green for hole number 3 is in very bad shape and cannot be used at all. A temporary green has been set up for players.

A GMC Sierra was seen on the golf course, and later was found burned out a few miles away. The torched truck turned out to be stolen, but the culprits have not yet been caught. I suppose joy riding a stolen vehicle on a golf course is safer than joy riding it on Portage Avenue, but the completely senseless destruction of private property is still very aggravating.

In some ways it's fortunate that this occurred late in the season. The man I spoke to at the club house ... I can't remember his name ... (I would suck so bad as a reporter) said that three of the four greens could be brought back to reasonable shape by next season. The green for hole 3, however, is more problematic. "We're looking at our options" he said.

The rest of the golf course is still in good condition, and green fees have been discounted by $6 to compensate for the damage.

Cherenkov reporting for Anybody Want A Peanut.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Free Press & unions

There are many things to say about the layoffs at the Winnipeg Free Press yesterday. I recommend you read Melissa Martin's personal thoughts on the matter (stay tuned for more from her) as well as Adam Wazny's. Also read John Dobbin. I have a few things to say of my own.

I understand the realities of the business, at least from a high level. It's no secret that the newspaper industry is struggling both to retain it's traditional readership, as well as in finding ways to capture revenue from the growing on-line readership. This challenge is illustrated in a now-ironic tweet last week from John White:

John White of course being one of those let go yesterday.

If the future of the industry is on-line, then the Free Press shot itself in the foot yesterday when it got rid of John as well as Lindsey Wiebe, their social media guru, and a web developer. They also let go of some of their younger and more promising journalists and writers including the aforementioned Melissa, a talented writer whose expressive writing sometimes seemed more appropriate for a glossy magazine than a black and white paper.

Why would the Free Press choose these people of all people? Well, they didn't. That's the short answer. They chose to lay off people from certain job classifications, but at that point the victims were defined by the union agreement that stipulates that the least senior must go first. I would say that seniority is an out-dated concept, but that implies that there was a time when it made sense. I'm not sure there was.

I give Aldo Santin, local president of the jouranlists' union (Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada), cudos for spending half an hour on Winnipeg Internet Pundits today to talk about the layoffs. He was questioned on the aspect of seniority, and he was adamant in his support of it. It's so ingrained in the union psyche that it's simply not up for debate. It should be.

Seniority provides a simple and unequivocal method of choosing winners and losers in a union environment. Some may perceive this as fairness because it's black and white. There is no personal judgement involved. It values longevity above all else.

This is terribly misguided, especially for a business that is in transition, but really for any business. Seniority is a poor proxy for quality of work. Years of service do not necessarily correspond to talent. Fair is not laying off those who are newest, but retaining those who add most to the organization, and have the greatest potential to lead the organization into the future.

From the business' point of view, the Free Press in this case, their potential for future success has been harmed as a result of this policy. This could have been an opportunity for renewal, in a way. They could have shed some high-paid old-timers, and retained the lower paid (presumably .. I don't know their salaries) staff with the fresh approaches to journalism. This cycle is good for a business. Instead the Freep got older and more stale, and has a higher average labour cost than before.

I'm not clear on why journalists and associated media workers need to be unionized to begin with. Santin spoke about how the union protects the workers, but tell that to the workers who got laid off yesterday. Unions don't prevent people from losing their jobs; they just ensure that job loses are not based on merit. They also add a burden to companies that need to be flexible in order to survive in an environment of dropping revenues.

I don't want to speak for the employees of the Free Press -- perhaps some or most of them appreciate being in the CEP -- but I feel it's damaging to the business; and I personally, as a reader of the Free Press, am not pleased with what transpired yesterday.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Exodus (Escape from downtown)

I would say there is generally a positive outlook about downtown Winnipeg. Obviously the return of the Jets has been a big boost and the Canadian Museum of Human Rights is hard to miss, but there are smaller things too: the redevelopment of the Avenue Building, the Met finally getting refurbished, etc .. Things seem to be trending in the right direction.

I fear, however, that beneath the surface there is a current of change that is flowing in the wrong direction. You can build stuff, but it's people who make a community tick, in particular people with spending money, and those people are fleeing the core. Or rather: their employers are.

It starts with job losses. We lost the Agricore United head office in 2008, and along with it 430 jobs, when Agricore merged with Sask Wheat Pool and the new company, Viterra, decided that Regina was a better place to have a head office than Winnipeg.

The Canadian Wheat Board has lost it's monopoly on grain marketing, and along with it 330 jobs.

The Government of Canada has cut back jobs at the National Research Council as well as other departments. For example, there were layoffs from the Government of Canada offices on Main Street.

More worriesome to me though are the companies that are choosing to abandon downtown.

Western Financial Group is a growing operation. In fact, it out-grew its office on Portage Avenue and needed to find larger digs. In the search for a larger office space, they narrowed down the options to a short list of 5 potential locations: 4 of the 5 were downtown. They chose the 5th -- a new build on the former arena site in Polo Park. They will be the anchor tenant of a new 3-story Shindico development there (I think it's safe to assume that every new development is Shindico unless otherwise specified), resulting in 370 jobs leaving the core area.

Canadian Pacific Railway announced last year that it was moving it's office staff from downtown to what used to be the Convergys building in an industrial park off Scurfield Blvd. With that move, another 230 or so gainfully employed people will be leaving downtown.

IBM has been cutting back it's work force in Winnipeg for several years, as part of a corporate strategy to lay off and outsource as many people as possible. There was a time when IBM took up a couple floors of 201 Portage (then the TD Centre) and had the nondescript office building at 400 Ellice so full that there was talk of building additional floors. That talk was short lived. IBM has long since abandoned 201 Portage and has laid off so many people that it no longer makes sense to stay in the three-story building on Ellice. The data centre on the first floor will stick around for another year, but the 100 or so staff will move to the Clarion Hotel at Polo Park of all places.

These are some of the more obvious examples, but I know I'm missing others.There are also numerous companies that shun downtown altogether and set up shop in suburban office parks. For example, a new building was just constructed for an engineering firm next to the future CP Rail building in the Fort Garry Industrial Park. They are moving there from the west end. More office buildings are planned for the same area, but this pales in comparison to the Tuxedo Business Park.

The Tuxedo Business Park off Kenaston Blvd has been growing like a cancerous tumor for a few years, and will continue to do so, with plans for 15 sprawling buildings that, depending on how they're configured inside, could have square footage equivalent to two James Richardson towers. The defunct One Man Committee blog had a good post on this, but unfortunately it's vanished into the web-o-sphere.

Not all of these buildings are put to typical office use, but many are. Many of these jobs could just as easily be located in the core area, but these suburban office parks, zoned as mixed manufacturing use, are so much cheaper. I'm sure that's the primary factor, but perception of safety may be another. When Western Financial Group made their decision, they stated that they "chose the Polo Park site because the rent and parking rates were cheaper, it provided room for future expansion, and because of concerns about downtown safety at night."

Rent. Parking. Room. Safety. Sprawl out on a cheap piece of land with lots of free parking where kids with hoodies are seldom seen. This is the new model that is threatening downtown.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Speed limit proposal based on bad statistics.

Winnipeg City Council is discussing lowering speed limits to 40 km/h in residential areas. The justification for this includes a study conducted in Edmonton that appears to show a great benefit to lowering the speed limit. It's even baked right in to the proposal before council.

 The proposal includes the following:

AND WHEREAS the City of Edmonton recently reduced speed limits to 40 km/h in several residential neighbourhoods with a 25% drop in severe collisions;

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED THAT Council ask the Winnipeg Public Service to consider lowering the residential speed limit in Winnipeg to 40 km/h

From the study:
However, these reductions were not significant, as the 95% confidence interval included zero, implying no change or no effect. Generally, when a confidence interval is very wide like this one, it is an indication of an inadequate sample size (i.e. short “After” period) and implies poor precision. Consequently, the results of the collision analysis were inconclusive and additional research will be required to substantiate the impact of the pilot project on the number and frequency of collisions.
(emphasis mine)

That's a big problem with research related to public policy. Give a politician a study that says "implying reductions in predicted collision counts of 25% with a 95% confidence interval of -81%, 77%" and the politician will read "blah blah blah 25% reduction in collisions! blah blah blah."

I read "95% confidence interval of -81%, 77%" and see "these results are as useful as a tampon dispenser in my garage".

Some may also point out that the study showed a statistically significant decrease in operating speed in the study areas with the 40 km/h speed limit, but the decrease only averaged 3.95 km/h. Assisting with the decrease were the following factors:
i) a pre- and postcommunication plan;
ii) installation of new speed limit signage and setting up speed display boards, dynamic messaging signs and school dollies;
iii) implementing community speed programs (i.e. Speed Watch, Neighbourhood Pace Cars and Safe Speed Community vans) and
iv) using covert photo-radar trucks.
It was the result of a full-out blitz to increase awareness and reduce speeds, with a modest result of 4 km/h.

Look, I don't want kids to get run over by cars any more than you do, but this isn't the answer. Most people already drive a reasonable speed in residential areas. This isn't going to change that. What this will do is lower speed limits on collector streets where 50 km/h is a reasonable speed, but are deemed "residential", providing more opportunity for the police to set up radar traps to ticket drivers who are driving in a responsible manner.

What we need in this city is a common-sense approach to setting speed limits. It is insane that Kenaston Blvd has the same speed limit as Valour Rd. Set speed limits at levels that reasonable according to industry standards (ie. 85% percentile) and adjust as necessary for special cases like school zones. Let's not create misguided legislation based on inconclusive data and misinterpreted studies. That never turns out well.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

The quiz master

My responses to Bart Kives' Sunday quiz:

What is Giveaway Weekend?
  > Encouragement for hoarders

What is the official mission statement for the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service?
  > Get the fuck out of our way.

What is the preferred alignment for the completion of the Southwest Transitway?
  > Trick question. It will never be completed.

What will Winnipeg Jets fans do if the 2012-13 National Hockey League season is delayed by a lockout?
  > Hate Gary Bettman even more, if that's possible

Which of the following productions would you be most likely to see next year at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival?
  > Apocalypse Now: The Joe Mack Story

Which baseball team will the Winnipeg Goldeyes face in the final series of the American Association playoffs?
  > Wichita Wingnuts. Go Goldeyes!

How far will the University of Winnipeg's downtown campus eventually spread?
  > It is a warm spring day in the year 2086, as Lloyd Axworthy looks down upon his sprawling empire from the top floor of the CanadInns tower. Suspended in a glass tube filled with protein jell, Axworthy has grown tired. "Success," he thinks to himself, "is not as fulfilling as it used to be." Though the Axworthy Institute of Higher Learning, formerly the University of Winnipeg, now fills 80% of the space inside the perimeter Highway, his heart is empty. In actuality, is heart was removed many years earlier and replaced with a neutrino pump, but his *soul* is empty. There is a hole that cannot be filled with shiny new buildings. "Perhaps ..." he thinks .... "perhaps it's time to stop."

What can the Winnipeg Parking Authority do with the empty, shuttered and structurally sketchy Civic Centre Parkade?
  > Swap it with Shindico for a 1/2 acre parcel of land off Wilkes Ave.


Just to give you an idea of the kind of lucrative prizes at stake in Bart's quizes, I won this puppy for a previous entry:

Yes ... that is the old City of Winnipeg logo. Pretty awesome, huh?

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Hydro's current ratio

\mbox{Current ratio} = \frac {\mbox{Current Assets}} {\mbox{Current Liabilities}}

The current ratio measures a company's ability to meet it's short-term debt obligations. A higher ratio is generally better, excepting that if it's too high a company may not be efficiently utilizing its assets. But if it's low, with current liabilities exceeding current assets ( ratio of less than 1), then a company may have trouble paying it's debts.

Disclaimer: though I have taken a number of accounting and finance courses, I am not an accountant and not particularly well qualified to comment on these matters.

Anyhow, upon reading that Hydro lost $24 million last quarter, I spent a few minutes poking around Hydro's report to see where things went wrong, and something jumped out at me: current assets are half what they were the same quarter last year, while current liabilities increased 32%.

(in millions of dollars, 2012 / 2011)

Current assets:    591  /  1,178
Current liabilities:  717  /  543

Current Ratio 2011: 2.17
Current Ratio 2012: 0.82

That's a pretty stunning change in a short time. It may not be anything to lose sleep over if it's simply a result in a short-term blip in the market or other temporary factors, but it may also be a warning sign that troubled waters are ahead. Ye best be keepin' a close eye on this, Matey.

Monday, 3 September 2012

I've decided it's time for a change

I didn't want to put "electoral system" in the title because then nobody would click on the link, but
I've decided it's time for a change in how we elect our representatives.

Perhaps our current system makes sense federally, but I'm not sure it makes sense provincially or locally. This thought came to mind as I read a Metro article last week about the provincial by-election in Fort Whyte. In the article, the candidates were asked about the most important issues that came up as they campaigned door-to-door.

With the province increasingly mired in debt, billions being committed to Hydro projects of dubious benefit, and various problems with health care, family services, etc., the key issues, according to the candidates, are:

According to Brandy Schmidt, NDP ...

"the Waverly overpass request—that’s a big one," she said, adding an overpass at Waverly Street near Taylor Avenue would be something she’d look into if elected.

Bob Axworthy, Liberal ...
The most important issue, according to Axworthy, is having a representative in Fort Whyte who lives in the community.
Let me get this straight: the most important issue is not the provincial debt, or health care or increasing hydro rates or even infrastructure, but what street the candidate's house is on. Score one for Mr. Jetz TV, I guess.

Brian Pallister, PC ...
It varies from too-loud train whistles to the need for more elementary and a high school in the area, to traffic problems on Waverley Street.
While president of the Portage la Prairie Chamber of Commerce, helped find a resolution to train whistling — experience he hopes to bring to the Manitoba Legislature.
That's right: train whistles. Thankfully he is well-equipped to tackle the train whistle problem that plagues Manitoba, having worked on a similar problem in Portage La Prairie. He can leverage that valuable experience as MP and leader of the opposition.

Only Don Benham, Green Party, mentioned issues of province-wide significance: a proposed Honesty in Politics Act and recycling policy.

A common criticism of our 'first past the post' regional system is that it produces outcomes that are not consistent with the popular vote. This is true, but to add to that, you have these weird distortions where a person who will be governing on matters of provincial significance are campaigning on local issues that are significant only to a tiny fraction of the population. I don't know about you, but when a provincial election candidate knocks on my door and asks me what concerns I have with my riding, I have to wrack my brain to think of something that doesn't sound trivial. I'm not concerned about my riding ... I'm concerned about my province.

This preposterous state of affairs sometimes also results in something resembling bribery, as we saw in Southdale where residents voted NDP to get a fancy new community centre complex. Meanwhile, the candidate they elected to get their community center is voting on legislation that impacts everyone. It doesn't make sense.

The same arguments can be made of civic elections. I think we should elect a panel of councilors that have the best interests of the entire city in mind. I think most do, but if a councilor from Ward X continually makes poor decisions there is nothing that most people can do about it. Only a small percentage of people have a say in whether that individual gets re-elected, and because he has name recognition in that particular ward re-election is almost a certainty.

The recent Shindico land-swap craziness is evidence that there are massive systemic problems at Winnipeg City Hall that transcend ward boundaries. [By the way, Bart Kives has been doing a great job of covering this. See: 1 2 3 4 5 6 ]. I'm not saying that council is directly to blame for this, but certainly some of them are complicit in allowing a culture to develop where grievous violations of process like this can be considered normal and acceptable.

It is my belief that if we moved to a system where all people in the city had a say in electing all councilors, there would be greater turn-over and more accountability.

I'm not prepared to come up with the details of how such a system would work, and I think it's highly unlikely anything will change anyhow since those in power have a vested interest in preserving the system that put them in power. I just think it can be better, is all.

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