The soaring cost of Asper’s dream

The Museum of Human Rights is over budget and desperate for cash

The soaring cost of Asper’s dreamThe country’s newest national museum is deep in the hole, before digging for its foundation has even been completed. Work on the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, in downtown Winnipeg, only began in early April, but the building is already $45 million over budget. When Ottawa agreed in April 2007 to take over the private project—the dream of the late Izzy Asper, founder of Canwest Global Communications—construction costs for Antoine Predock’s soaring, glass castle design had been estimated at $165 million—not including exhibits or the interior. But a combination of inflation, a fluctuating dollar, and the price of importing glass and steel for its unique structure, has since seen costs rise by 27 per cent. “The bulk of this is inflation,” says Patrick O’Reilly, the museum’s chief operating officer. “We hear a lot about the economic downturn, but it has not affected construction costs in Western Canada.”

The museum’s board of trustees, appointed by the Conservative government last August, considered scrapping the landmark design, but ultimately decided the savings would be negated by the costs of replacement plans and construction delays. Instead, they have trimmed $12.6 million from the budget by modifying electrical and ventilation systems, reducing the protective coating on concrete floors and opting for less costly stone for its walls. And they have launched a renewed fundraising push—and an appeal to all levels of government—to try to make up the shortfall. “We’re hoping that current donors will increase their gifts,” says O’Reilly. The City of Winnipeg has so far given $20 million to the project. Manitoba has pledged $40 million, and Ottawa $100 million, as well as $21.7 million in annual operating funds. Premier Gary Doer said last week that his government might be willing to dig a little deeper, if the private sector takes the lead. (The separate fundraising arm “Friends of the CMHR” has so far collected $105 million.) But Heritage Minister James Moore says no additional federal money will be forthcoming. Perhaps an indication that the Tories feel they have done enough for Asper-backed causes, with tax dollars already committed to a new football stadium for the soon-to-be family-owned Blue Bombers, and a bailout of private television broadcasters including Canwest’s Global and E! channels reportedly in the works.

As for the museum, it appears that there will be more red ink in its future. The latest corporate plan, tabled in the House of Commons last month, predicts an unspecified operating deficit once the doors finally open in 2011. Original estimates did not factor in the $9 million a year in property taxes the national institution will be expected to pay. (In Manitoba, private museums get a tax holiday, but not public ones.) And the board intends to approach Ottawa for an “appropriate future level of funding” above and beyond the nearly $22 million a year the Harper government has agreed to provide. “We don’t have precision around what it will cost to run the building,” says O’Reilly. “We’re just trying to put our markers down.”

At this point, it’s not even clear what exhibits museum-goers will see in three years, or their cost, beyond a rough $100-million estimate for the building’s interior. The museum has just completed the first of 18 cross-Canada consultations to solicit public input on its displays. The board is counting on 250,000 visitors a year (down from the original estimate of 800,000) but no decision has been made about what admission will be charged. There will be attempts to generate other revenue from event rentals, a restaurant and a gift shop. “Often that’s the bread-and-butter for museums,” notes O’Reilly.

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