CANADA

A gamble and a jinx

DOUG SMITH April 21 1986
CANADA

A gamble and a jinx

DOUG SMITH April 21 1986

A gamble and a jinx

For more than two decades the prime tract of downtown Winnipeg real estate confounded developers and politicians alike. First a luxury hotel, next a new home for the CBC and then a sports arena were envisaged for the former site of St. Paul’s College. One after the other, plans were unveiled, artists’ conceptions commissioned—and then the projects collapsed. So when construction finally started on a $30-million branch of the National Research Council in 1984, it seemed the jinx had been broken. But last week, as the first tenants prepared to move in, that conclusion still looked premature.

Initially, the NRC’s new Institute for Manufacturing Technology was to employ 125 scientists and engineers engaged in state-of-the-art research into new technologies. But in November, 1984, federal Finance Minister Michael Wilson abruptly cancelled the project, saying Ottawa could not afford its $20million-a-year operating cost. While construction continued, the government looked for other uses.

The result of that search is a striking four-storey, aluminum structure now known as the Canadian Institute of Industrial Technology. But when it opens next month, only four—not 125—NRC staff will be moving in. And while Ottawa will cover the operating deficit for the next five years, the onus for making the centre succeed will lie with the private sector. Says federal Science Minister Frank Oberle: “We have to find ways to make industry do more market-oriented research. It will be up to the NRC to sell the concept.” It is, Oberle concedes, a gamble. Canadian industry has given low priority to research. Moreover, not one private firm has yet leased any of the institute’s 190,000 square feet of space.

Still, institute director Alex Mayman remains optimistic. Sooner rather than later, he says, the problem will be “who we let in, not how we fill the building.” Local scientists concur. Says physicist Jasper McKee: “Things have gone from being fairly depressing to being fairly upbeat.” But operating a joint government-industry partnership of this magnitude is a departure from standard NRC practice. And, as McKee adds, “It still has to be shown whether the private sector is going to be turned on by this approach.”

— DOUG SMITH in Winnipeg