Right in the centre - Repair or replace, that is the question (reprint)


By Ken Waddell

Neepawa Banner & Press

Following is a re-do on a column I put out around this time last year when I was asked a pointed question by a person who lives in the region and knows about Neepawa but doesn’t live in the town. The question was, “Neepawa is a progressive town, isn’t it?”

I paused with my answer and then offered, “Yes, it is a progressive town, but sometimes reluctantly.”

I based that answer on over 50 years of living in Neepawa and the area. For many decades, Neepawa’s population was fairly static around 3,000 people. In the last 10 years it has ramped up to nearly 6,000 and now ranks as the 11th largest town in Manitoba.

The growth is the envy of many centres. 

So why did I say reluctantly? Well, it’s because that is what I have observed. Growth has been accepted but I contend it hasn’t always been sought out.Neepawa’s approach seems more passive than in centres like Morden, Winkler, Steinbach or Niverville. The latter now ranks slightly ahead of Neepawa in terms of population. Winkler established a growth plan many years ago and the town  leaders have obviously followed the plan. Numerous investors have come to Neepawa and often noted that there is “no real plan in place”. That has changed but it could be argued there is a lot of progress left to be achieved.

Times have changed and for Neepawa, the Springhill Hog Plant built in the late 1980s was the spark that set the growth ablaze. Springhill was, by today’s standard, a modest proposal that grew very slowly until it was sold to HyTek, which became Hylife. Now it employs 1,700 or more people and has seen a huge influx of immigrants to Neepawa. 

HyLife didn’t grow without a plan by both the company and the Town. Investments in housing and infrastructure have been in the hundreds of millions. The company has been very focused and strategic and, in the past few years, the Town has been more focused than in the past. 

All that said, more strategic planning and infrastructure is needed. The new hospital has been announced. The new firehall is up and functioning. The new police station just opened. The new school is full and then some. As for housing, there are about 200 new housing units (homes and apartments) currently under construction. Neepawa is definitely growing,

Much of the growth has come largely from outside investment and influence. HyLife has been almost all outside investment while the town, province and feds have invested heavily in infrastructure.

While growth has been pretty good in Neepawa, this observer of 50 plus years sees some major differences between now and 30-40 years ago. The big difference is that in the past, local business decision makers were more plentiful. Neepawa always had five or six machinery dealers and they used to all be locally owned. Now only one is locally owned. Car dealerships tend to be largely influenced by out of town ownership groups.

Perhaps the biggest difference is banking decision-makers. Only the credit union makes the larger business decisions locally. All the banks used to do so. Back in the day, farms and businesses could talk to the decision maker locally. Some names that come to mind are Des George at BMO, Gerry Hueston at RBC and Gord Sylvester at CIBC. It appears the bigger farm and businesses lending decisions are made out of town. Perhaps growth might be faster and more efficient if we had more locals in the bigger businesses ownership chairs and in the banking management chairs.

Another area that Neepawa appears to be lagging is in long term planning for recreation. Neepawa is somewhat unique in that the arena, community hall, curling rink and golf course are all owned and operated by local committees. The Town of Neepawa puts minimal dollars into those four facilities compared to other towns. To put it bluntly, the Town of Neepawa and the taxpayers have gotten off pretty cheaply compared to other locations.

That all said, it has worked but the day is coming, and may be well past, where major repairs or even replacement will be needed. As far as I know, neither the Town nor the respective committees have a fund or a plan for upgrades or replacement. The Yellowhead Arena is 50 years old, the golf course clubroom is very old and while it works, members long for an upgrade. The curling rink is not as old but needs upgrades as well. The Yellowhead Centre hall portion was built in the 1940s as a warehouse for the former salt company. To replace all the buildings listed would likely be in excess of $40 million. That’s a lot of money so perhaps the committees and the town had better sit down and make a plan. In my view, improvements  might better be achieved by upgrades instead of replacement.