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Lloyd Axworthy (back when he was a Cabinet Minister in the Chretien government)

By BERNIE BELLAN

(The second of three stories about how the Asper Campus came about)

The long-range planning committee begins to formulate plans for a campus

In 1986 Marjorie Blankstein became chair of the long-range planning committee established by the Winnipeg Jewish Community Council and, in her words, “Bob and I set up a dog and pony show and we went around to all the agencies, book clubs, poker clubs, anybody who got together – and we told them what was happening to our community - the statistics on memberships.” (According to Bob Freedman, he and Marjorie spent two and a half years engaged in that “dog and pony show”.)

 

 


Bob adds that he and Marjorie simply wanted to “engage” anyone involved in any kind of Jewish organization – local or Israel based, along with all the synagogues, in a discussion of what kind of community they envisioned.

In a 1996 report in this paper, it was noted that, “Under Marjorie’s Chairmanship, professional consultants were hired to assess data including demographics. Community questionnaires were distributed and focus group surveys taken. Results indicated that the community’s top priorities then were the renewal of educational, cultural and recreational facilities.”
But, according to Bob Freedman, the notion of a “campus” had not yet occurred to anyone involved with the planning committee at the outset.
“Our first goal was to reestablish pride in the community,” he said.
“We also wanted to establish credibility” by going to as many different groups as possible.

But, where did the actual idea of building a “campus” come from, I wondered?
Bob Freedman said that Gary Tobin had mentioned that various cities in the U.S. had been building campuses – primarily as a means of dealing with what was then the biggest threat to those Jewish communities’ continued existence: assimilation. Tobin referred specifically to Kansas City as a possible model which Winnipeg might want to take a look at. Eventually, members of the planning committee did go to Kansas City – along with several other American cities which also had campuses.

Again, according to a 1996 article in this paper, “Various committees took a close look at the Campus approach that had been recommended. It became obvious that the Campus concept would maximize the use of community facilities and would be economically advantageous for the long term benefit of the community.
“The Campus idea,” Marjorie Blankstein explained in that same article, “encourages a synergy, a coming together of all segments of the community, making multiple use of facilities. For instance, classrooms could be used for many purposes when not in school use, and the gyms can be shared by the Schools and the Centre.”
The article continued: “After the Winning Jewish Community Council approved recommendations arising from these studies, the big issue became the need to raise the money to achieve such a concept. The fundraising feasibility was tested at a meeting of 75 of the community’s top givers to determine if the required capital could be raised. Feedback from the meeting was a very positive ‘yes’, Marjorie recalls.”
“ ‘There was strong support by strong major contributors. The vast majority shared the vision of Campus’s potential for the community’.
“Campus fundraising began in 1992 and Marjorie Blankstein recalls that the first $11,000,000 was raised within the community in difficult economic times, strictly ‘on trust’ without a firm site or solid plan … only a ‘wonderful concept’.”

When it came time to actually begin the fund raising for the campus, the initial goal, according to Marjorie, was “to raise $10 million, but we raised $12 million. Then we went back and raised another $6 million.”
Did Marjorie have any input into the actual design of the Rady Jewish Community Centre (as it was originally known when it first opened)?
The answer is “no”, but Morley Blankstein did serve on the building committee of the campus and he played an instrumental role in one certain facet of the campus’s design. “Morley insisted that the theatre (which became the Berney Theatre) would have tiered seating,” Marjorie noted. According to Marjorie, the original design would simply have had chairs around a stage. “It would have been lousy,” she observed.
Considering that Marjorie Blankstein has spent a good portion of her life either raising funds or donating funds herself, I wondered what approach she took when it came time to ask individuals to contribute to the campus project. I asked her whether she would describe herself as diplomatic or more forthright?
“I think I was more diplomatic,” Marjorie answered. “We had a hope of what we might expect, but I didn’t go around twisting people’s arms.
“We hired a fundraiser who had knowledge and experience. He told us that one of the ways we can raise money is by naming certain portions of the building after themselves or their parents.
Why were the Blanksteins so active in promoting the Campus?
“ ‘Because,’ ” said Morley in that same 1996 article, ‘we recognized how important it is to maintain and strengthen the community. The cost of renewing existing facilities would be prohibitive. In most cases facilities were not in the right location in view of current demographics. It made sense economically as well as functionally to go the comprehensive Campus route’.”

But, I wondered, how did the current location for the Asper Campus come about? I noted, for instance, that the first location which was considered was a parcel of land at the corner of Waverley and Wilkes.
“But that was too close to power lines,” Marjorie Blankstein explained. “So we started looking around at other spots and we thought the Kapyong Barracks - that area would be fantastic.”

How the campus came up with an extra $4 million totally unexpectedly


Back in the 1990s, when the Asper campus was still in the planning stages and fundraising was still going full steam, a $4 million contribution from the Federal government came about totally unexpectedly.
In Bob Freedman’s telling of the story, here is how it happened:
“We had already started the campaign – and there was a federal election (in 1993). We had earlier retained consultants to lobby the Conservative government (under then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney).
“Anyway, the election was called and Lloyd (Axworthy) was running in Winnipeg South Centre. He committed that, if the Liberals were elected, they would fully support the project. I remember doing projections and saying ‘the ask should be $4 million’ and Richard Kroft, then Senator Richard Kroft, said: ‘That’s completely unrealistic.’
“Just before the election – maybe a week before, we get a note from the Conservative government that we’re going to get $300,000.
“Come the election, the Liberals get in – and Lloyd is made a minister. Lloyd is coming to town and we make an appointment to see him. It was the B’nai Brith dinner honouring Izzy Asper” (at what was then the Westin Hotel).
Axworthy told Bob, “I’ll meet you there – before the dinner. I go there with Marjorie (Blankstein), Sheldon (Berney), and Richard Kroft.
“We meet him in the lobby – there are media there – and he (Axworthy) says: ‘Come on’ – and we go with him in the elevator up to his room. He’s changing into his tuxedo and literally took his pants off. Marjorie is like…
“And Lloyd says, ‘We have to have a hook to get government money. What’s the hook?’ Earlier we had gone to Western Economic Diversification and they had literally kicked us out of the office.
Axworthy continued, “For instance, are you planning to have a museum?”
And Sheldon says, “Well, we have a historical society and they’ve got some old stuff. We’ll hang some stuff on the wall.”
But Axworthy says, “No, no, no – I mean a real dedicated space. I can try and sell that.”
So Sheldon says, “Okay, we’ll have a space…He didn’t take it that seriously at the time.”
Axworthy adds: “The other thing is - we get the green light, we’ll still have to do a feasibility study – but we’ll (i.e., the Federal government) pay for it.”
“So, it ended up that having that feasibility study cost $100,000. We hired KPMG to run numbers, architects, designers – and a trip to Washington to see the Holocaust Museum – and to New York, to see the Jewish Museum there.”
“Long story short – we ended up getting, from the feds, $3.5 million; $100,000 was the cost for the feasibility study, and we’ve already got the $300,000 from the Conservatives – even though they lost the election. So, we ended up getting $3.9 million. I was $100,000 short of my goal.”

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