Pan Am Games kickstarted Winnipeg’s revitalization, says 1999 chair

Pan Am Games kickstarted Winnipeg’s revitalization, says 1999 chair


For the chair of Winnipeg’s Pan Am Games, the event’s legacy goes well beyond two weeks of competition 20 years ago.

Lawyer and businessman Sandy Riley, who headed up the Games in 1999, told 680 CJOB he sees the event as the impetus for the revitalization of Winnipeg in a post-Jets era.

The city’s original National Hockey League franchise relocated to Phoenix, Ariz. after the 1996 hockey season, leaving a gaping hole in Winnipeg’s sports landscape.

“Many of us who working were on the Save the Jets campaign were also becoming engaged in the organization for the Pan Am Games,” said Riley.

“We all recognized – and (then-Premier) Gary (Filmon) did, and so did the mayors of the day – that the city needed something.

“We had to make a decision at that point whether we were going to pick ourselves up from the terrible disappointment of losing the Jets, and we saw this as an opportunity to build community engagement.”

Riley said the Games’ modest – even for the 1990s – budget of $148 million, meant the games were “done on the cheap”, but still left an enduring impact on the city’s sports landscape.

“It’s almost incomprehensible that we could hold the kind of event that we did, with the success we did, at the price we did,” he said.

Facilities like the Shaw Park baseball stadium, he said, were built because of the Games, but many existing buildings like the Pan Am Pool (built for Winnipeg’s previous Games in 1967) got much-needed revitalization – putting Winnipeg in stark contrast with cities like Toronto, which spent a good deal of its $1 billion-plus Pan Am budget in 2016 on constructing new facilities.

The affordability of the Winnipeg event, he said, was due, in part, to the 20,000 volunteers from all walks of life and all corners of the city who participated in the Games and their community spirit.

“I think the last 20 years in Manitoba – in Winnipeg in particular – have been a really, really wonderful period because of that involvement. Whether it’s the park, the Museum for Human Rights, the Inuit Art Centre… the return of the Jets themselves, and so much more involvement in the community. I think that started with the Games.”

Riley said he hopes the next generation of Manitobans takes on its own project with a similarly lasting legacy.

“I’m not suggesting we bring back the Pan Am Games to Winnipeg – although we certainly could do that – but I do think the next generation, it’s getting close to their turn to stand up and say ‘here’s the things we should be doing for the community to make things better’ – and that’s why things work.”

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