Ikea courts controversy as the ubiquitous company prepares to open its first Winnipeg store

The retail giant is expected to open its doors on Wednesday, in an area of town that has seen a $22M investment …It is going to be a big store and an even bigger deal when Swedish furniture store Ikea opens its latest Canadian location in Winnipeg this week.

The retail giant is expected to open its doors on Wednesday, in an area of town that has seen a $22 million investment in infrastructure to help shoehorn the big box store into place.

Ikea predicts that 20,000 people will visit its new Winnipeg location when it opens on Wednesday. The 390,000-square-foot store will be among its biggest locations in Canada, and local media have been counting down to the day residents can hop inside and feast on a plate of Swedish meatballs.

Of course no major project goes off without a hitch.

In a recent Winnipeg Free Press article, columnist Bartley Kives says the decision to lure an Ikea to the Manitoba capital was more about politics than it was about economic development. He says that some $22 million in subsidies were sold to the public as previously-planned infrastructure projects that would be sped up to accommodate the new store.

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Mayor Sam Katz and former premier Gary Doer said in 2007, when construction was first announced, that $18.5 million in public funds was going to be used to update roads and infrastructure in the area, claiming it was already a part of the city's long-term planning strategy.

Kives writes that $26.5 million in work was eventually conducted for the project -- $22 million of which was covered by government -- none of which was originally noted in the city's long-term planning strategy.

"The political claim about speeding up nonexistent plans was made simply to avoid the appearance of looking like both governments were doling out straightforward development subsidies," Kives wrote in the Press.

Kives goes on to say that the idea of bringing an Ikea to the city was so popular, both politicians could likely have admitted the money was a subsidy and suffered no political fallout, but questions whether they will ready to pony up support for the next big retailer that comes to town.

Meantime, CBC Manitoba is being careful not to get too excited about the new store, highlighting some of the larger controversies surrounding the Swedish furniture giant.

Ikea's subsidiary, Swedwood, was recently blamed with destroying old-growth forest in Russia. The company was also accused of illegal forestry practices in China in 2007. Both these events go against the company's goal to collect its wood from certified regions.

The company also recently expressed public regret after it was reported that some of its suppliers used forced prison labour in communist East Germany from the 1960s to 1980s.

An Ikea spokesperson said the practice was not approved by the company, which at the time did not have well-developed control systems in place.

It is tough to draw a direct line from unfortunate labour practices in Germany nearly three decades ago to the grand opening of a new store in Winnipeg. And it probably won't stop anyone from lining up early on the morning of the store's grand opening in the hope of claiming door prizes.

[ Related: Ikea to release report on use of forced labour in communist East Germany ]

Unlike at previous Canadian grand openings, Ikea is stopping Winnipeg customers from lining up days in advance, saving people from sitting all night in frigid temperatures.

It's almost like Ikea and Winnipeg are a perfect fit. Some assembly required.