Outside investors who had all but sewn up the purchase of a famous Manitoba landmark -- the limestone cliffs of Steep Rock -- have been elbowed aside at the last minute by the local community. The RM of Grahamdale has signed an agreement to buy the limestone cliffs and adjacent property for $650,000 from cement-maker Lafarge Corporation of France.
"We're going to make the cliffs a historic site so they can never be sold and they'll be open to the public forever," boasted Bev Yaworski, the RM's chief administrator, on Friday. But the small Interlake community -- 210 kilometres north of Winnipeg -- with fewer than 1,500 people, doesn't have $650,000. So, the rural municipality is putting 56 cottage lots up for sale on Lake Manitoba, 26 of which are lakefront.
The draw for the cottage lots, located five kilometres north of Steep Rock, takes place at noon today. Lakefront lots are $25,000 each, and backlots $18,000.
Only 18 bids, which require a deposit of $5,000 each, had been received as of late Friday. People can still get in a bid by noon today by showing up at Steep Rock Community Hall, where the draw will be held.
The cliffs, just south of Steep Rock, have been privately owned through a quirk of history. The land was purchased almost a century ago by a mining company, before provincial laws prevented ownership of shoreline property. Lafarge Corp. has owned the cliffs since about 1970, after it merged with Canada Cement Co.
Lafarge was all but ready to give the land to the RM two years ago, in exchange for the RM assuming the company's liabilities for its former quarries in the area. Then an international investment group that buys and develops oceanfront property swooped in and offered more than $2 million.
But the two sides began to squabble over details. Also, Lafarge signed a $21-million contract to supply concrete girders for bridges being rebuilt for the expanded Winnipeg Floodway. The company's office in Calgary began urging head office to make a deal with the local community.
"Lafarge has been wonderful to deal with," said Yaworski. The RM has already made a $50,000 down payment. The remaining $600,000 is to be paid over six years, with the first instalment due next month. "For our community, that's a lot of money. But so far, people have been very positive," said Reeve Brian Kiesman.
The cliffs aren't the only part of the deal. The RM's purchase from Lafarge also includes 2.5 kilometres of shoreline directly north of Steep Rock. That land will also be developed for cottages, Kiesman said. The RM plans to put in trails and benches along the cliffs and little else. "We want the cliffs to stay in their natural state. They're one of nature's wonders," said Kiesman. Nature lovers saluted the community.
"That place has the biggest mass of crocuses any of us has ever seen anywhere. It just blows your mind," said Mike Egglestone, with the Manitoba Camera Club. The club travels to the Steep Rock site every spring to photograph crocuses.
The cliffs have long been treated as public property by residents and tourists, although Lafarge put up private property signs to reduce its liability. But there were tremendous fears that new owners would put development on the cliffs, especially since the bidding company insisted the cliffs be part of any sale. Lafarge also planned to build cottages atop the cliffs in the 1970s, but backed down after local people protested.
The limestone cliffs are six to nine metres high, with caves, coves and pebbled beaches. Bartley Kives, in his book A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba, describes them as "stunning... About 10,000 years of wave action and winter ice have carved the cliffs into ledges, seats, and other eroded shapes."