Eric Ricker says the plan to build the New Nanaimo Centre has all the markings of a huge election issue. The plan involves the city borrowing $30 million, asking the provincial and federal governments for another $25 million, and handing public land over to an “aggressive” American development company in a public-private partnership deal that was never put out for bids from competing companies.
In a November referendum on the plan—which includes a conference centre, hotel, condominiums, museum, retail space and library—voters were almost evenly split, with a 52 percent majority narrowly approving the plan. And oh yes, a group of citizens has accused the city councillor who chaired the committee, Ron Cantelon, of conflict of interest. He’s now running for the BC Liberals in one of the area’s two constituencies.
Cantelon did not respond to a message left on his cell phone, but he has previously denied the conflict of interest. Still, says Ricker, a retired public administration professor who is a director of a group opposed to the plan, the New Democratic Party should exploit what he says is a horrible deal for the city and a stain on Cantelon’s record. But the Nanaimo-Parksville candidate, Carole McNamee, and the Nanaimo candidate, Leonard Krog, have failed to do so.
“I can’t for the life of me see why they won’t go public on it,” says Ricker, a director of Friends of Plan Nanaimo, a group that would like to see the city stick to its Official Community Plan when considering projects of this size.
He suspects Krog and the people around him support it for their own “spurious reasons.” Krog ran against Carole James for the leadership of the NDP, and Ricker sees him as a power broker on the Island for the party whose opinion carries considerable weight. Perhaps, he says, Krog expects the project will create union jobs, and it may be that he sees it as something that will bring more labour-oriented work into his law practice. At least, he says, Krog should explain publicly why he supports the project.
James supports project
Krog, however, did not respond to requests for an interview. According to his campaign manager, who doesn’t want to be quoted, there’ve been no questions about the conference centre at any of the all-candidates meetings, so whoever wants to make it an election issue must be in a small minority.
Even if Krog does support the project, he is in good company. Carole James, calling from her campaign bus en route from Victoria to Nanaimo, says she’s spoken with the Nanaimo Chamber of Commerce about the centre and is fully in support. “I think it’s important. I think it’s an opportunity for the City of Nanaimo to keep their economic diversity going.”
And even the city’s mayor, Gary Korpan, a Liberal who lost in a 1996 run to be an MLA, says Krog has had little or nothing to do with the project. He has his own idea of why it hasn’t been an election issue: everyone agrees. “Every candidate except the Greens have endorsed it.”
The city council, which he says includes a political cross section from what he characterizes as old-school socialist to business members, voted eight to one for the project. He calls it the “first controversial project in 20 years where I’ve seen more than a five-four vote . . . They took a lot of heat for it too.”
When it was put to the people in the referendum in November, however, the vote came back 12,310 to 11,335, enough to move the project forward, but not a resounding victory for the "yes" side. It was, says Korpan, “Much closer than anyone expected.” In hindsight, he says, there are lots of reasons for people to cast a “cathartic” no. It’s a large, complex project that people have a hard time visualizing, he says. It’s hard to sell a project that’s about economic development, instead of a hospital or a school. “It’s also a tough thing to ask people to raise their own taxes.”
Ricker doesn’t see it that way. He believes people are opposed to the project for good reasons, and that opposition is growing. The referendum was held in a hurry, he says, and he thinks a majority may now be against the project.
Another member of the Friends of Plan Nanaimo, Ron Bolin, says, “A lot of people were misled . . . about what was happening.” The Friends have hired a pollster to find out if public opinion has shifted, but the results will not be available for at least a couple more weeks.
Liberal candidate ‘stands to gain’
After a year of fighting the proposal as part of the Friends group, Ricker can rattle off the many reasons to be opposed in detail. “It seems to be a good idea on the surface, but you scratch a bit and you scratch a bit and it turns out not to be a good idea at all.”
For starters, he says, there is no evidence Nanaimo needs a conference centre or that it will attract the visitors its proponents claim. Conference centres are dying across North America, he says. Even if it is a success, it will be empty much of the time, leaving an “institutional dead space” downtown. There are other areas outside downtown, such as the Assembly Wharf lands or the railway lands, where it would be better suited, he adds.
The plan involves tearing down a perfectly good arena that has more than the five-years of life the mayor gives it left in it, he says, as well as a foundry that at 100 years old is registered as a heritage building and is one of the town’s oldest. It could be turned into a public market in the Granville Island style, he says.
Then there’s the involvement of Triarc International Inc., an American company that has never done business in Canada before. The contract, which includes the city giving the company public land, including some on the waterfront and some that is part of a public park, was never put out for competing bids.
Finally, there’s the involvement of Ron Cantelon, the Liberal candidate for MLA in Nanaimo-Parksville. While chairing the Nanaimo council committee responsible for the project he quietly renewed his lapsed licence to sell real estate, says Ricker, and joined a company that specializes in selling condominiums.
A nine-page report by Ricker and other citizens on the alleged conflict of interest says at one point, “That Mr. Cantelon stands to gain from the many rezoning decisions he supported during 2004 and early 2005 seems obvious. Within the next couple of years hundreds of new condominium units will come onto the market. By joining a company specializing in condominium sales, he has positioned himself nicely to sell many of these units.”
As noted earlier, Cantelon did not respond to a request for an interview. Mayor Korpan says Cantelon had no business dealings with Triarc and therefore was not in a conflict of interest. “People will make all kinds of allegations.”
Never put out to bid
As for not putting the project out for competing bids, Korpan says over the previous three years the council had put earlier conference centre proposals out for tender but both had failed, much to the frustration of the mayor and council. So when Triarc was interested, he says, the council jumped.
“No other developer ever had a crack at this on the same terms as this developer,” says Ricker, adding more would likely have been interested if they’d known it would involve the handover of public land. “It’s capitalism at its worst . . . It’s totally ridiculous for the NDP to be supporting a strong-arming American developer.”
Indeed, both major parties have good reasons to oppose the project, he says. The business-minded Liberals should find the lack of competition in the bidding process offensive, he says, and one would expect the NDP to have more concerns about a P-3 that will see a private company benefit from public money and land. But in the upside-down world of Nanaimo politics that hasn’t been the case. “We’ve been fighting against both political parties,” says Ricker. “We have a conspiracy of silence among the two parties.”
That failure to find a party to represent a view that half the area residents hold is disillusioning, he says. “I don’t think you’d find a better example of why the polls are saying everyone is turned off both these parties.” In his case, he says, he has always been a concientious voter, but in this election he is unlikely to mark a ballot. Even after the polls close on May 17 it will be difficult to say what proportion of the 50 percent of people in Nanaimo who voted against the project will also stay home, but Ricker suspects many will.
The next opportunity for the people of Nanaimo to tell the politicians what they think about the new centre won’t be until November’s municipal election, when voters decide whether mayor Korpan and the rest of the council should keep their jobs. By then, however, it may be too late: the demolitions of the foundry and the arena are scheduled to start in June.
Andrew MacLeod is a staff writer for Monday magazine and a regular contributor to The Tyee, for which he wrote this article.