Premier Greg Selinger denied claims that Strand Theatre restoration funding requests were fast-tracked when questions about the project arose at the Manitoba legislature on Tuesday.
Brandon West Progressive Conservative MLA Reg Helwer asked Selinger directly if he had personally "fast-tracked taxpayer funding for the Strand project in Brandon."
"That is not the case," Selinger responded.
That question, and several others, were raised after the Brandon Sun published an email sent by Brandon East MLA Drew Caldwell on April 25 to former Brandon city councillor Vince Barletta, now an Executive Council staff member, and Selinger’s special assistant Martin Gautron. In that email, Caldwell says he would "like (your) assistance doing this fast-track as the quicker we get a re-assessment, the better!"
It also states Caldwell had spoken to Selinger about the project and about getting funding from another provincial government source.
"I spoke with premier today about getting subscribed to the urban arts centre program and he was supportive," Caldwell wrote.
Reached after the budget vote, Selinger said Caldwell, "hasn’t asked anything of me."
"I asked him how it was going and he told me it was in the hands of the federal government, that they were pursuing federal funding right now." Selinger said. "There has been no formal application received by Manitoba. If Drew was trying to move it along, I haven’t seen his PIN (email). If he was trying to move it along, he was just getting started."
Selinger added: "From a long time ago, we’ve generally been supportive of the Strand, but we haven’t received a formal application. And nothing has been fast-tracked though my office or any other office that I’m aware of."
Progressive Conservative Leader Hugh McFadyen said concerns have been raised on how Caldwell’s relationship with Brandon Folk, Music and Art Society artistic director Shandra MacNeill (his partner) has affected consideration for the Strand project.
"At a time when taxes are going up and there are lots of worthy projects that need to be considered, the question we are hearing is whether this project is getting special consideration by virtue of the relationship between the proponent of the project and the MLA," McFadyen said.
"The MLA has clearly put into writing his support for a project that is directly beneficial to his wife. That obviously gives rise to questions and certainly we’d like to get answers."
In a Tuesday email to the Brandon Sun, Caldwell defended his partner’s involvement in the project.
"My wife is an unpaid volunteer working with a non-profit community organization to build our city, just as Norma Borotsik was an unpaid volunteer working with a non-profit community organization to build our city when she was chair of the Riverbank Discovery Centre," Caldwell wrote. "Both of these women, and all people who work to build our community, deserve our support, respect and encouragement."
Caldwell also explained his use of the term fast-track in the April 25 email.
"It’s the same sort of expression I have always used to spur every initiative in Brandon," Caldwell wrote. "I believe in building our city and I believe in building it now.
"I represent all groups without fear or favour to the very best of my abilities. Every day I lobby to build Brandon, whether it’s supporting the Keystone Centre, the Brandon Regional Health Centre, Brandon University, Assiniboine Community College, the Downtown Hub or any number of other initiatives. I always push to have Brandon issues moved forward as quickly as possible."
Selinger noted that Caldwell has explained to him how his partner is linked to the project.
"He told me today that … she’s an unpaid volunteer in all of this thing," Selinger said. "This accusation of a conflict of interest when someone is volunteering to work on a project, do you know what I’m saying? Conflict of interest usually suggests some material conflict of interest. Right?"
When asked if Caldwell was in conflict of interest, Selinger said, "I’m not saying that."
"I’m saying Drew has always been interested in this project because of the value of this project to the downtown," Selinger said.
McFadyen said both Caldwell and Selinger have "missed the point."
"The questions people are asking relate to whether or not there is a business plan to support this project, where this project fits in with the other priorities of the people of Brandon. How do you pay for this project when the government is running record deficits and increasing taxes on Manitobans. That’s really the issue."
Canadian Heritage rejected the Strand Theatre’s $1.8-million grant request on March 14, citing in its rejection letter they had issues with the financial viability of the Brandon Folk, Music and Art Society’s business plan, and its ability to manage the "capital project or the new facility with significantly increased fixed costs." While the Brandon Folk, Music and Art Society was invited to reapply, MacNeill told the Sun that it could take a month to get the second application completed. The group has called on Brandon Mayor Shari Decter Hirst to offer her expertise as a fundraiser to help them bridge the financing gap.
Selinger said he was not aware the project had been rejected federal funding in March, and stating during question period, "I understand this project is also before the federal government for consideration."
"These things follow a formal process," Selinger said later in a phone interview. "That process was respected. We have always been supportive of efforts to revitalize downtown Brandon, including Renaissance Brandon. They have supported the Strand proposal. In broad terms, we are supportive of these kinds of activities, but there has been no specific fast-tracking through my office. I’m sure Drew would say that as well.
"What I said in question period stands, simple as that," Selinger said.
Here is the exchange between Brandon West Progressive Conservative MLA Reg Helwer and Premier Greg Selinger in question period on Tuesday.
• Helwer: "Thank you Mr. Speaker. There are media reports that the premier has fast-tracked funding to support the Strand Theatre project in Brandon. Can the premier confirm this is the case today, that he has personally fast-tracked taxpayer funding for the Strand project in Brandon?
• Selinger: "Thanks Mr. Speaker. That is not the case."
• Helwer: "Well Mr. Speaker, I’ve been getting calls from constituents in Brandon and they are confused about the role of the NDP government and the member from Brandon East (Drew Caldwell) in this project. They know that a family member of the member for Brandon East is directly involved in the proposed project. Now there is media reports that the premier is fast-tracking this project to receive taxpayer money. My constituents are concerned about the process and transparency in this government and want to know if this project is being fast-tracked. Because is this a good project, or does it have good connections?"
• Selinger: "Mr. Speaker, I believe I just answered that question. There is no money being fast-tracked on this project."
• Helwer: "I know the citizens of Brandon support projects that are supported by solid, proper business plans. The people who live in Brandon and the Westman area donated millions of dollars to projects they are passionate about and which they believe. Can the premier tell us if he is comfortable with this business plan and project? Is there a business plan? Is it available to the public? Can we be assured that any approval for this project has been fair and transparent? Or has it just been fast-tracked because some people have special access to the premier?"
• Selinger: "The member for Brandon West has closely followed the text that was prepared for him in this question. In spite of my first two answers, he didn’t hear the first two answers. The project is not being fast-tracked. And I hope he will listen to those answers when considering further questions on this. Any project that comes forward is considered on its merits. I understand that this project is also before the federal government for consideration, Mr. Speaker."
» From gov.mb.ca/legislature
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition May 2, 2012