“Central to the success of the organization is its autonomy from the day-to-day processes of city hall and the necessary transparency of such public process.”
<*R><BI>— Ross McGowan, president and CEO of Winnipeg’s
CentreVenture Development Corporation
Ross McGowan penned these words for the Northumberland News in Ontario’s Durham Region late last year, just as the Town of Cobourg embarked on a new downtown revitalization project that was to be modelled on Winnipeg’s successful CentreVenture.
Communities like Cobourg have good reason to emulate the CentreVenture model — it has a proven track record of sustainable business growth and development in Winnipeg’s downtown.
As McGowan wrote in his letter, CentreVenture began in 1999 with $10 million in seed money and a number of surplus downtown city properties in hand. With sound management, the corporation has generated significant fee revenue — fee and interest on investments cover 80 per cent of the operating costs of the organization.
And according to McGowan’s statistics, CentreVenture “has been directly involved in over $500 million of downtown development, transforming properties from taxes of $380,000 to nearly $3.8 million.”
This is worth noting because the City of Brandon has begun an extensive review of our own downtown corporation, Renaissance Brandon.
There is a strong need for a rethinking of exactly what Renaissance Brandon is — not just a readjustment of its downtown mandate, but a thorough assessment of its board structure as well. As McGowan pointed out, CentreVenture’s success has depended on its autonomy from political interference and influence.
The CentreVenture board chooses its own members, with the Winnipeg mayor merely a non-voting figurehead for the corporation.
Unfortunately, since its inception following the 2007 Downtown Summit that recommended the need for such a downtown corporation to exist, Renaissance Brandon has never been truly at arm’s length from the City of Brandon.
There are spaces reserved for Brandon’s mayor and two councillors on the Renaissance Brandon board as part of its current structure, along with seven “citizens-at-large.” This board design has been problematic, based on the experience of two Brandon mayors — former mayor Dave Burgess and current Mayor Shari Decter Hirst.
As we have noted on this page in the past, former board president Lee Bass quit Renaissance Brandon in protest after accusing city officials of political interference.
“This is, in fact, basically controlled by the city,” Bass said. “It is certainly not arm’s length from the city, and to me that was inappropriate.”
Animosity between board members grew after then-mayor Burgess attempted to scuttle the board’s decision to commit $474,000 to the restoration of the Strand Theatre, in a motion that ultimately failed.
And then there’s the conflict of interest imbroglio that hounded Decter Hirst after she participated in meetings of the Renaissance Brandon board of directors involving discussions about the Strand project — she owns property in the same city block.
These situations prove to us that the direct links between Renaissance Brandon and the City of Brandon must be severed, for the good of the corporation and our downtown. If this doesn’t happen, the city’s attempt to improve the corporation’s operations must be considered a dismal failure from the outset.
But we are hopeful this will not be the case, and that our councillors will see the wisdom of adopting a true at-arm’s-length model like that of CentreVenture. The Winnipeg corporation is still accountable for its actions. CentreVenture must submit to an annual audit by the City of Winnipeg, and the corporation must also seek approval from city council for its business plans.
It just lacks the political drama that has marred the Renaissance Brandon track record.
As an aside, it may also be worth reconsidering the annual funding allotment council provides to Renaissance Brandon, in favour of a substantial, one-time grant — seed money — to help fund the corporation’s operations into the future.
Further to this, we also suggest Renaissance Brandon would also benefit from the having access to surplus city-owned downtown properties. Handing over city real estate to the Manitoba government for affordable housing projects like the ones announced earlier this week is commendable. But if council wants to enhance its tax base downtown, it needs to give Renaissance Brandon the tools to do so.
If our mayor and council truly want to leave a lasting legacy in this city, fix Renaissance Brandon.
And then keep your paws off of it.