Finding dollars for development in the city (column)
London Community News
The daunting task ahead for city council’s investment and economic priorities committee is evident after last Saturday’s (June 9) opening round of public hearings on 40 proposals to jump start London’s economy.
With a deadline looming at the end of the month, the committee sat for seven hours and heard the details of only the first 12.
Joe Swan, who heads the committee, seems undismayed; if anything, after the first session, he was energized by the possibilities which included a downtown campus for Western University and by extension a new city hall; a medical research innovation centre; a 1,200-seat concert hall creatively grafted onto the backside of the Grand Theatre; a new history and children’s museum attached to the front of Museum London; four different small business incubating centres; and a private medical centre with attached twin 26-storey condo towers.
All but the medical centre seek financial assistance from the city, an aggregate total at a minimum of $83 million; the medical centre requires land the city owns and potentially controversial rezoning, which the committee has promised to fast-track.
But Councillor Swan’s challenge isn’t only money, although that is a significant question. He and his committee are also in the difficult position of being both the buyer and the seller of the next big thing to get the Forest City moving.
First they must sift through the 40 proposals and select one or two that offer the biggest bang for our bucks, and then they must convince the rest of council to support their decision.
Just how difficult this could be was evident Saturday after Western made its pitch turn the current city hall and adjacent Centennial Hall into an education centre. The sticker is the university wants city hall free of charge with the city paying to remove the asbestos and throwing in another $10 million to help refurbish the building. Total ask, about $35 million.
Said an exasperated Bud Polhill: “How do I explain this to my taxpayers?”
By contrast, when Kitchener was considering the need for economic development it first created a non-partisan committee drawn from business, academia and politics, which in turn consulted widely with the public before presenting a $110 million plan to council.
The focus of Councillor Swan’s committee is to find projects that will spur “transformational change in London’s economy” that will create jobs, and ideally do most of it with someone else’s money.
Martin Hayward, the city treasurer, says the committee’s hope is that for every dollar the city spends, their partners — either public or private — will contribute $6.
Great trick if it can be pulled off. Kitchener managed only $2.70.
Then there is our money. The committee itself is split on how to raise it. Mayor Joe Fontana and Councillor Swan favour a special tax levy. Paul Van Meerbergen, Denise Brown and Stephen Orser oppose that.
As Councillor Van Meerbergen put it Saturday: “One of the most powerful tools in job creation is keeping cash in people’s pockets and not sucking it into government. Last thing we want to do is bring in a brand new tax in the way of a levy.”
So before anything is bought, the first selling job apparently will be within the committee. After we hear the details of 28 more proposals, of course.
Philip McLeod, a longtime London journalist, can be reached at email@example.com.