Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Dangerous Myths and Public Intimidation – Where Greater Sudbury is at with the “Kingsway Entertainment District”

There are a lot of dangerous myths about the so-called “Kingsway Entertainment District” that are being advanced by some members of Greater Sudbury's Council, accompanied by what can only be described as tactics meant to intimidate the public and silence people from speaking up - just at a time when citizens will finally have an opportunity to participate in a formal public consultation process regarding a new casino and events centre.  

I understand that most of us are now familiar with how the land owner, Dario Zulich, Lyle Lanley'd City Council and many others to buying into our very own monorail by promising to build an arena on his own dime (with just a guarantee from the City to back it - see comments from Dario Zulich: "The operations will pay for the financing and the city will have to guarantee it," Zulich said. "I believe I have a plan that would have a net zero cost to the city." from "Who will pay for the arena?" the Sudbury Star, March 8, 2017), and how the True North Strong centre would come complete with a casino, hotel, soccer bubble, motorsports track, drive-in theatre and who knows what else (sorry, I haven't watched the video in a little while now).  And of course, the clincher: As much free parking as anyone could ever want!  (for more on this, see Sudbury dot com President, Michael Atkins' excellent piece, “Atkins: Your taxes and how not to manage risk," Sudbury dot com, December 1, 2017)

That was bad enough, but Zulich is a land developer, and developers do what developers must to make money.  And let's face it, the Jack Nicholas industrial park where all of these uses are going to go likely wasn't going to be moving forwards towards finding industrial tenants any time soon.  In the past, Zulich made a bet on industrial growth in the community – against the odds, of course, because no one has been predicting much in the way of growth here for the past decade or so, and the latest numbers will see our population stabilized until 2031 at least.  He made that bet, and he lost – and was left with an empty industrial park.  So of course, repurposing those lands became job one.

So Zulich's pitch wasn't all that surprising, perhaps.  Underhanded and misleading, definitely - but not surprising.

But now we have examples of at least a couple of municipal councillors making public statements in defiance of the facts – or at least in defiance of information available to the public.  

No Such Thing as a "Kingsway Entertainment District"

First, though, let's dispel this thing: Despite the term having been used repeatedly by members of Council, municipal staff, members of the public and the media, there is no such thing as the “Kingsway Entertainment District”.  What we have is an industrial park that is being re-purposed, piece by piece, into something else which, so far, includes just proposals for a public events centre facility and a casino.  There may be something legitimate about the inclusion of a hotel.  Oh – and parking lots – how could I forget the parking lots?  But that's it.  Two uses which are nothing more than proposals at this time, each proceeding along through separate land use applications and processes.  And a parking lot is proceeding through yet another application and process.  None of these uses have ever been approved by anybody at this time.

I myself have used the term "Kingsway Entertainment District", but in a rather different context (see: “An Open Letter to Greater Sudbury Council Regarding a Kingsway Entertainment District," Sudbury Steve May, July 11 2017, and, "Mapping the Way Forward for a Kingsway Entertainment District," Sudbury Steve May, June 30, 2017).  I wrote about the need for comprehensive planning that lays out a vision for the development of the District, and includes policy to ensure development is completed as contemplated.  In short, a Secondary Plan.  But that is a far cry from whatever the thing that Councillors are calling the "Kingsway Entertainment District" is.  It's not actually really a thing at all.

And here's where the disinformation campaign from your municipal councillors seems to start.  

If We Build It, They Will Come

Recently, Councillor Robert Kirwan posted in his moderated Valley East Facebook group, to inform his readers as to just what's going on.  Here is the Councillor's definition of the "Kingsway Entertainment District": “The Kingsway Entertainment District is a 170 acre development that is starting out with the critical mass that will contain an arena / event centre, plus a casino plus a hotel all integrated into one facility.” He describes this almost as if it were a real thing – and not just several disconnected land use planning applications in front of planning committee that haven't been approved by anyone.  How someone can state that this development “will” happen when it lacks necessary land use approvals is extremely presumptuous and misleading.

And if that wasn't enough, here's the real fast one he's trying to pull off, stating that these developments are “going to lead to many other developments on the site that will generate more commercial taxation and assessment growth that will cover the investment of the city's.”  Keep in mind, the investment  he's referring to is the approximately $100 million that the City has committed taxpayers to spending on a new events centre.  What is simply astounding, though, is to pass off to the public the idea that there are other developments out there, waiting in the wings somewhere, that are going to happen IF ONLY the events centre and casino get put in place first.  And that those new developments will leave the City better off, fiscally speaking, than we are now – to the tune of $100 million.  All at a time when growth isn't anticipated, and with the city encumbered by a new provincial casino that will be picking the pockets of Sudburians to the tune of maybe as much as $100 to $150 million annually (as reported by Casino Free Sudbury). 

Now you know what, I'd like to see that guarantee.  I'd really like to believe that the presence of the casino and events centre will lead to tax growth to cover the City's $100 million capital expense for a new events centre.  I am willing to concede that it could very well be that given his privileged position on Council, that behind closed doors Robert Kirwan has seen a lot more information about some of these development proposals than you or I have.  Perhaps he's seen options agreements to purchase Zulich's lands for who knows what kind of entertainment uses - agreements just waiting to be exercised once Zulich's 2010 industrial subdivision is finally registered and lots can be sold.  

But I find a couple of things very interesting.  During the June 27th Council meeting, where the Kingsway site was chosen to host the City's new events centre, our Mayor Brian Bigger tried to include a commitment in the motion that the developer try to obtain to the City's satisfaction that all of the other uses he had been talking up for the True North Strong site were on-board first.  But Council didn't want to hold Mr. Zulich to actually coming through on the promises he had been making to the public for months in advance of the vote.  Mayor Bigger's motion was voted down.

And of course, with official plan and zoning amendments moving forward now for just two uses, why not address the Kingsway Entertainment District comprehensively, through a minimum number of development applications, as I had recommended back in June, 2017? 

All of this begs the question, are there really other users just waiting in the wings, who are going to come to the City's rescue with $100 million in new tax revenue to offset our costs for building a new events centre?

I'm hoping someone from the City can tell me something different than the fantasy story that Robert Kirwan is telling his echo chamber Valley East Facebook group.  I'm sincerely concerned that the City's actual financial plan to not be out $100 million in capital costs to build a new facility that is going to run an operating deficit expected to be $800,000 a year is placing a bet on the notion that “if we build it, they will come”.  That might have worked out in Iowa for W.P. Kinsella – but it hardly forms the basis of a solid financial plan in Greater Sudbury, in real life.

Where Is the Plan? Because I Can't Find It

So about a plan – just where is it?  Apparently, Councillor Kirwan has that one covered too.  He writes, “what we have done is structure a master plan that will create two destination centres – one on the Kingsway and one in the downtown.” 

That's interesting.  I'd very much like to see this plan.  It sounds like the sort of thing that I, as an engaged member of the public, might have already provided some input into via a municipal public process of some sort.  Goodness knows I've haven't been reluctant to voice my opinion on much – especially when it comes to the healthy and sustainable development of my community.  And yet, I don't recall ever having had the opportunity to say about creating these “two” destination centres – especially the Kingsway Entertainment District.

I do recall participating in the very public and very comprehensive processes that culminated in the  City's Downtown Master Plan (see: "Next steps taken in Downtown Master Plan," Sudbury dot com, April 19, 2012) and our economic development strategy, “From the Ground Up” (see: "From the Ground Up - gs2025 : Consultation for Greater Sudbury’s Economic Development," the City of Greater Sudbury, December 18, 2014).  Those public input processes were just fantastic.  And those processes led to actual plans in that members of the public can read them and decision-makers can refer to them with confidence that the decisions they are making are in keeping with the expressed will of the public where those decisions are in keeping with plans.  Kind of like how it's supposed to work: get the public's input first, craft a plan on the basis of what the public wants, and make decisions in keeping with the plan.

But there is no plan for the Kingsway Entertainment District, as much as Councillor Kirwan wants to mislead his readers into believing that there is one.  What Kirwan describes as a “plan” for two destination centres actually sounds a lot like the “plan” unveiled by Dario Zulich at the Fromagerie back before the events centre vote took place – the one where Zulich championed the development of some new facilities in the downtown core, while his Sudbury Wolves would move out to the Kingsway and play in a new events centre there (see: "True North Strong wants to convert downtown arena into arts centre," CBC, June 22, 2017).  But again, Dario Zulich is a developer – and developers are going to do what developers do.  He's certainly not an elected official or a member of municipal staff – you know, the kinds of people who initiate actual master plans for development in the City.  

If the “master plan” Robert Kirwan is referring to is Zulich's plan, it sort of kind of makes one wonder just where the Councillor is coming from by promoting this fiction.  Especially given the fact that the City has actual plans, like the official plan, the Downtown Master Plan and the economic development plan that all state that an arena/events centre should be located in the downtown core. 

So just who's plan is Councillor Kirwan referring to?  And where can I get my hands on a copy of it?

Keep Quiet, It's a Done Deal

What's becoming pretty clear is that Councillor Kirwan wants his constituents to believe a lot of things which lack a basis in fact or evidence.  Take what he's recently written about the casino as another example. Put aside his expression of personal animosity towards Laurentian Univeristy Professor of Economics, Dr. David Robinson – someone who has actually been key in bringing new economic development and jobs to our City through the downtown School of Architecture initiative.  And put aside that the member of Council is ascribing ulterior motivations to Dr. Robinson, related to the events centre, something that Robinson doesn't even mention in his January 2, 2018 letter to the Editor of the Sudbury Star (see: "Letter: Casino will not help local economy," Sudbury Star, posted online January 1, 2018; published in print, January 2, 2018).  Just read why Councillor Kirwan wants others to believe that opposing the casino is a fruitless waste of time.  Kirwan writes, “the reality is that the casino will be built in Sudbury, because there is already land that is zoned for such a facility and Gateway has an agreement with the OLG to make sure that Sudbury has a new casino.”

This one statement actually defies logic on a couple of points.  First off, what does OLG's agreement with Gateway have to do with our City determining whether or not we want to continue to play willing host to a casino – especially if the casino only wants to locate in an area which many are calling very inappropriate?  To use a contract between a provincial agency and a private sector business as a reason for the municipality to collectively shrug its' shoulders and ask “what can we do but approve the thing?” is just so simply in defiance of the reality of the range of actions our Council could take, if it wanted to, as to be little more than the sort of nonsense statement that a child with his hand caught in the cookie jar might make as his rationale for why you should let him now eat the cookie he was trying to steal.

Look, I get that the City has had several Council motions endorsing a full casino.  But here are two observations: those motions were made by a previous Council – our current Council has actually never voted in public on whether the City should host a casino.  And second, at least one of those motions – the most recent, identified what the City wanted to get out of a new casino in terms of municipal benefit, and that it specifically identified a new convention centre or events centre (see Minutes of Greater Sudbury Council meeting held on February 26, 2013).  But instead of now leveraging new public facilities from the casino operator, Gateway, which would actually be in keeping with what a previous Council approved, this Council has done a complete 180 by accepting Gateway's proposal to build on the Kingsway – because of the proximity to the City's new publicly-funded events centre.  

The price of our support for a casino was getting a public facility out of the deal.  Now the price of Gateway building a new casino on the Kingsway seems to be that we foot the bill for a $100 million public events centre.  How did that happen?

The other part of the Councillor's statement that is completely misleading is that the casino is going to come to Sudbury regardless because lands are already zoned here.  That may be the case, but those lands are located where Sudbury Downs presently resides, and as we've heard from Gateway, that's not a location that they're entertaining at present.  So, Gateway needs to have lands rezoned (and that can only happen subject to an Official Plan amendment) if it's going to pursue a casino in the city, as per its public statements.  The point here is that Council can't just abdicate its responsibility to assess whether the Kingsway lands are appropriate or not based on the notion that other lands that Gateway doesn't want to use might already be zoned for a full casino.  But that seems to be Councillor Kirwan's point, which he makes in such a way so as to suggest to his readers that they, too, should keep silent and sit on their hands when it comes to participating in the upcoming public processes regarding the casino – because “the reality is that the casino will be built in Sudbury”.  

What is an Appropriate Location for a Casino in Greater Sudbury?

I personally don't know what kind of process the City went through with Gateway regarding finding an appropriate location for a new casino.  I recall participating in a public meeting back in 2012 that looked at four different locations for a casino, and solicited public feedback on those locations.  Two locations were in the downtown, and one was in the South End at the Four Corners.  The other was on the Kingsway – but at Barrydowne and the Kingsway, not Levesque Street and the Kingsway, the location of the True North Strong proposal.  I certainly don't recall reading or hearing about any technical studies that the City or Gateway have undertaken that might identify the best location or potential locations for a new casino.

It would be interesting to know just how closely our City or Economic Development Corporation worked with Gateway in the lead-up to Gateway selecting the True North Strong site.  And yes, Gateway was the one to select that site – it sure wasn't the City's decision.  The City hasn't yet made any decision on the location of a casino for Gateway at all, despite having entered into a cost-sharing agreement with Gateway and landower Zulich to develop an integrated site plan and design concept for an events centre and casino.  Yes, you heard that right: in absence of any decision by Council regarding the location of the casino, public money has been spent by the City to justify's Gateway's decision to locate on lands owned by a private developer, Dario Zulich.

Did the City even look at any alternative locations for the casino before voting to give Cumulus Architects, Gateway's preferred design firm, about $130,000 in the form of a sole-sourced contract to develop the so-called “Integrated Site Plan”? (see: "Sudbury to enter into single-source agreement with outside architecture firm for new arena site design," CBC News, August 22, 2017)  If the City did look for other locations within the municipal jurisdiction to locate the casino, the process certainly was not clear – and nor did it involve the public.  After that one public meeting back in 2012, the City shut down any opportunity for the public to be involved in selecting a site for the casino – at least up until now, as land use applications have finally been filed with the City.  

And given that the public finally gets a chance to have a say on the location of the casino, it's really too bad we have at least one municipal official telling his constituents that they shouldn't bother opposing the casino now, because it's coming whether people like Dr. David Robinson want it or not.

Whose Development Proposal Is This Anyway?

And then there is a bizarre statement from the Councillor that land use applications for the Kingsway Entertainment District were submitted by “two” proponents.  It's factually incorrect, although I might be willing to give the Councillor the benefit of the doubt on this one, given the misinformation about the land use applicants that has been coming out of the City's website, which at one time actually identified the City as an applicant for the land use applications (the City has since updated its website, but these two stories from local media initially mis-reported that the City was an applicant, based on the City's original January 8 press release. See: "Have your say on the Kingsway arena and casino," the Sudbury Star, January 8, 2018).  For the record, there is only one applicant for all 4 of the land use applications currently in front of Planning Committee related to development on the Kingsway site (the four are: a zoning amendment for the events centre; an official plan and zoning amendment for the casino; and a zoning amendment for the parking lot), and that single proponent is a numbered company owned by Dario Zulich. 

At least that's what the copies of the applications that I have in my possession say.

The City's website, despite the recent update to remove the reference to the City being an applicant for the events centre rezoning, continues to identify Gateway Casinos as an applicant.

That might not seem like much, but by intimating that there are other partners involved in the submission of applications, the Council member here is telling the public to either believe that Gateway Casinos is an applicant, or that the City itself is the other applicant, as per information reported in the media and formerly posted on the City's website.  Either way, it goes to help justify the notion that there is nothing that can be done on the part of the public to stop a casino from coming.  For Gateway to be an applicant, they must already own the land (they don't – and they are not an applicant).  For the City to be an applicant, there must be some sort of strategic partnership in place between the developer and the City, and there...Oh wait!

There is a strategic partnership – it's the Cost-sharing agreement where the City, Zulich and Gateway all chipped in for one-third of the total costs for the Integrated Site Plan.  And there must be more going on behind closed doors, too, because we know that Dillon Consulting was retained by the City of Greater Sudbury to prepare a traffic impact study for the events centre, casino and hotel uses on the Kingsway (note that traffic impacts for any of the other “entertainment” uses like the motorsports park, soccer bubble, etc., have not been assessed).  Dillon also prepared the massive Planning Justification Report for the applications for casino – although it is not clear from that report just who was paying their retainer.  

Dillon was also retained by the City and apparently by the private developer/applicant for rezoning, Dario Zulich, for the 4-page planning justification letter submitted in support of the rezoning of Zulich's property for an events centre.  That's very interesting, given that the City has entered into an agreement to purchase some of Zulich's property for just $10 for the events centre – subject to the City first rezoning the lands to permit an arena.  

Now, having entered into an agreement with a private land owner for the opportunity to purchase property for something significantly below market value for the purpose of a building a new public facility might lead a skeptical person to conclude that any process the City now undertakes to rezone the lands might be a bit of a sham.  I'm not willing to go there, but I do understand that others might – especially when at least some of the municipal Councillors who will be voting on the application are telling constituents that there is little point to opposing an events centre or casino in this location.

Campaign to Silence Opposition

Personally, I don't buy it.  I still have faith that the majority of Council members will do the right thing, once all of the reports are in and members of the public have been heard from.  Despite what appears to be a campaign to silence Kingsway event centre and casino opponents from even showing up at public meetings to voice their concerns, I continue to believe that Council will see that the applications that are now before Planning Committee are not in keeping with the City's official plan or provincial policy, and that the uses proposed in the location that they've been proposed isn't in the public's interest.  I state this knowing that the City is already at least one hundred grand of taxpayer's money into this Kingsway Entertainment District thing – but I'll continue to  have faith in the system, and to voice my concerns.  Even if that leads to the kind of public tar-and-feathering that others like Dr. David Robinson and Tom Fortin have had to endure from elected members of our Council.

Councillor Lynne Reynolds recently got involved in the campaign to silence critics with an Op-Ed to the Sudbury Star, in which she described those as opposing the casino as being, “naysayers" "who would want to hold back prosperity, progress and job creation," and the "biggest and most dangerous threat to our community" (see: "Column: Casino is not a threat," the Sudbury Star, January 2, 2018).  Yes, I suppose that's a fair assessment of what casino opponents want to accomplish, if you look at it from a certain point of view - one that is far from in keeping with reality.

Earlier, Councillor Kirwan stated that if the anti-Kingsway forces got their way, innocent downtown merchants may suffer “collateral damage”.  He's even suggested that the City may end up losing the Sudbury Wolves should the Kingsway events centre be delayed.

Now, these may seem like harmless predictions – but keep in mind, these statements are coming from an elected member of our Council – someone who is in a unique position to punish those innocent downtown merchants if they can't reign their colleagues in.  And we may have already seen it.  Councillor Kirwan and Councillor Reynolds recently voted to defund the Downtown Community Improvement Plan -  a program that downtown property owners have accessed to help enhance their businesses for the economic good of our City and to help the City meet other objectives as per the Official Plan.  Claiming that the Downtown already had too much, funding was axed for the next fiscal year in the City's recent budget vote (see, "But several councillors, including Lynne Reynolds (Ward 11) and Robert Kirwan (Ward 5), said they would not support the business case for the downtown CIP.", from "Sudbury councillors sorting through 2018 budget," the Sudbury Star, December 6, 2017)

With all of this going on, who in their right minds would really want to stand up and tell our Council how they feel about a casino or events centre on the Kingsway, if they opposed it?  I mean, what local business owner is going to feel that they can have their say knowing the next day that they risk being singled-out on Facebook, potentially by an elected member of Council, in the way that Dr. David Robinson and Tom Fortin have been identified?  With this campaign of intimidation going on out of our City Hall, I expect that a lot of people who might otherwise be stepping up to express concerns will feel that it's in their best interests to remain silent.

Where is the Integrity?

And really, there's not much that we can do about it.  In 2015, Council  had the opportunity to vote for having an integrity commissioner to whom matters related to the behaviour and ethics of individual members of Council could be investigated and reported on.  But this Council didn't support that proposal, and the public has been left with little recourse.  Later this month, Council will be revisiting its earlier decision not to have an integrity commissioner (see the somewhat misleadingly headlined, "Sudbury doesn't need integrity commissioner: report," the Sudbury Star, January 17, 2018).  Let's see what they decide now.

Because really, the public has little opportunity to challenge the City related to decisions that are being made that affect our community without first having had the benefit of public input.  The site selection process for the events centre, the decision to host a full casino, even this month's earlier decisions regarding the Downtown large development projects – none of these decisions of Council were ever preceded by a formal public consultation process.  And now with the Mayor flying to Finland to look at ferrochrome processing, it looks like Greater Sudbury will be giving the nod that it's a willing host to a new ferrochrome facility, again without the benefit of public consultation (see: "Sudbury officials head to Finland to learn more about 'world class' ferrochrome smelter," CBC News, January 12, 2018).  Clearly, this is an endemic problem in our City – but there's little that we can do about this between elections.

But really, in a City where elected officials make public statements in defiance of facts and at odds with public plans, use electronic town halls as echo chambers for these statements, and whom engage in character assassination as part of a campaign to silence the public and to prevent the public from participating in statutory public processes, it's really no surprise that the City fails to take public consultation and engagement seriously.  

Without legitimate public consultation and engagement built into decision-making processes, the integrity of the processes will always be questioned.  We can do better than this.

Nevertheless, I will continue to participate in public processes when and where I can.  I hope others will as well, but I understand that we all have other interests outside of these municipal issues which we have to consider.  Putting ourselves at risk in order to stand up and have our say is one thing; but putting our business or family at risk – that can be quite another entirely.  And that's where things are at now, in my view.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada)

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