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Business leaders bash city council's approach to development (4/02)

By Michael Lynch Thunder Bay business leaders are blaming their municipal council for a lack of investor confidence in the city.

By Michael Lynch

Thunder Bay business leaders are blaming their municipal council for a lack of investor confidence in the city. They say the council is not focusing on economic development and is micro-managing things that could be better handled by the city's administration.

A voting bloc comprised of first-term city councillors and a few incumbents rejects the complaints by the business community.

"Members of city council have found deficiencies (at city hall) and have reluctantly taken on what should be an administrative role to ensure that the public's best interest is being served in the best possible way," says Orville Santa, city councillor.

Mary Long-Irwin, president of the Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce, says the chamber has been "concerned about the overall direction of city council over the past 16 months."

Long-Irwin says that during the 2000 municipal election campaign each of the current city councillors stated that their priorities were economic development, job growth and retention of youth in the city.

"What's happened to these priorities?" Long-Irwin asks.

The chamber's relationship with city council is "less than good, and the business community does not feel it is being heard," Long-Irwin says. The chamber represents more than 1,000 member companies.

Santa argues Long-Irwin's point.

"Before (the chamber) criticizes this council, they should come before us with a list of recommendations for the next 10 years, and a list of their accomplishments over the past 10 years," Santa says.

Roberta Simpson, director of the chamber of commerce and a commercial banker, says business people are frustrated with the council.

"They don't feel the city is there to support them in new ventures," Simpson says. It is city council's job "to make sure the infrastructure is in place to attract new investment."

Some members of Thunder Bay city council and the city’s administration are embroiled in a bitter dispute that has been ongoing since the current council took office.

Brian McRae, city manager, has been suspended from his job for reasons not yet made public. McRae has launched a lawsuit, and in a statement of claim asks for a total of $9 million from the city and six council members for wrongful dismissal. Five of the 12 councillors who make up the current council were incumbents and only one of the seven new councilors had previously served on a council.

It is the recommendations of two city advisory committees that have caused most of the friction with the business community.

The Portside advisory committee wants to abandon a waterfront development project in favour of parkland. Members of the committee have stated that funds for infrastructure at the waterfront would be better spent on projects such as old-age homes and water supply.

The city has spent $6.5 million to date to acquire the land for the Portside project and demolish a grain elevator, and for the subsequent cleanup of the site. The city's administration has recommended spending additional funds for an overpass to provide improved access to the site.

The Portside advisory committee terminated negotiations last year over lack of progress with a foreign development company know as the Waterfront Development Corp. The developer was planning to spend $160 million on the construction of a 180-room Sheraton Four Points Hotel overlooking the harbour, an amusement park, time-shared condominiums, shops, restaurants and water attractions.

Mayor Ken Boshcoff says economic development is his "personal top priority."

"Energy is being diverted (from economic development) to other council priorities," Boshcoff says. "I have to agree (with the business community) that micro-management is a real problem."

Jack Masters, a former two-term mayor and a former member of Parliament, says some of the individuals who are new on council do not understand the scope of their jobs, and some of those who were there before have lost their way.

"I don't know if they recognize their posture, the things they say and do, but it destroys the environment of progress and investment," Masters says. Masters is also a former president of the Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce.

"The antagonism by some councillors with the city's administration is bizarre," Masters says. "Thunder Bay's city administration is highly regarded across the province."