Developers have faces. We think of face-less corporations headquartered elsewhere being behind insensitive development, but even they have real people, somewhere, responsible for their decisions. Sometimes the faces are more readily recognizeable. This is a story about how one influential Winnipeg family, with an honourable business history and deserved reputation as civic philanthropists, seems to have begun to distort the city’s planning process for its own business interests.
Since 1926, the Richardsons have been the quintessential Winnipeggers, the city’s acknowledged social, arts and business leaders. The firm of James Richardson and Sons, founded in 1912 by James Richardson, an Irish-born Kingston, Ontario grain merchant, transported the first western Canadian wheat to Europe in 1883 in the first company-owned grain ship, and by 1923 had become the largest grain firm in the British Commonwealth.
James’s sons George and Henry Richardson built and diversified the company from Kingston. In 1923 head office was established in Winnipeg by the third generation of Richardsons, led by George’s son James Armstrong Richardson, Sr., who founded Western Canada Airways in 1926. The Richardson family probably could be counted now as a transnational corporation, with Richardson offices in Canada, the U.S.A, Cayman Islands, London, Frankfurt and Hong Kong, and interests in grain, grain elevators, feeds and fertilizers, ships and shipping, financial services, pipeline construction, oil and gas and real estate. They are one of Canada’s wealthiest families.
In what may now be an old fashioned spirit of noblesse oblige, the third generation of Richardsons especially demonstrated an appreciation for the community in which they were able to so brilliantly expand their success. True to the tenor of the times, while the men made the money, the women dispensed the largesse. The Muriel Richardson Auditorium at the Winnipeg Art Gallery was named for James A. Sr.’s wife and is on a large list of benevolences for which the Richardsons have been responsible. A social conscience was demonstrated with a founding grant of $1 million for The Winnipeg Foundation, with an arts and family service support mandate. Much of the family’s downtown home-site was donated to the city as a riverbank park. The Western Canada Aviation museum owes much of its quality to Richardson assistance.
Richardson charity in Winnipeg continued in the fourth generation in arts and social affairs. Muriel’s daughter Kathleen took up the matriarchal role of benefactress. The distaff charities of the Richardson fourth generation were paralleled in public service. James Armstrong Richardson, Jr., with a war record as a bomber pilot and the subsequent chairmanship of James Richardson and Sons Ltd. behind him, moved in the late 60′s into politics as the neophyte federal MP for Winnipeg South. Within three months he was appointed to Pierre Trudeau’s cabinet. Sadly, it is also with this same James A. Richardson that a turn in Richardson fortunes and civic style may have begun.
In June of 1990, he was associated with accusations of insider trading by a Richardson firm. A Richardson company, The Grandsons Energy Corporation, made a four-fold profit of $230,000 trading in shares of a company that went bankrupt. No formal charges resulted from the investigation by the Manitoba and Ontario securities commissions, but Richardson’s trading privileges were suspended for three years, and he was ordered to pay a $550,000 settlement to halt the investigation. Richardson also made a “donation” of $100,000 each to the finance departments of Ontario and Manitoba, and $50,000 to the security commissions to defray investigation costs. James A. Richardson, Jr. seems to have faded then from public prominence.
It was shortly thereafter that Richardson land on the banks of the Assiniboine River in Winnipeg’s western suburb of Charleswood was suddenly slated for “residential development.” The land contained the last remnant of a riverbottom forest over a thousand years old, that had been admired and enjoyed by the public and by naturalists for years. Prairie river bottom forest is a more endangered habitat even than tallgrass prairie. Environmentalists moved to block the development. The Richardsons moved quicker. Bulldozers destroyed the centre of the forest. Enough damage was done in a single day to permanently cripple the fragile ecosystem. Provincial laws require an environmental licence before such an action. The environmentalists could have charged the Richardson’s with that contravention, but the damage had already been done. The heart of the forest had been ripped out, and also the heart of any environmentalist’s reasons for taking court action. The Province of Manitoba laid no charges.
An ecologically unsustainable strip of the ancient forest was left. The Richardson’s donated that to the city for a tax receipt many times the assessed value of the land. Three species of butterfly had been destroyed along with their unique and ancient habitat. Those who knew the family personally said at the time that grandmother Muriel would be turning in her grave. This sad event seems to have signalled “payback time” for the once generous Richardson family, and may have marked the dynastic reins being taken up by the fifth generation, led by Hartley T. Richardson.
The second incident in which the Richardson name was linked to extraordinary dealings with the city over land again involved riverbank property. It was along the La Salle River near where Louis Riel stopped MacDonald’s surveyors and set into motion the events which led to the entry of Manitoba into Canada as a province and not a territory.
In September of 1992, Genstar Development Company Central Ltd., who had purchased the Trappist Monastery property along the La Salle in St. Norbert, authorized Sky Investments Ltd. to proceed with environmental assessment of the property. They wished to clear it for a golf course. In October, McGowan Design Group on behalf of Sky Investments wrote to Manitoba Environment and sent a preliminary submission for “Forest Point Golf and Country Club,” with construction to begin in January of 1993.
Also in October, the Coalition To Save The Elms, led by Christine Singh, requested an evaluation of the property under the Environmental Stewardship section of Plan Winnipeg. A preliminary assessment of the land noted that its size, diversity, degree of isolation, general habitat quality, the patches of rare plant species and the degree of disturbance all rated high for preservation. The City Forester found the forest resources of high value. The Coalition drew together a group to oppose the golf course project and requested provincial Clean Environment Commission hearings and a Federal environmental assessment.
In November, McGowan, on behalf of Sky, sent an application to Manitoba Environment for permission to proceed on the golf course proposal. In January, the Coalition heard that one of the partners in Sky Investments was an employee of the planning department of the City of Winnipeg, and so notified the City on a Friday night. By Monday, Sky Investments had vanished, and the McGowan application to Manitoba Environment was withdrawn.
In early spring of 1993, City Councillor John Angus called a community meeting in St. Norbert to discuss the future of the riverbank lands, still owned by Genstar, assuring the meeting that the golf course proposal was dead, the slate was clean, and any new proposals would be done with public input. That summer, the McGowan group circulated a poll in St. Norbert asking the residents if they preferred a golf course or a subdivision development. Wanting greenspace, 90% of those questioned opted for a golf course. The poll did not offer the third possibility – that the land be preserved as forest under Plan Winnipeg’s stewardship provisions. In the fall, armed with a 90% public “preference” for a golf course, McGowan and Genstar started action again “on behalf of a consortium of businessmen” who would buy the land from Genstar, pursuant to a licence for development being issued by Manitoba Environment. The application this time was made by Genstar, shielding the identity of those in “the consortium.” The Coalition To Save The Elms repeated and strengthened its opposition.
In November and December, Councillor John Angus, sitting on the Finance and Administration committee which does the city’s land acquisitions “in camera,” assumed the role of champion of the environment and proposed that the City buy the land for preservation. But buried in the fine print of the proposal was a clause that required that a permit from Manitoba Environment to develop a golf course on the land be a prerequisite to the purchase being made. Another clause permitted Genstar to buy the land back if the city did proceed to develop a golf course instead of a park. City Council passed the flawed proposal in the rush of work just before Christmas break.
The Coalition to Save The Elms took legal proceedings to have the clause which they thought guaranteed the failure of the City’s purchase bid removed because it was “a self-limitation on itself by the City, contrary to the purpose and intent of the purchasing agreement.” Ironically, John Angus as council speaker had to introduce the amendments that removed from the proposal the poisoned pill that would have embedded prior approval to develop a golf course.
Genstar would never release the names of the consortium that would have owned the “Forest Point” golf club, club house, banquet hall, etc. When questioned, they said only that “they are too important – we can’t reveal their names.” Several sources later told our informants that the Richardsons were prominent among them. The Richardsons have a country home and farm south of Winnipeg, just a few minutes drive from the proposed golf course. Hartley Richardson’s helicopter was frequently observed during this time hovering over the land in question.
The third extraordinary incident was the hijacking of proposals for a new major sports facility, by a group in which Hartley Richardson is publicly prominent. A vigorous public debate arose in 1994 over a new arena to house the Winnipeg Jets, an NHL franchise team teetering for years on the brink of moving out of Winnipeg. Several developers offered arena and multi-plex proposals. Several public interest groups – Cho!ces, Thin Ice and several Residents’ Associations – joined to oppose the commitment of public resources to a new arena. Greening The Forks, The Coalition to Save the Elms and the Sierra Club opposed an arena at the Forks. But the debate over whether an arena should be built, its size, cost, the degree of public involvement, whether single or multiple use facilities should be built, who should build it, or whether anything should be built at all in this era of public restraint, was appropriated gradually by a single group – The Manitoba Entertainment Complex.
M.E.C. was established by a “group of 40″ downtown businessmen. Prominent among them was Hartley Richardson. Most had also supported Susan Thompson’s mayoralty campaign. With an announced public spirited intent to “save the Jets,” M.E.C. tied a single-purpose arena proposal to a proposal to buy, by May 1, 1995, and therefore save, the Jets N.H.L. franchise – mobilizing and exploiting public panic over “losing the Jets.” City councillors had been under fierce pressure to approve building a new arena to make the Jets more profitable. The Province and the City of Winnipeg 1/3 of the Jets stock, and the city and the province are jointly responsible for Jets losses until January, 1977 – possibly $35 or $40 million, a “blank cheque” deal which both levels of government were anxious to get out of (See City Magazine, Vol. 15, No. 4, Fall, 1995).
M.E.C. also applied incredible private pressure within the Winnipeg business community for downtown businesses to “get on side” with them by pre-buying luxury boxes and premium seats so as to create at least the necessary appearance of sufficient financial backing for the project which the city required of them. With a self-imposed panic deadline for gaining financial backing, with the Liberal federal government promising money to be delivered through Lloyd Axworthy’s civic infrastructure program, with the majority of city councillors onside and with $10 million promised from the Province of Manitoba, M.E.C. gradually forced the other proposals that might have saved the Jets out of effective contention.
M.E.C. also headed off any consideration of any other site but land adjacent to Richardson properties by means of small print in the set of guidelines that council imposed on them for preparing a business plan. The Winnipeg Free Press pointed out in September, 1994 that the new arena would immensely improve the profitability of any adjacent property through the increased traffic of 1.5 million people annually. As time wore on it gradually became “impossible within the available time lines” for M.E.C. to switch their Jets-saving proposal to any site other than the publicly-owned land at The Forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers which is adjacent to Richardson hotel and office properties, and which M.E.C. was willing to accept as a free gift from the city, not asking for any grants of money.
M.E.C. eventually claimed that the council’s guidelines tied them to that specific site, even though there had been no public discussion on site choice, and an arena there would incur millions of dollars more in public costs for new infrastructure of roads and services than would have been incurred at another, and more appropriate, site near the already established, city owned Winnipeg Convention Centre. There, infrastructure is already in place and the land is already privately owned – but not by the Richardsons!
Despite continuing evidence advanced by Thin Ice that a majority of the public does not want a new arena, does not want it to absorb public resources and does not want it at The Forks, formal hearings by the city were curtailed or postponed. Thorough examination of the details of the M.E.C. proposal – the “whether” issue, the size, the composition, the dedication of public money, land and required infrastructure, and the site for the facility – was short-circuited.
The Manitoba election pre-empted consideration of the MEC’s business plan by city council and the Winnipeg public until it could be presented to the “new” provincial government on April 26, after which it had to be approved by council by April 28th in order to meet the option deadline for purchase of the Jets by the end of April 30. But the M.E.C. arena deal actually became a critical non-issue election issue. None of the politicians talked about it publicly, the press speculating that it was a “no win” issue which could lose a candidate votes, but not gain them. In fact, as The Winnipeg Sun reported on the Saturday after the election, Tory campaigners said on the doorsteps that only the Filmon Conservatives would put up money for the Jets. The Sun claimed that the Liberals and NDP could have won three more seats each in Winnipeg, holding the Conservatives to a minority government, except that Jets fans – even leftists – voted Tory to “Save The Jets.” Now the provincial government as well as Mayor Thompson “owed” the M.E.C.
Winnipeg city council, already fast-tracking their consideration of M.E.C.’s proposal, began during the election campaign to by-pass promised and statutory public processes and their own regulations to accomodate the M.E.C. bid – to the extent that their decisions are legally challengeable. Thin Ice prepared to make those challenges, and The Sierra Club to demand a Federal environmental assessment, either of which would have compromised the May 1 “deadline” for exercising the Jets purchase option, when the entire issue was moved into the area of high drama – or perhaps, low farce.
City council dutifully set up the necessary committee and council meetings for April 27 and 28 to hear – and pass – the business plan quickly after the April 25 election. How it was reasonable to expect the public and the objectors to react to a complex business plan only hours after seeing it was never explained. Then, in what was billed as a “last minute letter,” the N.H.L. appeared to scupper the deal by imposing “new, surprise” financial conditions on any new Jets owners, conditions that made the M.E.C. business proposal financially unsound. At the April 27 public meeting of council’s Executive Policy Committee to hear M.E.C.’s business plan and (immediate!) citizen comment on it, the M.E.C., Mayor Susan Thompson, and provincial finance minister Eric Steffanson opened the meeting by announcing that they had just learned that all their hard work to save the Jets had been brought to nought by the villainous N.H.L., which has sold out most of Canada’s major league hockey cities by preferring wealthy American franchises, as evidenced by their unreasonable demands on the M.E.C. purchase of the Jets.
But the meeting to hear the (now old) business plan and comments on it was carried on, even though the deal seemed to be dead! Leading spokesman for Thin Ice, Jim Silver, was told by Chief Commissioner Rick Frost that they wanted to get the public hearing of opposition to the business plan over with so as to be ready to approve the plan in emergency sessions over the weekend or on Monday, in case the N.H.L. could be persuaded to re-consider its conditions. Most presenters scheduled for the E.P.C. meeting carried through with the charade, although it was apparent from the dramatic manner of the announcement to a packed public meeting, followed by the continuation of the meeting as though nothing had happened, that another pressure play was on – this time against the N.H.L.
M.E.C. had actually been told on April 13, according to the N.H.L., of those “surprise” N.H.L. conditions, and they had warned M.E.C. for months before that that its business plan was not rich enough. Consideration of the business plan was held up not by the election, but because M.E.C. had no viable plan to present! Nevertheless, “spontaneous” emergency “Save the Jets” demonstrations were quickly orchestrated for Friday morning rush-hour, using young cadres that M.E.C. had begun to organize and equip with “Blue Ribbon Campaign” stickers and picket signs about mid-April. The demonstrations were to support demands that N.H.L commissioner Gary Bettman come to Winnipeg and bargain.
About a thousand M.E.C./Jets supporters blocked traffic at Portage and Main on Friday morning, April 28. Thin Ice was quick to point out that a thousand orchestrated demonstrators was insignificant compared to the 60% – 70% of Winnipeggers who oppose public funds to support a new arena, especially now that the extent of the public pledge had risen from some $42 million to $88 million, with the addition of a $28 million loan from the province and a free gift of the city’s 1/3 shares in the Jets. But both civic and provincial politicians in passionate and inflamed speeches, helped crowds, made up mostly of “young testerical white male hockey fans with muscles and tory-blue ribbons,” to create an anti-N.H.L. and anti-American chorus that promoted the M.E.C. campaign into a national issue about “losing” our game of hockey to wealthy Americans. By Saturday, Gary Bettman had arrived in Winnipeg!
The M.E.C. conducted a brilliant campaign to set and manipulate the public and political agendas. It was a prime example of what Engin Isin describes in this issue, concerning the new information elite, in his feature article “Who Is The New Citizen?” No private citizen or un-monied group could ever hope to match M.E.C.’s combination of inside knowledge, capacity to rack up political debt, and ability to secure main-stream media support.
Following this story has had all the fascinating inevitability of watching a large snake swallow a live rabbit, but at this point we must leave off and give in to publication deadlines. M.E.C., with its “loss of the Jets means loss of the N.H.L.” panic over the future of small market teams succeeded in mobilizing the support of not only Winnipeg’s Mayor and development-oriented council majority and Gary Filmon’s Conservative Manitoba government, but, through Filmon, that of Alberta and Quebec too, as well as the Federal Liberal caucus. Quite a distance to go for a building permit!
But the federal government balked, and M.E.C. failed in their bid to keep the Jets, so they lost, right? Wrong! It was never really about the Jets. It has always really been about having a major sports entertainment complex constructed next to the Richardson properties. In Winnipeg, even as the Jets purchase deadline slipped away, M.E.C. and local politicians began talking publicly about having identified the will for a new sports entertainment complex and the private money to float one, even without the Jets. An arena might yet rise up to dominate The Forks, and add value to the Richardson properties.
With the Jets panic out of the way, perhaps Winnipeg politicians might be persuaded to entertain orderly and democratic public discussion about whether and where such a new sports complex might be built. But this is not a story about the Jets and the N.H.L., nor even about an arena in Winnipeg. It is about attacks on the planning process. Whether or not an arena is ever built, fast-tracking demands by a powerful private-interest group may have permanently short-circuited the orderly and democratic processes of public representation in civic planning in Winnipeg.
The distortions of both Plan Winnipeg, the city’s over-all planning document, and Centreplan, its projections for downtown, – including a willingness to re-zone the entire downtown area to permit the building of an arena by anyone, anywhere without requiring zoning variation or public hearings – may have created irreversible legal precedents. It may even be that short-changing public representation is seen by leading elements in both the administration and Winnipeg council as an improvement in planning “efficiency.”
Whatever happens to the Jets, the undemocratic fast-track may become the norm for development applications in Winnipeg unless those precedents are successfully challenged in the courts by public spirited groups, which – if the arena itself is no longer a likelihood – may not care to proceed on only the abstract issue of protecting democratic process from the rich, the powerful and the bureaucratic.
There are several laments in this story. One is the generational sea-change that leaner and meaner times may have wrought in a once philanthropic family. Much more important has been the silence of the professional planners. Only concerned citizens have presumed to speak up to protect the public interest. To what degree are planners ethically bound to protect democratic process from those near and far who view our communities as profitable hunting grounds?
But they all have faces, and they can be known. The twenty year mandate of City Magazine continues, unabated and with fresh vigour.
Faces of development: more equal than others.
New City Magazine, spring 1995 p14-17