The head of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce says Mayor Brian Bowman should apologize for his handling of the True North-CentreVenture downtown land deal, which has turned into a public spat between the mayor and True North.
Chamber CEO Dave Angus says the option agreement involving True North Developments and CentreVenture Development Corp. to develop a vacant lot on Carlton Street has turned into a disaster after Bowman and councillors suggested it was a secretive deal.
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The controversy surrounding the agreement prompted True North executive chairman Mark Chipman, whose company owns the Winnipeg Jets NHL franchise and the MTS Centre, to lash out at Bowman on Wednesday.
Angus said Bowman did not take enough time to work with CentreVenture, an arm's-length agency of the city, and find out the facts about the agreement before going public with his concerns.
"I think he does owe an apology to the people that have been discredited through this process. And that's what happens when you don't take your time to manage this thing," Angus told CBC News on Thursday.
"It's a debacle, a self-inflicted wound that didn't have to happen. And I think it needs to be fixed and it needs to be fixed now."
CentreVenture owns the empty lot north of the RBC Convention Centre, which is undergoing a $180-million expansion..
Stuart Olson, the construction company working on the convention centre expansion, was originally contracted to find a hotel for the CentreVenture-owned lot but was unable to do so.
Through the month of January, Bowman raised concerns that CentreVenture had two options on the same property, which could create legal problems.
The mayor also said he has been provided with few details about the option agreement, and he said he wanted to "move this into the public; enough with the backroom discussions."
Chipman argued that he showed the mayor a video in November about the proposal — a $400-million hotel, office and residential complex called True North Square that would be coming in 2017.
He also disputed possible conflict-of-interest claims related to the proposal. Chipman was a board member at CentreVenture until July 2014, but he said he recused himself from any discussions related to the 220 Carlton St. deal.
'Issue of proper process'
Bowman, who was in Toronto for a meeting with other big-city mayors on Thursday, was not available to comment on the True North situation or Angus's comments.
Charleswood-Tuxedo Coun. Marty Morantz, who chairs the city's finance committee, says no one is criticizing Chipman in this case.
"It was really to open up the process so that the citizens of Winnipeg and … the entire development community, in fact, including True North, and the city could feel that this was a fair and open process," he said.
What's at issue, Morantz said, is ensuring transparency and proper process. He cited questionable city real estate dealings that came to light in the last few years.
For example, audits of a fire hall land swap and the construction of the new police headquarters were forwarded to the RCMP, which launched a criminal investigation of the latter project late last year.
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"The point is that in a post-audit environment with everything that's going on, I think the citizens of Winnipeg deserve to know that the City of Winnipeg or its agencies are conducting land transactions [and] they're doing it in the fairest possible way," Morantz said.
"This is an issue of proper process and, you know, I think the real estate audits happened for a reason. Many things were done wrong. We want to make sure things are done right."
Morantz said neither Bowman nor council has been allowed to see the details of the CentreVenture-True North option agreement because it's being held in confidence by the city solicitor — a point that Chipman has disputed.
Deal handled properly, says Angus
Angus said he believes Chipman and CentreVenture handled the deal properly, and he applauded Chipman for speaking out "to set the record straight."
Angus added that he believes this case is different from the previous city real estate controversies, but those cases have contributed to what he calls an environment of distrust between the city and the local business community.
"We're operating in an environment right now that's devoid of any trust or respect. You know, we are too small a city to be fighting with one another and we need to pull it together, and so now is the time for us to reset," he said.
Angus called on Bowman to "take responsibility for what has happened" and work with CentreVenture to move forward.
"There is a great project at play right now, it is a game-changer for Winnipeg, and it would be a shame for us to pass that by because we continue to fight," he said.