A private group is offering city $250K for a study of downtown venues - but why?

A private group wants to hand the city $250,000 — "no strings attached" — to look at the future of Hamilton's downtown entertainment venues. And some on council say they can't figure out why.

Money offer has left some councillors uncomfortable, asking why the business group would make it

This re-imagination of the exterior of FirstOntario Centre was part of a consultants report on how to upgrade the aging arena. (BBB Architects)

A private business group wants to hand the city $250,000 — "no strings attached" — to look at the future of Hamilton's downtown entertainment venues. And some on council are wondering why.

Carmen's Group and four other partners say they'll fork over six figures for the city to look at FirstOntario Centre, FirstOntario Concert Hall and the Hamilton Convention Centre.

Options would include renovating some, closing some, or even rebuilding them in one big cluster. Carmen's told city councillors Monday that the consortium — which includes Carmen's, LiUNA, Fengate, the Joyce family, Meridian Credit Union and local lawyer Jasper Kujavsky — will pay for the study for the good of Hamilton.

But some councillors, such as Lloyd Ferguson of Ancaster, said the offer didn't make sense.

"What's in it for you?" said Ferguson, dubbing the free money "too good to be true."

Judi Partridge, Ward 15 councillor, called it an "awkward" proposal that looked like a backroom deal. "I'm very uncomfortable with this."

Kujavsky said there's no catch. The consortium doesn't expect a leg up on future bids to build or manage the facilities, he said. That would be against the city's procurement rules.

"It is exactly as it appears to be," Kujavsky said. "There are no tricks. There is nothing behind the curtain in this offer."

Still, Carmen's has a financial interest in what happens. The city contracts to manage the three facilities expire in the next few months.

The Mercanti-owned company currently manages the Hamilton Convention Centre, and wants to manage the other two properties too. They're not the only ones. Spectra, a competitor, which currently manages FirstOntario Centre and FirstOntario Concert Hall would like to manage the convention centre as well.

Carmen's also wants to build "at least" one hotel downtown, said CEO P.J. Mercanti.

This also isn't the first time the consortium has paid for a study. In 2017, the consortium contributed $240,000 to look at what to do with the aging FirstOntario Centre.

This recent offer was news to Tim Murphy, Spectra regional vice president. "We saw it on the (meeting) agenda."

Kujavsky said this offer has nothing to do with Carmen's desire to buy the Sir John A. Macdonald.

There are no ongoing talks with the HWDSB, he said. But the consortium does want a chance to talk to the board before it sells it.

Local lawyer and city hall watcher Craig Burley filed a Freedom of Information Act request recently, which produced emails between Kujavsky and HWDSB trustee Greg Van Geffen talking about the property.

Kujavsky says those were just an informal discussion.

The report Tuesday was deferred to a later meeting so city staff can talk to the proponents. Nicole Auty, city solicitor, said she has "significant concerns" about taking money from private businesses without first talking to the people involved.


Samantha Craggs is journalist based in Windsor, Ont. She is executive producer of CBC Windsor and previously worked as a reporter and producer in Hamilton, specializing in politics and city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca


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