Saskatchewan·CBC Investigates

$1-a-year Wascana Park land lease a 'sweetheart deal' for Brandt, says critics

CBC’s iTeam has learned the province is charging one dollar a year for the 2.52 acres of Wascana Park land that is set to be the home of Brandt Development’s new four-storey commercial office tower in Regina. For weeks, the government has been attempting to conceal this rate from the public but recently confirmed it to CBC.

Government tried to conceal this low leasing rate from the public

The land where Brandt plans to build this four-storey office building has been leased to CNIB for one dollar a year. (Colliers International)

CBC's iTeam has learned the province is charging one dollar a year for the 2.52 acres of Wascana Park land that is set to be the home of Brandt Development's new four-storey commercial office tower in Regina.

For weeks, the government has been attempting to conceal this rate from the public but recently confirmed it to CBC.

How is it that a public park as important as Wascana can be turned to the private benefit of an office leasing company?- Bob Hawkins, Regina city councillor

Regina city councillor Bob Hawkins is not happy the province is charging such a nominal fee for such prime real estate, planned to be developed by one of Saskatchewan's richest companies.

"This is a huge windfall for Brandt," said Hawkins. "They're going to make a massive profit on this and the massive profit will come from the fact that they are occupying what was previously… public park land."

"How is it that a public park as important as Wascana can be turned to the private benefit of an office leasing company?"

Charity or business?

Brandt, which bills itself as the largest privately held corporation in Saskatchewan, is planning to build a 77,000 square foot building on the site of the former CNIB building.  

The park's master plan and legislation rules out commercial development but the Brandt building concept has been approved, in part, because it was deemed philanthropic.

CNIB's 1955 building needed replacing and it has a long term lease on this prime park land.

Starting in 2014, Brandt came along and offered to donate 4,000 square feet of office space to CNIB provided Brandt was allowed to build a 77,000 square foot building on this site. In an email to CBC, CNIB said this was good for the organization because "funds previously dedicated to rent, property management and other associated expenses will be able to be reinvested towards delivering more services."

The rest of the space, in excess of 70,000 square feet, Brandt will lease out at market rates.

Hawkins said it makes no sense to call this project charitable.

Regina councillor Bob Hawkins says Brandt was given a windfall when the government agreed to lease the land for its Wascana Park tower for one dollar a year. (CBC News)

He said the only reason the company is being allowed to build on this land, which is likely worth millions, is because of its connection to CNIB.

"I don't know of anybody that's objecting to CNIB having a building for themselves in the park," said Hawkins. "What people are objecting to is CNIB being used as cover to give Brandt this huge windfall."

He said a charitable approach would have been to donate money to CNIB so it could build a modest facility suitable to its needs.

"This is not a charity. This is a business deal for Brandt," said Hawkins. "When you give to a charity you don't expect to get back many many times the benefits that you're giving to the charity."

CBC asked Brandt for comment but it has not responded.

Government confirms $1-a-year fee

In recent weeks, the government has offered a couple of reasons as to why it would not tell the public what CNIB was paying to lease Wascana Park land.

It said revealing this information could "interfere with the contractual or other negotiations of a third party." It also claimed "the financial information regarding leased buildings is confidential, at the request of the real estate industry, to avoid any significant impact on driving market rates."

That changed when CBC turned up a Sept. 15, 1955 article in The Leader Post about the grand opening of the CNIB building. Hundreds of people, including then-premier Tommy Douglas, attended the event described as a "red-letter day."

This September 15, 1955 edition of The Leader Post describes the grand opening of the new CNIB building in Wascana Park. The government leased the land to the organization for one dollar a year. (The Leader Post)

Chief Justice W.M. Martin, chairman of the South Saskatchewan district advisory board praised the government for giving "a 99-year lease of this beautiful location at the nominal rent of $1 a year."

"A better site could not, in my opinion, have been found anywhere in the city," said Martin.

When CBC pointed out this article to the government an official said that because the information had been made public in the past, it would now confirm that in July 2016 the province signed a new 99-year lease with CNIB for one dollar a year.

In that same lease, the province agreed to allow CNIB and therefore Brandt to lease to a wider range of potential tenants than is permitted under the current legislation.

In explaining its reason for extending the one dollar a year rate, a government official wrote that the park setting has been a safe location for visually impaired people for decades. The official said that with this in mind, the government "made the decision to honour the decades-old agreement with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind and extend the lease agreement at the original rate."

'Sweetheart deal'

The NDP's Nicole Sarauer said this latest revelation causes her even more concern.

"Well it's certainly a real sweetheart deal for Brandt," said Sarauer.

She said the governing Saskatchewan Party came to power years ago promising to not favour one company over another but she said it looks like that has happened in this case.

"I'm sure there are a lot of companies in the province that would love this type of a situation," she said. "Essentially what this government has done is again done what they've said they wouldn't do which is pick winners and losers."

She is calling on the province to shut down the Brandt Project. Hawkins is calling for a public inquiry.

Right now, the PCC's architectural advisory committee is reviewing Brandt's detailed plans for the building.

If that committee approves, the project will be able to proceed.

About the Author

Geoff Leo

Senior Investigative Journalist

Geoff Leo has been a reporter for CBC News in Saskatchewan since 2001. His work as an investigative journalist and documentary producer has earned numerous national and regional awards.

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