After council returned from its dinner break, things began to get bogged down.It was time for the Finance and Administration Committee report presented by vice-chair Judy Bryant. Once a financial decision is put on the table, the nickel and diming begins. Especially when it comes to fireworks.
The first issue to be dealt with was the preparations for the World Figure Skating Championships coming to London in 2013. It’s a great opportunity for London to showcase itself to the world, but, since it will bring world travellers and hundreds of thousands of viewers to our city, we have to look our best. And that takes money.
Anticipating the inevitable haggling that was like to occur, Bryant proposed an amendment to the recommendations that specific projects included in the recommendations be itemized separately so that each would be subject to a vote, rather than trying to deal with them all at once.
This immediately created confusion for some of the members, not because they objected to considering a project on its merits, but because they hadn’t listened to the motion and didn’t understand it. After it was explained several times, Henderson, Orser and VanMeerbergen still voted against it. They appeared to be in a negative mood.
Henderson, however, had ideas of his own. He had to wait to elaborate on them while the matter of the amendment was being considered. Once that was out of the way, he had the floor.
“This is a watershed moment,” he proclaimed. It’s his favourite expression when he has ideas to present. “Here goes.”
There followed a breathless recital of all of the deals and opportunities for partnerships and sponsorships that could bring in millions of dollars and ensure that every expenditure had a lasting benefit. He named companies, organizations, institutions and dollar amounts. Go halvsies on expenses with Fanshawe College. Get the BIA’s (Business Improvement Associations), LEDC (London Economic Development Corporation), Tourism London, and the Chamber of Commerce to pony up. Shmuel Farhi must be good for $100,000, as would Joe Carapella and the Rotary Club. “They will belly up.” And we could have a hotel tax, $2.00 per registration, they do it in all the major cities.
And no need to spend money on a light show. “Anybody can to a light show,” he claimed. In fact, with the demise of his business at the Western Fair, he had a projector and screens that could be used, he suggested.
As to the shave and pave for Dundas Street, forget that. Dundas Street has been torn up too many times already. But spend $2M on lighting. “It will look like Disneyland,” he enthused.
And free parking to the tune of $100,000. Also flags and an ice cake. And give away 1,000 ice skates to kids.That last suggestion was a nice touch. Unfortunately, the championships will be during March break when opportunities for skating have pretty much melted away.
It was quite a list. “I don’t know what to say,” tweeted a nonplussed Councillor Joni Baechler when it was over.
Matt Brown issued a note of caution. He had no problem with spending the $1.5 M that was already funded, but on the improvements to the Market Lane, the light and video show and the fireworks, he was less positive. His constituents weren’t happy about that kind of spending. “What’s the payback?” he wanted to know. “Where else could we be investing these funds? A community amenity? Or debt reduction?”
Mayor Fontana interjected. He had found someone prepared to pick up the $50,000 tab for the fireworks but, as he pointed out, “We can’t expect citizens to pay when council doesn’t know what it wants.” He gave the example of the Ivey School of Business which had just invested $285M because it believed in itself. “People will be watching us. We ought to be celebrating; other places will wonder what’s the matter with this city. We can’t buy this kind of advertising.” He was convinced the corporate sector would come on board. “Let’s showcase this city like we never have before.” He asked Tourism London manager John Winston to clarify the situation.
Winston was happy to oblige. He spoke of the history of the event and its multi-million dollar impact, the visits by world travellers. “It’s a pre-Olympic event,” he pointed out. “These are the best of the best.” The fireworks and the light shows would demonstrate community pride. “We are as good if not better than everybody else. It’s an investment in community.”
Bill Armstrong wanted to stand in support of the event, but his number one issue was the policing costs. He was assured that there would be no additional costs for the community; it would be an international event. There would be no additional costs for city police.
Bud Polhill worried about London’s international reputation: “If we don’t do this right, we will never live it down,” he asserted.
Steve Orser had his own take on the problems of hosting an international event in the downtown. He wanted to know how we deal with the more “challenging individuals” in the downtown core, the drug dealers, people hanging out at the corner of Richmond and Dundas, others shooting up in dark alleys. These are the aspects of London that fascinate and repulse him.
CAO Jeff Fielding has been in, even worked in, world class cities that aren’t afraid to invest in what they want to be. “You can’t send John (Winston) out without any money in his pocket. What do you want London to be?” he wanted to know. “It’s March, there’s snow; what is the image we want to send out?” he demanded in defense of the light shows.
But Orser suggested that all these lights might show something else. “I’ve seen things in front of McDonald’s downtown that are horrifying,” he claimed.
Orser likes to make reference to his daughter whenever he discusses the seamier side of life and he did so now. He doesn’t know what to say to his little girl when they go downtown. Unsavoury characters are gathering in groups on the sidewalks. It’s hard to get around them without being jostled. Some type of resolution is needed.
The mayor was running out of patience. “Take it to new public safety committee,” he advised.
Others too weighed in: Paul Hubert in support, Nancy Branscombe worrying about the cost in the current economic climate.
“Every city has a light show,” she argued. “That doesn’t make us unique. If we vote the money now there’s no incentive for corporations to sponsor.” She didn’t want to get all caught up in the hype and throw caution to the winds.”
Joe Swan was exasperated with his colleagues. “Council has not found its unified voice,” he pronounced. “We are in a no man’s land of doers and doubters.” Just to be sure that no one was confused about which category he was in, he added, “I came to be a doer.” He noted that council had identified opportunities, set up a strategic plan, and formed a prosperity committee. “We are the best in Canada in hosting a sporting event,” he announced. “This is what creates jobs in this community.” And to the doubters: “ What is your economic plan? You were elected to lead.” He assured them that sponsors will have confidence in it but “We have to start it. London can no longer be the little town that wished.”
His words had little impact on Paul VanMeerbergen, affectionately known as Dr. No. He pointed out that the city has spent $120M downtown over 10 years without making it a tourist hotspot. “Who can remember where the last championships were held?” he asked rhetorically. He wanted all the recommendations to be referred to the budget process. He cited an online London Free Press poll which found that three-quarters of the respondents did not want to spend this kind of money on the championships.
“Why spend money on projectors for light show when it will show drug deals and shooting up?” he demanded, referring to Orser’s obsession with vice.
Then Joni Baechler had her turn. She spoke of the Vancouver Olympics, being glued to the TV, watching with pride. The streets were animated, there was a venue for those who couldn’t participate to feel the passion. “They have done a phenomenal job,” she stated, referring to the planning committee. “Everything looks reasonable.” She wanted it to be for all London. She was disgusted by comments about some of the people living in the downtown area. She didn’t want to ship them out to wherever. “I love London,” she concluded.
Orser took offence at this oblique reference to him. He only wanted to clear out certain types of people downtown. Those who hang out in little groups. They bump into him with his little child.
In the end, all the recommendations were approved, although not unanimously. Dale Henderson voted against all the recommendations, even those that aligned with his suggestions, and Orser and VanMeerbergen voted against almost all.
But a significant hurdle had been overcome. The skating championships planning committee is no longer skating on thin ice.