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Thursday, June 14, 2012

This land is your land


For a few days now, Londoners have been wondering what’s up with the FinCore deal. The FinCore plan is the proposal to give SoHo, the area south of Horton Street, a facelift. Literally.


FinCore is proposing to build two 26-storey condo towers along with a 12-storey medical centre at the southeast corner of Wellington and South Streets. The big attraction will be an “anti-aging and rejuvenation” facility for those with money to temporarily stave off the ravages of time. Towering above the Thames, the complex will be a great place to recover from invasive surgery and to benefit from “alternative” therapies, none of which is likely to be covered by OHIP. But apparently there are foreign trained doctors ready to relocate to where they are needed. 

The concept was first floated by Mayor Fontana at the Chamber of Commerce’s mayor’s breakfast. I’m sure you’ll remember it: that’s the one with the robot, Little Joe, that wouldn’t perform, and the theme song, City of Opportunity, by Jim Chapman and the Incontinentals, who did. Neither was a spectacular hit.

FinCore’s proposal may have been overshadowed by the entertainment, but there was some media attention at the time. After all, when someone is introduced to 1200 residents, most of them from the business and professional community, as wanting to spend $200M on a part of the city that has seen its fair share of problems and which has had local residents involved in a redevelopment plan for a year and a half, that’s news. All the local media carried stories about it.

A few days later, at a meeting of the Investment and Economic Prosperity Committee, staff brought forward a draft policy to deal with unsolicited proposals, those opportunities that drop from the sky. Later, there was an in camera meeting on a matter pertaining to the acquisition or sale of land.

The difficulty for FinCore, it seems, was that in order to carry out its aspirations, it needed to get a bit more land, land belonging to the city and to the Upper Thames Conservation Authority. Even with this land, the entire area is only an acre and a half; it will be a very intense use of that property.

It’s hard to know how things evolved but clearly FinCore had approached the city for this land and the matter had been brought to the Finance and Administration Committee. Although the mayor and a couple of councillors were anxious to move ahead, Joni Baechler pointed out that some of the land belonged to the Upper Thames which she chairs and any sale would require provincial approval.

Furthermore, there couldn’t be any special deals here; the sale would be subject to a competitive bidding process in a fair and open manner. Giving preferential treatment to one business would qualify as “bonusing” which is a no-no under the Municipal Act.

But FinCore was  moving ahead. According to South Street resident Tanya Park*, in March Loredana Onesan, CEO of FinCore, approached the Hamilton Road Business Association in regard to its proposal, a curious development. When the local community association requested a presentation of the project at its annual meeting a few weeks ago, FinCore cancelled at the last moment saying that they didn’t have up to date concept drawings, although they had no trouble producing drawings for neighbours the following day. The neighbours had the impression that the land purchase was a done deal. And, oh yes,  they were asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement before being shown the drawings.

They were somewhat different from the drawings shown by FinCore at the presentation before the Investment and Economic Prosperity Committee on Saturday. Nevertheless, they were a welcome relief to the committee which had been entreated to come up with $35M for Western University to upgrade city hall and Centennial Hall which would be gifted to Western, another $40M for Museum London, $25M for a Grand expansion and performance hall, a few million for incubating entrepreneurial youth and immigrants, and so on and so forth.

Members of the committee tripped over themselves and each other in their enthusiasm to be the first to endorse and expedite the wellness centre proposal, although the details and the drawings were sketchy.

“This can’t wait until September,” Bud Polhill enthused. He wanted to make a positive recommendation right away.

Paul VanMeerbergen too was thrilled. “This is what happens when you unleash the private sector,” he cheered. He wanted to fast-track it, make it a priority.

What FinCore wanted was an official plan amendment, a zoning change and the city land. Joe Swan reminded them that there was a planning process to be followed. It created a little hiccup in the discussion.

But Steve Orser saw all the jobs that would come the way of his voters. This was incredible. They could move it along; they could hold special meetings.

Even interim city manager, Tim Dobbie, felt that it was “an impressive project”.

The mayor was ecstatic. This would be the “signature project”, there would be transformative change. It showed the faith that the private sector had in our community. Visions of tax revenues and jobs danced in his head.

The project and the jobs that would come with it continued to grow. Although originally envisioned at $200M, it had increased to $250M when submitted for the agenda, and had reached $300M in the oral presentation. It was unstoppable.

At council, however, the enthusiasm was somewhat muted. There was a planning process, councillors were reminded. Baechler hadn’t been at the Saturday meeting, but she wanted to know about the application which had come in only Friday and had not yet been formally received. For whose lands was the application?

It was acknowledged that it was for land owned by the city, the conservation authority and some private owners. That in itself is unusual, to apply for an official plan amendment and a zoning change on land you neither own nor have an option. In fact, there were drill holes and survey stakes already on the property, by a company retained by FinCore. It was taking on the appearance of a fait accomplit.

There was also the problem that this was a private health care centre. It seems the minister of health was not necessarily as gung ho about provincial land being used for such purposes. So what if there was all this rush to push things through and the bottom fell out and it didn’t happen?

Apparently staff had been considering that possibility that very day. With respect to the city land, it would be sold only for development, Dobbie assured her. “If development does not take place, we should have a means to get the land back.” Should, indeed. But will they?

There is a lot of controversy and skepticism over this proposal.

From a planning perspective, the overall community plan which has been in process for some time now should be completed before dealing with a specific application. It’s the tail wagging the dog. For the community, it seems their participation in the community improvement plan was all for naught. Residents have been left with the impression that whatever FinCore wants, FinCore gets. And then there are the skeptics who wonder who is FinCore and where is the money coming from? $300M is a lot of cash.

Twelve years ago, FinCore owner Loredana Onesan was a French literature Master's student from Romania at what was then UWO. She went on to obtain a PhD and then taught at Western. After a few years she became interested in real estate, buying and selling properties.  Having spent a few years at London Life, she established FinCore Solutions two years ago. It has handled one development, a retirement home in Lucan that is slated to open soon. That project cost about $20M. 

A second retirement home application has been given the green light by Thames Centre. A proposal for another near Grand Bend was rejected for lack of servicing.

Last night we learned from CTV news that there may be a bit of cronyism involved. Onesan was recently recruited to sit on the board of a charity, Trinity Global Support Foundation, that the mayor chairs and of which his son is the president. Also on the board is Fontana’s friend and campaign worker, Dave Broostad, who also happens to be the vice-president of the Hamilton Road Business Association to which Onesan had made her pitch.

When interviewed by Bryan Bicknell, Fontana rejected any suggestion that the relationship with Onesan created a conflict. He knows many great talented people who sit on boards and make applications. “This happens all the time with me and my colleagues,” he explained.

Of course, the FinCore application is not just any application; it involves city land and $300M.

But then, neither is Trinity Global just any charity. It’s a very successful and wealthy charity, increasing the value of tax receipts issued from $72,000 in 2008 to more than $71,000,000 in 2010. At its last tax filing, its assets were in the neighbourhood of $53M.

Are pecuniary interests involved? Perhaps not, if members of the board receive no financial recognition for their service.

In any case, the Municipal Act leaves it to the individual to determine whether there is a conflict, not to bloggers or the media.

But it does seem like a cozy arrangement.

 *Source: Tanya Park's Facebook page




17 comments:

Solid Gold Gambling Casino said...

Personally, I have no problem with cronyism nor nepotism ~ even the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Nor do I have a problem with the mayor trying to sell London Hydro to Edmonton-based utility giant, EPCOR.

As long as da Mayor Joe know how to talk to da King and da Queen, I tink he bring da job to London.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for paying attention to this Gina, and for preparing this careful overview of the serious questions that hound this proposal (or whatever it is). I have to say that this whole mess makes me question the integrity of the process in place to manage development in a rational, fair and civically responsible way. I hope that many at City Hall get the message!

Citizen Pavlov said...

Perhaps I'm getting conditioned.

Everytime I hear the Arva mayor wax enthusiastic about the latest sure-fire, can't fail, whizbang, money makin' scheme, I reach nervously to see if my wallet is still in my pocket.

Unknown said...

Although there may not be any direct pecuniary interests involved, I get the distinct feeling that Ms. Onesan Bowler and the mayor are closer than they make it seem. I have heard that Fontana was formerly Fincore's landlord (they recently purchased the building where their offices are currently located at 782 Richmond), plus there are photographs of the mayor with Ms. Onesan Bowler at a recent charity event for Street Connection. Incidentally, Street Connection is located in Soho...coincidence? Not likely.

Anonymous said...

I'm reply to the Subject Line:
"This Land is Your Land" with a suggestion to Occupy London to surround the property, not with pickets and placettes, but with voice in song, singing along, as they stroll two by two, hand in hand, to save this land. ... this land is your land, this land is my land, from bonavesta to vancouver island...from the artic circle to the great lakes WaAteRs...this land was made for you and me.

Now I really should read the article, after I empty the slop bucket, which thankfully doesn't need to be fed to the cute little piglets they'll end up sizzling next to my morning eggs.

and that leads to a topic that probably totally unrelated to the subject at hand, or maybe not...
FARMERS FEED CITIES.
THANK A FARMER.
I LOVE FARMERS.

Hodge-Podge said...

I have been wondering about the strange link between FinCore, the "charity" and this development. I know of a person who has been involved with tax sheltering with a "charity" like this. He made a donation to the charity, to purchase AIDS vaccines for Africa (same as what Trinity.. does), the charity buys huge quantities of the vaccine for very cheap from an Asian country, the drugs come back with greater value here in Canada, and the person making the donation gets a receipt for 5-6 times the cash donation.

In a paper by David Thompson, titled "Dangerous Opinions - Legal and Ethical Issues with Legal Opinions on Charity Law and the Income Tax Act", he discusses the tax sheltering process with the Canadian Humanitarian Trust Donation Program (“CHT Donation Program”). In the paper he breaks down where the actual cash donations are going, as follows:
CRA concluded that the cash donations associated with the CHT Donation Program were distributed as follows:

approximately 5% used as fees by the charities to the promoter of the Program;

approximately 33% paid to the Corporation that promoted the CHT Donation program;

approximately 52% was wire transferred to a Corporate bank account in Cypress;

Canadian charities received approximately 3%

There is some kind of link between

... Is this how the FinCore project is bring funded? To me, it looks like "dirty" charity money is being used to make some people really rich, and these people (Onesan, Fontana Jr., etc.) are turning there cash into material property and assets.

If you look at the London Free Press article, "Towering proposal fast-laned", there is a user in the comment section titled "Joe Fontana" who uses the sign off "the Jr. :)" and this person has been fighting back negative comments on the article, and he seems to be a strong supporter of the development.. Is this the same Joe Fontana (Jr.) who is the president of the "charity" (Trinity Global Support Foundation)?


The whole scenario just seems fishy to me. Should someone call the CRA?

Anonymous said...

I'm reply to the paragraph:
"When interviewed by Bryan Bicknell, Fontana rejected any suggestion that the relationship with Onesan created a conflict. He knows great talented people who sit on boards and make applications.
“This happens all the time with me and my colleagues,” he explained."

Indeed.
Indeed it does, doesn't it JOe?

Anonymous said...

Yes, someone should call the CRA, but first ask yourself...whose answering the telephone at the toll-free number? where is the telephone that's being answered, why is there no supervisor available, does your water heater need maintanance or is there a virus in your windows program?

Nostalgia Norman said...

This Fincore fiasco makes me long for the good old days when Agnes Shaw Cowan was a candidate for mayor. She only wanted to build a landing pad for UFO's and she actually lived in London.

SoHo Rez said...

Thank you for your most informative and thought-provoking article, Gina.

Many of us in the SoHo community were left scratching our heads wondering why the Hamilton Road Business Association would be the beneficiary of a presentation from Fincore but SoHo was left in the dark. I guess the relationship with Mr. Broostad enlightens that curious situation. Thank You!

Anonymous said...

Moves by City Hall like this one with Fincore only heightens my desire to leave this city...I am no longer proud to say that I come from London with all the behind the scene dealings and the lack of concern for what citizens want.
Joe Fontana is trying to bully Londoners the same way that our Federal government is bulling Canadians....not that Joe hasn't had the perfect training for that.
What we need is more politicians like Judy Byrant that stand up for the people and will not just go with the flo. To bad we don't have more people with honesty and integrtiy like Judy on City Counsil.

Peter Karas said...

Gina,

Thanks for writing on this topic. The more I hear about Fincore, the more I am skeptical that this development will be good for my neighborhood.

What irks me most is the fact that our newly approved Community Improvement Plan, (to which I contributed significant amounts of time) has been thrown out the window.

Why call for "citizen involvement", if when things really count, it will be completely ignored?

Anonymous said...

The Soho community is not against development, in fact many spent several years putting together a Community Plan that was fully endorsed by the community and the City. City politicians need to stand with the community and respect the fact that any development must be implemented in the spirit of community. If politicians want to endorse something like the Fincore Plan they should be ready to ensure that there are significant penalty clauses in contracts of sale. There needs to be stiff penalties for flipping the land, reversion clauses and politicians should ensure that if developers are committed to being good corporate citizens then they will be happy to be bound by urban design guidelines.

G. Babbitt said...

Gina you are civic treasure! Yes indeedy Trinity Global is affiliated with GLGI which is involved in litigation with the CRA after having its charitble donations revoked. http://glgi.ca/documents/GLGI_newsletter_dec2011.pdf
The smell of this is extraordinary

Anonymous said...

There is a media release on Fincore's site which seems to suggest the deal is a done deal and will break ground this year. Wonder how the city will tender for a sale of its land within 6 months and what the UTRCA will do? Or will our mayor tell other developers to stay away from his "associate's" project?

chickenshorts said...

http://www.taxpayersadvocate.ca/wiki/index.php?title=GLGI

follow the twisted path that led me there, here:

http://www.chickenshorts.ca/chickenshorts/?p=257

This sounds like another one of Joe's 'free reports!' It has to be a good deal if it's free, right?

Anonymous said...

I live across the river from this proposed project and I have a couple problems with this proposal.

1. The building will look way out of place compared to the neighborhood.

2. Doctors for the rich we don't need. Doctors for EVERYONE we desperately need.