So spoke Nancy Branscombe at a council meeting on June 25, 2013 as she and her fellow councillors considered the application by FinCore to develop a parcel of land at the corner of Wellington Road and South Street in the community known as SoHo.
It was the finale to a year and a half of proclamations and posturing, starting with the mayor's introduction at the Chamber of Commerce's mayor's breakfast of Loredana Onesan and her ambitious proposal to create a $200 million—no, make that $300 million—anti-aging complex in a neighbourhood that has seen its share of troubles but which had been the subject of a major city revitalization plan. The project would be a gateway development, it would create jobs, it would bring in taxes, it would be the signature project that shows the world that the private sector believes in London.
It was a lot to expect of a one and a half acre property, especially one that wasn't zoned for the purposes being suggested by the proponent. She needed an official plan amendment and a zoning change. She also needed the land. As it turned out, some of the land she was making plans for didn't belong to her, nor did she have an option on it. Some belonged to a private owner who wanted to keep it, some to the City of London, and some to the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority (UTRCA).
Those impediments seemed to the members of the Investment and Economic Committee (IEPC) examining the proposal a few months later to be minor. They could fast-track it, make it happen by September of 2012. They wanted to go, go, go.
Not so fast, staff reminded them. There was a process to be followed. The City couldn't just make a land deal, it would have to first find out if the land was needed by any of its departments. Should it be declared surplus, it would have to go to the highest bidder. All of this takes time.
The lack ownership of the land would not impede the official plan amendment or zoning change, it was learned. That was a surprise to planning staff as well as a lot of property owners. Staff couldn't recall a similar situation but apparently anybody may apply to rezone anyone else's land without the owner's permission!
In any case, Onesan was behaving as if it was a done deal, telling prospective investors that shovels would be in the ground that same summer. On the FinCore website, the SoHo Wellington Centre is described as starting in Spring 2012 when, in fact, an actual application wasn't submitted until later that fall. But those are details.
Still, potential investors should have been asking a few questions. How could someone who had not yet finished one small retirement residence project in Lucan, a residence which would go up for sale for $15M almost as soon as it was completed, finance a $300M project in SoHo? Where would the money come from? In addition to her time at Western University as a graduate French literature student and then a lecturer, Onesan's claim to business and development acumen came from a stint at London Life and from buying and flipping a few houses.
And there were questions about her relationship to Joe Fontana, as well. After all, they were more than casual acquaintances. Fontana, then chair of the board of directors of Trinity Global Support Foundation, had invited Onesan to sit on the board of that charity, the one managed by his son. When the charity's activities came under scrutiny from the media and the Canada Revenue Agency, Onesan wisely stepped down, citing her pregnancy as a hindrance to her continuance on the board. Later, Fontana himself relinquished the chair position although he continued to serve on the board.
But soon we learned that the CRA had yanked Trinity's charitable status. Apparently the tax receipts issued were significantly more generous than the donors who received them. And the board had been rewarding its directors rather well too. Fontana, in particular, had been doing “consulting work” for the charity and another director was rewarded for negotiating a deal with a friendly private investment firm owned by the mayor's old buddy, Vince Ciccone, who subsequently got in trouble with the Ontario Securities commission and went bankrupt.
Although the CRA's investigation dealt with the time prior to Onesan's appointment, the tax receipts continued to balloon. By the end of 2011, they had reached $153M and counting, making Trinity Global far and away the wealthiest “charity” in the country. Onesan was appointed in November 2011. Given that the CRA had found that $8M had been diverted to the board of directors and their interests, it is hard not to suspect that the relationship between Fontana and Onesan may have been a pecuniary one as contemplated by the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act.
And yet, the mayor was happily promoting the FinCore project and voting on it at committee and council meetings.
At the same time that FinCore was making eyes at Soho, it also applied to the Thames Centre municipality to put in a retirement residence, ostensibly the same as the one in Lucan which was up for sale, on a vacant lot in Dorchester. That council jumped at the possibility and made arrangements to spend about $220K for service upgrades for the lot. The source of funding for this endeavour would be, via an agreement with FinCore, the taxes that the municipality would receive once the retirement residence was up and running. In the meantime, the property owner would provide a letter of credit in the amount of $200K until the requests for the building permits came in from FinCore.
Another application for a nursing home in Grand Bend was turned away for lack of servicing. There was much hand-wringing and lamentation by the Lambton Shores mayor and some local publications over the opportunity and jobs lost. Council should have found a way to please the developer and make it happen, they believed.
All of this was happening shortly after Onesan joined the Trinity board. It would take a few months for the connection to make its way into the media.
But the Investment and Economic Prosperity Committee continued to regard the SoHo proposal as its private sector saviour, blinded by the visions of shovels and highrises and jobs. The Planning and Environment Committee (PEC) to which the application, when it eventually arrived, was referred did likewise. After all, that committee, like all the others, had been stacked in favour of the Fontana 8. Despite the unusual circumstances of the application, they continued to have faith.
And so, on June 25th, the FinCore application moved forward with little discussion and little opposition.
And why not? On paper, it looked like an exciting proposal: a wellness centre, some high end highrise condos, underground parking, lovely landscaping, elegant design.
FinCore had not skimped on endorsers, either. Former Liberal MPP Khalil Ramal's constituency
|Onesan and Patton at Planning Committee|
Only a few councillors asked questions before voting in favour of the staff report which, with a couple of holding provisions, recommended moving ahead and granting the amendments. Harold Usher wanted to know if there would be a boardwalk along the river; Judy Bryant wanted to ensure continuing public access to the river.
But Joni Baechler was not so agreeable to what was happening. She chairs the UTRCA whose land was being re-zoned without its permission. She could not support such an action. She knew that others felt the same way.
Certainly Nancy Branscombe was uneasy about what was transpiring. Re-zoning someone's land without their permission?? But there didn't seem to be any prohibition against that. She would reluctantly support the staff recommendation.
Still, her gut told her that this was never likely to happen. She had been a real estate agent and her experience told her that this was an “upzone and sell”. Her reservations reflected the concern of many in the SoHo community, including those who would love to see the development go forward.
Then, last week, an announcement that is not too reassuring. Ownership of the sole FinCore retirement home, the Oasis in Lucan, has been transferred to Palladian because FinCore was in financial difficulty, this in spite of the fact that less than a year ago it had fired its employees and replaced them with contract workers.
And while the FinCore website still promises that the development in Dorchester is underway, a drive-by yesterday revealed only a vacant lot with a billlboard and a trailer.
It was not a picture to inspire a lot of confidence.