All eyes and hopes were focussed on Denise Brown, Ward 11 Councillor, on Tuesday evening, and this time she didn’t disappoint.
Nor did she fail to take full advantage of the attention bestowed on her. She played it to the hilt, saving her decision and rationale until everyone else had spoken. All except Sandy White who had no opinion to offer, preferring simply to follow the self-styled leader of the remnants of the Fontana 8.
The issue, of course, was the support for the Fanshawe College request for an additional $9M to renovate and expand the old Kingsmill Building to house 1600 students in hospitality and performing arts programs. That, together with the 400 students already across the street in digital arts programs, would mean 2000 pairs of feet on the street. It would be the catalyst for revitalizing the downtown.
The request had already been turned down a month ago, failing on a tied vote, and the return of Dale Henderson to the horseshoe wouldn’t turn the tide. He had already been clear that he was in the Joe Swan-Steve Orser camp. He would not be supporting the proposal.
In fact, as council was about to begin deliberations, Henderson was handing out a page of comments typed in upper case letters to the media. Later, he would read the page aloud when his turn to debate arrived. Among the half-truths and outright misinformation contained therein was the suggestion that he had heard from an unnamed lawyer that there was a rich benefactor (Shmuel Farhi?) about to buy the Kingsmill Building and donate it to the city for a different project. Fanshawe should buy the Market Tower Building (owned by Shmuel Farhi) and Museum London should move its (actually, the London Public Library’s) group of seven collection to the former library on Queens Ave (also owned by Shmuel Farhi).
There was more. A performing arts centre somewhere at no cost to the taxpayer and a couple of floors of the Kingsmill Building devoted to the film industry. “THE ANONYMOUS BUILDER,” he concluded “WILL BE ANNOUNCED, IF EVER, AT A FUTURE DATE.” It was a surreal moment.
Mayor Baechler did her best to save him from himself. This was a whole new proposal, she pointed out without describing it as ridiculous; it was not the motion that was before them. His observations were ruled out of order although he continued unabashed, blissfully ignorant of the fact that his microphone had been turned off.
Indeed, the motion before them was to add $9M to the current $20M agreement with Fanshawe, a motion made possible by the fact that the London Downtown Business Association (LDBA) had offered to put up $1M, so convinced was it of the viability of the Fanshawe proposal and its impact on the downtown core. That made it a new proposal with no requirement to reconsider a previous decision.
That tie had been cemented by the "no" vote of Denise Brown. She had aligned herself with the former Fontana 8 plus Armstrong. She was worried about the cost, she said. And this was all happening too fast. Plus, not one of her constituents was in favour.
In the furor that broke out following this decision, Ms Brown seems to have heard from a lot of constituents who begged to differ.
But she didn’t go down without a fight. In her emails to constituents, she wondered how much money Fanshawe really had. Wasn’t there a cheaper way to go? And the extra $1M from the LDBA, didn’t it get that money from the city? And wasn’t education the responsibility of the province, not the municipality?
It seems she hadn’t been listening when these matters had been addressed previously. No, The LDBA didn’t get the money from the city but from its members. The city just collects it and passes it on. And this project wasn’t about education but about downtown revitalization. As for how much money does Fanshawe really have, that’s hardly relevant. It has different sources and many projects. To locate downtown instead of on the periphery costs more. As does heritage. Only Fanshawe can decide how it spends. And council has the responsibility of evaluating opportunities for economic development. This wasn't about a handout to Fanshawe; it was about seizing a magnificent opportunity for the city.
Fanshawe president Peter Devlin indicated he would happy to meet with her and answer any questions she might have. And it appears she did. She consulted many others too: residents, business persons, other communities that had brought students downtown. She figured she had spent at least 70 hours on consulting and researching the issue. She had received hundreds of emails. That was community engagement, “big-time”!
But the kicker was the two amendments that Councillor Matt Brown had put on the floor at the outset: to collect the $75 per student head tax which would net $750,000 over the next 10 years, and to return any cost savings to the city. That made it possible for her to support the proposal.
She wasn’t flip-flopping, mind you. She had just done her research.
The packed gallery didn’t care. It burst out in cheering and applause.
I wasn’t there, being kept home by a cold that hadn’t passed the contagious stage, but I followed it on Rogers live-stream and through Twitter. The four councillors at the far west end of the horseshoe were deflated, I learned via the latter. Polhill, Armstrong, Swan and Orser were slumped in their seats.
It was a particularly hard moment for Joe Swan. He had made his opposition to the Fanshawe proposal the centrepiece of his mayoralty campaign, holding a press conference and spending who knows how many dollars on radio ads. All for naught. He was the ringleader of what was left of the Fontana 8 but first they had failed to get Bud Polhill as their mayor, and now he had lost his campaign against the Fanshawe deal. To top it off, in no time at all any chance of having his Music London Celebration Centre plan supported would be gone. It was lose, lose, lose all the way.
But for Matt Brown, who had been championing the Fanshawe proposal, it was a clear win. He showed he could broker a deal and line up the votes. Even without Armstrong, he was supported by half of the council: Monteith, Branscombe, Hubert, Usher, Bryant, and the Mayor, Joni Baechler.
And, of course, the deciding vote of Denise Brown.
Well done, Brown and Brown!