Thursday, March 26, 2009

Expropriation-a can of worms by Tim Philps

maybe there will be fishing for taxpayers dollars with that can of worms-comment PR

At city council, it seems, a councillor's fancy turns to multi-million dollar projects to rehabilitate the downtown.

At least this certainly seems to be the case when you look at plans to expropriate almost the entire south side of Colborne Street from the bridge to Grand River Hall next to the library and replace these eyesores with one or more mega-projects. As night follows day, the arguments have started at council about using public money to do this.

On the one side, you have the "Let the private sector do it all" group. These councillors feel that the city's only role is consultative or, at most, to provide assistance through some kind of grants process by giving some percentage of the cost of the project based on the total price tag.

Some councillors on this side also feel that if the city does go ahead with the expropriation, then any proponent with a project should expect no further help from the city beyond a gift of the land.

Ward 3 councillor Dan McCreary is the lead proponent of this school of thought. His wily political mind realizes that if he can get such a motion passed by council, even by a slim majority, it would require a two-thirds majority to overturn the policy. That is a much higher bar to jump over and would make it very difficult for a fractured council to change its collective mind.

Why council should reduce its flexibility is beyond me, but it seems to make sense to McCreary.

The side that has the upper hand in the council chamber, for now at least, is willing to purchase the properties at fair market value or to expropriate them if a deal cannot be struck.

This approach has the virtue of putting the land in the hands of the city and making negotiations with future developers much simpler. It also has the virtue of giving the city some say in the eventual use of the property. This gives council a very big stick to wave in negotiations with a developer when it comes to project approval.

Of course, it is also a costly avenue to pursue if a deal cannot be struck as the legal and other costs of expropriation could be considerable on top of the money actually paid for the properties.

Anyone who has watched council over the past few years will be tempted to make comparisons between this project and the Harmony Square project that consumed the last two councils with rancor, hyperbole and probably resulted in costing the seats of at least two city councillors. That project, which everyone acknowledges was a great success, was plagued by a nastiness that I have seldom seen in municipal debate.

Every stage was fought over and I have never seen tempers flare as often as during the heady days of the debate over Harmony Square. The only thing comparable that I can remember is the downtown grants debates... come to think about it... it was the same council!

Councillors against this project say that the downtown grants program, which was successful in spurring development in the core over the past few years, is the way to go rather than expropriation. It would certainly be a cheaper way to go.

While there might be some merit in their argument, I do find it interesting that some of the

same councillors who are such advocates of using a grants program on the South side of Colborne Street are the same people who argued vehemently against the grants program in

the first place. Perhaps some councillors have had a conversion on the road to Colborne Street?

The south side of Colborne Street has been the wart on the nose of downtown. It was so bad

that it stood in for an abandoned town in a horror movie. The residents of Brantford are sick of this situation and want it fixed. Most members of council heard loud and clear, during the last election, that citizens want this situation resolved sooner rather than later.

Last year might have been a better year to start this project as we are too close to the "silly season" that starts next January when councillors start their reelection campaigns.

However, you cannot turn the clock back no matter how hard we might wish to do so. This project will have to run the gauntlet of political ambition and politics over the next few years before we can be as proud of our downtown as we are of Harmony Square.

Perhaps most telling in this process is the narrow one-vote margin by which the project passed the first hurdle.

Mayor Hancock has a big job to steer this project to completion. Fortunately, he has a record of winning the votes that he needs to keep things on track.

Democracy is a very messy business and we are all going to get a little soiled before this project is complete.

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