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Winnipeg’s mayor lashed out at the city’s downtown-development agency in a surprise news conference Tuesday, accusing its officials of continuing to withhold vital information about a major downtown development.

Surrounded by several members of his executive committee, Brian Bowman disputed comments reported in Tuesday’s Free Press by CentreVenture chairman Curt Vossen and former CEO Ross McGowan and Bowman said CentreVenture continues to refuse to release details about the project proposed by True North.

Bowman compared CentreVenture’s dealing with True North as similar to the questionable real estate scandals at city hall that led to three independent audits and an RCMP investigation.

"For too long, there’s been little to no accountability on how tax dollars get spent on massive projects in Winnipeg done under the cloak of secrecy. Lack of accountability, private discussions, secret documents is no longer acceptable," Bowman said. "The old norm is not how we’re doing things at city hall any more... Information sharing on decisions for millions and millions of dollars, openness, transparency — that is the new norm and the new rule of thumb."

Tuesday’s news conference appeared to be a continuation of the harsh back-and-forth between Bowman and his EPC with CentreVenture officials at two meetings at city hall, where details emerged of True North’s plans for a mega project on two lots straddling Carlton Street north of the convention centre.

The contractor doing the $180-million expansion of the convention centre, Stuart Olson, was supposed to have brought a hotel partner to the project, which would build a hotel — initially near the convention centre and later at the site of the former Carlton Inn, at 220 Carlton St., which CentreVenture bought and demolished.

At a special meeting of EPC, CentreVenture officials said they only got involved in the hotel deal at the direction of former mayor Sam Katz when it was clear that Stuart Olson was backing out of the hotel component. They said they had kept Katz and several senior administrators involved of all developments.

It was suggested by convention centre chairman Bob Silver that CentreVenture’s involvement had undermined its efforts with Stuart Olson. Stuart Olson agreed to pay the convention centre $3.75 million, in lieu of a $16-million hold back for failing to build the hotel. CentreVenture wants that money to offset any losses with its purchase of the Carlton Inn property. Council agreed to transfer the funds only on condition that CentreVenture now conduct a public expression of interest process for the property, which some say jeopardizes True North’s involvement in the project,

McGowan and Vossen told the Free Press this week that they kept Bowman’s people informed when he became mayor but Bowman insists the agency is still withholding information.

It’s believed that the True North project involves a joint development of the Carlton Inn property along with the surface parking lot across the street, at 225 Carlton, owned by MPI. It’s believed True North will build a hotel surrounded by a public square on the surface parking lot. It’s believed True North is proposing to construct the new headquarters for Manitoba Lotteries and Liquor at the 220 Carlton site, integrate the designs of both sites and connect each with skywalks to the MTS Centre and the convention centre.

Bowman said all he and council want is detailed information surrounding the proposed development of the former Carlton Inn property but he said CentreVenture has withheld information or put conditions on information it did provide him that prevent that information from being shared with council and the public.

Mayor Brian Bowman also said that a video of True North’s project that was shown to his chief of staff, Jason Fuith, in December wasn’t clear on what was being proposed or where it was to be built.

BORIS MINKEVICH / FREE PRESS FILES

Mayor Brian Bowman also said that a video of True North’s project that was shown to his chief of staff, Jason Fuith, in December wasn’t clear on what was being proposed or where it was to be built.

"We need to pull this into the public. This has been and remains fully about the process by which you conduct land transactions with taxpayers dollars and about transparency," Bowman said about the True North deal. "Let’s get all the facts, option details and location of the hotel out on the table so we can all do the right thing, both as an arm’s length agency of the city responsible for taxpayers’ dollars and as a council elected to protect citizens and their hard-earned dollars."

Bowman disputed claims that McGowan sent an email on Nov. 20 to his chief of staff, Jason Fuith, providing details of CentreVenture’s deal with True North.

"We don’t have any record of an email coming from Ross McGowan to me or my staff."

Bowman also said a video of the True North project shown to Fuith in the mayor’s office on Dec. 20 lacked key details about where the project would be built and if it included a hotel at 220 Carlton St.

Bowman said the video presented the True North project as "a cool downtown development but where is it located? Those are the questions we’ve been asking."

Bowman said the actions by McGowan and Vossen were a "push back" to his attempts to make public all the information about the True North proposal for the 220 and 225 Carlton St properties.

"This is the type of pushback that is to be expected when you change things so drastically," Bowman said. "CentreVenture provided my office with some unclear information under strict restrictions of confidentiality over the last two- and-half months and the information provided conflicts directly with what they’ve said publicly."

Bowman said there were conditions attached with those documents that prevent him from sharing them with other members of council and the public, which he said is not acceptable.

Bowman said any information he had about True North’s involvement in the project was largely the result of "rumblings" and rumors and when he did have information about it he was not allowed to admit until it was disclosed at a special EPC meeting.

Bowman said CentreVenture’s handling of the Carlton Inn property justifies his calls for a review of the agency’s mandate. Bowman said discussions will be held with CentreVenture officials on how they operate and how they report to council, raising the possibility that the agency, its staff and board of directors, may not exist for much longer in its current model.

"Right now I’m not convinced we’ve got the structure in place to ensure we have all the information that we need," Bowman said. "We need to follow better processes and where they need to change, we will make changes."

 

aldo.santin@freepress.mb.ca