Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The BC Liberal Sticking Point: 1 Premier & 2 Cabinet Ministers involved in wood building scandal

Clark overstepped fiscal bounds with failed plan for tallest wood building: former finance minister
VICTORIA AND VANCOUVER — The Globe and Mail, Mar. 10 2013.

Former finance minister Kevin Falcon says the political storm over a collapsed deal to build a palace for B.C. wood products in Prince George was triggered when Premier Christy Clark overstepped the bounds of what the provincial treasury was willing to pay.

On a September 19, 2011, visit to Prince George, home of two of her most powerful cabinet ministers, Ms. Clark stepped up the rhetoric around the long-promised Wood Innovation and Design Centre (WIDC), saying it would be the world’s tallest wood building.

Pat Bell, the Jobs Minister, also repeated the promise, making it difficult for Mr. Falcon, then responsible for the province’s purse strings, to pull back.

“That was an unfortunate description,” said Mr. Falcon in an interview. “As chair of Treasury Board and finance minister, I made it very clear it was not something that should be talked about because it was clearly not something we could deliver on with the dollars available.”

The mayor of Prince George at the time, Dan Rogers, said Ms. Clark’s public announcement that the wooden tower would be the world’s tallest meant the province had committed to a massive project.

“Obviously, when Premier Clark announced a 10-storey building, we were really excited,” Mr. Rogers said in an interview.

“When we did the math, it represented a $100-million investment.”

Mr. Falcon, who was replaced as Finance Minister after announcing he would not be running again in the coming election, said he is a long-time friend of Dan McLaren, one of the disgruntled proponents of the project, first mentioned in the government’s Throne Speech in 2009.

Mr. McLaren and another local businessman named Brian Fehr have alleged that the Jobs Minister made promises and assurances to them that Mr. Fehr’s proposal, using land controlled by Mr. McLaren, would be shortlisted for the government contract to build the Wood Centre. That proposal did not make the short list, however, and an $8.9-million loan to Mr. McLaren by a public trust fund is now in default.

Mr. Falcon said he was careful to stay out of the development of the project because of his association with Mr. McLaren and said he never tried to set up a meeting for the Prince George businessman with the Premier. He said he was not aware that Mr. McLaren had assembled a significant amount of land in the city’s downtown until much later in the process.

“I always advised Dan the same thing, the only commitment I was ever aware of around this property was the $25-million commitment from government, and that was all we would be spending. … The dollar commitment from government never varied. The issue that Dan McLaren constantly complained to me about was that it had been described by the current Premier and Minister Bell that it was going to be the world’s largest wood construction building.”

As the head of Treasury Board, his refusal to budge on the dollar figure effectively killed the project that Mr. McLaren was counting on because a smaller building would not use all the land Mr. McLaren had assembled with the loan from the public trust.

“What I kiboshed was that this was going to be the world’s tallest wood building. I said that was not going to be possible with the dollars available,” he said.

The former finance minister acknowledged that he was under pressure to reconsider.
“That wasn’t particularly well-received by anyone, including Dan. But that was the only commitment we were aware of at Treasury Board and certainly we didn’t have the fiscal room to make the world’s tallest wood building.”


Christy Clark brushes off criticism from Kevin Falcon about wood building
CBC News, Mar 11, 2013.

B.C. Premier Christy Clark continues to face criticism from within her own party, this time from former finance minister Kevin Falcon, over her promises to build a new centre for wood innovation in Prince George.

In 2011, Clark said the government would build "the world's tallest multi-use wood building" to house the new research centre.

That led many to conclude the building would have to be at least 10 storeys tall to match the size of existing wood buildings. Some estimates put the cost of a 10-storey wood structure at $100 million.

Falcon says it was clearly not something the province could deliver, because the province had only committed $25 million to the project.
On Sunday he told The Globe and Mail the premier overstepped the limits of what the province was willing to pay for the new building.

Falcon came second to Clark in the B.C. Liberal's 2011 leadership race and is not running again in the upcoming May election, leading to speculation he may be trying to distance himself from Clark with his comments, perhaps in preparation for a run for federal politics.

He was not at the legislature on Monday when the premier was forced to sidestep questions from reporters about his comments, saying she did not know what motivated Falcon's words.

"I don't know what motivates anybody's comments, but the thing is, at the end of the day, this project is happening," said Clark.

"Particularly over a period of time...projects will change, the scope of things will change, budgets will change."

But NDP leader Adrian Dix said he was not impressed by Clark's explanation.

"Clearly the government, on this issue in terms of its fiscal management, has been found wanting — not by me, but by Mr. Falcon," said Dix.

The Wood Innovation and Design Centre will be built at the old Prince George Hotel site on George Street and is expected to house both academic and research programs focused on advancing B.C.'s expertise in wood-related products.

It is not the first time the project has been in the news. Last month a Prince George developer alleged that Jobs Minister Pat Bell personally promised him he would be short listed for the project, but the minister insisted everything was handled properly.

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