Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition January 24, 2015
As the land deal for a hotel near Winnipeg’s Convention Centre begins to unravel, some of the overarching implications of an impending CentreVenture internal review has placed the downtown development group in the crosshairs of Winnipeg’s new mayor, Brian Bowman.
Bowman noted that the way CentreVenture Development Corporation has acted over the last while is “unacceptable” as it pertains to real estate holdings and deals in the city.
CentreVenture functions as an autonomous arm’s-length entity in Winnipeg and was put in place by previous incarnations of council and the province to help spur growth in its downtown.
The group operates to a certain extent much like Renaissance Brandon in our city — its mandate is to foster growth, predominantly in the real-estate realm, by connecting the dots between developer, other levels of government and potential tenants.
Bowman promised in his campaign to chip away at the secrecy of dealings in the provincial capital and thus far he is putting his money where his mouth is.
The suspension of acting CAO Deepak Joshi was just one of a handful of big moves the rookie mayor has made in his attempt to clean up some of the troubles Winnipeg is facing, with CentreVenture appearing to be the next in line.
As the evolution of CentreVenture rolls out over the next couple of months, it will without a doubt reflect upon the future operations of Renaissance Brandon here in our community as well. The Brandon downtown development group has long patterned its playbook after its Winnipeg big brother, and has felt some of the same growing pains over the past number of years.
For both Renaissance Brandon and CentreVenture to maximize their effectiveness, there needs to be a level of autonomy to perform their daily tasks.
In real estate — where both do the lion’s share of their business — if all acts are public, it could end up costing taxpayers much more for the group to acquire and trade properties, as was the case when plans went public for property acquisitions in Brandon by our group.
Shortly after those plans became public, a review of the operating structure for our downtown development group began — something that to my knowledge continues to take place.
Both groups will also face these new realities with different faces at the wheel. Renaissance Brandon president and CEO Braden Pilling has moved on in his career, while in Winnipeg, former CEO Ross McGowan retired at the end of last year. The latter change will pose a hefty challenge for CentreVenture’s new CEO, Angela Mathieson, who now has to answer questions and appear before Bowman and his team in an attempt to rebuild civic trust with the organization.
At the very least, CentreVenture’s dealings will be scrutinized, and it may be forced to overhaul its operating model through recommendations from Bowman and his executive policy committee.
If that is the case, the decision may be a reflection of things to come for our city as well. If the legalities of public funds operating in some form of secrecy becomes a further taboo, then it will most likely cause Renaissance Brandon to further change the way it operates — namely having more political involvement as the “checks and balances” of public funds.
It may also cause groups such as CentreVenture or Renaissance Brandon to divulge the names of groups they are operating with in completing land deals. This type of public disclosure will almost surely undermine the process of sales and will drive up the price of properties, especially where land assembly is the end goal for an organization.
Although it’s very early in the process, there is still the outside chance this is the beginning of the end for an organization such as CentreVenture. Bowman could close the program with the stroke of a pen, and with scrutiny currently at the highest degree, the closed-door dealings of operations like it have become the “old boys’ clubs” of the past that their very existence tried for years to combat.
As for Brandon’s version of a downtown development group? Renaissance Brandon is an organization where I spent a couple of years at the helm as board chair, and at the most basic level, most Brandonites believe it does good work.
That said, however, the next step is crucial to Renaissance Brandon’s survival — putting all the cards on the table for council and the public to see, or risk losing the game completely.