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John Tory is the best choice for Toronto now

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Toronto didn’t get the full-out, in-depth debate on city issues it needed and deserved this election season, and that’s on Doug Ford.

His decision to cut city council in half in mid-campaign, and the legal wrangling that followed, turned this election into a four-week sprint — not nearly long enough to properly discuss the challenges Toronto faces.

Toronto Mayor John Tory opens his re-election campaign in Liberty Village.
Toronto Mayor John Tory opens his re-election campaign in Liberty Village.  (Steve Russell / Toronto Star)

But on Monday, Oct. 22, voters will have to make a choice for mayor and they should be asking themselves a couple of key questions.

Who will be best at making sure the new, smaller council works well together?

And who’s most likely to be able to work effectively with other governments — most importantly, Ford and his ministers — for the long-term benefit of Toronto?

Jennifer Keesmaat, the city’s chief planner for five years, has put forward the strongest challenge to John Tory, her old boss.

Keesmaat has a lot of things going for her. She has energy to burn and a lot of fresh ideas. Some of them — like building bike lanes on Yonge Street North and tearing down the eastern portion of the Gardiner Expressway — gladden the hearts of those who find Tory far too conservative.

And Keesmaat has zeroed in on Tory’s most vulnerable spot — his lack of flash and fire, his tendency to try to please everyone. He isn’t a true leader, she says; he lacks “vision” and didn’t stand up strongly enough for the city when Ford launched his outrageous attack on civic democracy.

We’re sympathetic to all this. Our city is growing by leaps and bounds; tens of thousands of people flock here every year and it’s the destination of choice for tech firms looking for a true centre of innovation. We’re in the big-time and we should be thinking big.

Yet Keesmaat hasn’t closed the deal. It’s hard to square her tenure as Tory’s chief planner, faithfully developing and endorsing his plans, with her ringing denunciations of him and all his works now. And it’s impossible to judge how effective she would be as a politician for the simple reason that she’s never held any sort of elected office. Coming up with good ideas is one thing; the measure of a political leader is how well you work with others to turn them into reality.

Her rhetoric is more exciting than Tory’s (that’s easy to do), but on key issues they’re basically on the same page. He backs the Scarborough subway extension (a very bad idea), and so does she, with a bit of a twist. He’s kept residential property taxes low; she says she would do the same. In other areas, she’d do pretty much what Tory promises, but (she claims) faster and better. It’s more about style than substance.

As for Tory, there’s little mystery. Toronto has had four years to see what he can do, and we haven’t hesitated to criticize him when he falls short or is just plain wrong. We wish, for example, that he’d been quicker off the mark last winter when the shelter crisis erupted. That was Tory at his timid worst.

But on other issues Tory has shown real leadership. The influx of asylum seekers this past summer could have blown up into something ugly and divisive; indeed, elements in the right-wing media were trying to fan those flames. But Tory never fed the fears. Instead, he headed off the potential crisis. Likewise, he’s been on the right side of the debate over safe injection sites, another hot-button issue.

On highway tolls, he stuck his neck way out to demand that the city be allowed to raise new money for transit. He was shot down by the Wynne government, but he fought hard and came away with $170 million in new gas tax revenue. That was a big win.

And on transit, he is actually getting things done. Sure, his signature SmartTrack plan morphed into a lot less than was promised in 2014. But he’s right that billions of new funding is in place and transit is getting built for the first time in years. Planning for the much-needed downtown relief line is funded and underway. Of course we’d like to see it finished quicker, as Keesmaat promises. But the credit must go to Tory for pushing this project along after literally decades of delay.

Did Tory drop the ball when Ford slashed city council? It would have been more emotionally satisfying to have a mayor who yelled back at the premier. But the outcome would surely be the same. The key for the city is having a mayor who can work effectively with other governments, including (indeed, especially) when they don’t see eye to eye.

If he does win a second term, Tory needs to up his game. Housing and affordability are the biggest issues for most voters, and he should do more in this area. He should not hesitate, for example, to borrow freely from Keesmaat’s best ideas — including her ambitious housing plan. More broadly, he should reach out more to progressive city councillors. He does have a vision of a united city, even if he isn’t very good at articulating it.

Right now we need a mayor who can speak to the whole city, the suburbs as well as downtown, and get the new city council working well together. John Tory has shown he is best placed to do that.

John Tory has been Toronto’s mayor for four years and now he wants you to re-elect him. What will he do to win your vote? Ask him yourself.

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‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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