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Nalcor issues stop-work order to Astaldi; 500 workers being sent home from Muskrat Falls

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Nalcor Energy is breaking ties with the financially-troubled main contractor at the Muskrat Falls hydro megaproject, after weeks of fiscal and legal conflict between the two companies.

Nalcor has directed the Canadian subsidiary of Italian construction firm Astaldi to stop working on the site, and is arranging for Astaldi’s 500 workers in Labrador to return home.

The latest dramatic development comes after weeks of legal jousting, with Astaldi seeking more cash for its work on Muskrat Falls, and Nalcor insisting Astaldi is responsible for debts owed to subcontractors and suppliers.

Astaldi has been facing financial woes both in Labrador and Italy, where the parent company has filed for a type of creditor protection.

‘Closely monitoring’ Astaldi financial situation

In an emailed statement sent late Thursday afternoon, Stan Marshall — the chief executive officer of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Crown energy corporation — said Nalcor has been « closely monitoring » Astaldi’s financial situation.

« Given Astaldi’s inability to continue to pay its workers, Nalcor has directed Astaldi to stop work, » Marshall said.

Work is focused on ensuring we meet the critical path for first power as planned in 2019.– Stan Marshall

« We are taking this action to minimize the financial harm placed upon the workers by Astaldi. »

Marshall said Nalcor’s immediate priority is to « make arrangements for Astaldi’s approximately 500 workers living at the Muskrat Falls site in Labrador to return home in a safe and orderly fashion. » 

According to Marshall, there are financial protections for those workers in place. Astaldi’s surety has directed payment of funds to the Resource Development Trades Council (RDTC), in relation to the contractor’s obligations to the workers’ pensions and benefits plan.

‘Challenging situation’ for workers

On Wednesday, CBC News reported that the RDTC — the umbrella group for 16 local trades unions working on the hydro megaproject — filed a $7.8 million lawsuit against Astaldi and Nalcor over unpaid remittances to those plans.

« We understand this is a challenging situation for workers and will continue to work with the RDTC to address their outstanding concerns, » Marshall said.

Workers are pictured at the Muskrat Falls site in Labrador in this June 2018 file photo. The Resource Development Trades Council, which represents 16 unions there, has filed a $7.8 million lawsuit against Astaldi and Nalcor. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

According to Marshall, Nalcor recently notified Astaldi that all of the funds the contractor is currently eligible to earn under its contracts have been paid.

He said the action against Astaldi « will not have any impact to the ongoing work activities of the other contractors and workers on site, » and their work will continue as planned.

« Work is focused on ensuring we meet the critical path for first power as planned in 2019. »

Contingency plan in place

The Muskrat Falls project is billions over budget and years behind schedule. But Marshall said a Plan B has been in the works, to keep the project on the rails going forward.

« We have also been working on a contingency plan to finish the work should Astaldi be unable to complete its remaining scope of work, » Marshall said in a statement.

« We remain committed to have first power from the project in 2019 with full power in 2020. Our goal is to finish this project strong and we’re ensuring that we have everything in place to do this. »

Stan Marshall is the CEO of Crown-owned Nalcor Energy. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

Astaldi was selected in 2013 to build the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric generation facility on the Churchill River in Labrador. The contract included construction of the intake and powerhouse, spillway and transition dams, with an 824-megawatt generating station.

It was originally valued at between $1 billion and $1.1 billion. 

Astaldi asked for more cash to finish the project, citing delays and higher costs.

Two years ago, Nalcor and Astaldi reached a deal to make that happen, jacking the bill up to $1.83 billion.

The latest total estimated price tag to complete Muskrat Falls, including financing costs, is $12.7 billion.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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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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Anglais

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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