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Longtime Toronto councillor lands top job in Niagara-on-the-Lake

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Betty Disero, a former Toronto city councillor who in 1991 briefly ran for mayor, has landed the top job in a completely different community.

Disero was recently elected “lord mayor” of Niagara-on-the-Lake, as the scenic tourist town calls its top municipal politician. She became the first woman to hold that post, after four years as a town councillor who made her mark warning residents about the hazards of uncontrolled development.

Betty Disero says her new home of Niagara-on-the-Lake is “growing so much more quickly than before, so we’re starting to have, believe it or not, issues with traffic congestion, overdevelopment.”
Betty Disero says her new home of Niagara-on-the-Lake is “growing so much more quickly than before, so we’re starting to have, believe it or not, issues with traffic congestion, overdevelopment.”  (Richard Hutton / Metroland file photo)

The town of more than 17,000, famous for wineries and the Shaw theatre festival, will also have a female “deputy lord mayor,” since Clare Cameron garnered the most votes for council.

In some ways, Disero said in an interview, the issues she’ll face in her four-year term mirror those of the much bigger boom town she left in 2009.

“This town is growing so much more quickly than before, so we’re starting to have, believe it or not, issues with traffic congestion, overdevelopment, losing some of the character of what used to be here,” Disero said, adding that in other ways Niagara-on-the-Lake is very different from Toronto.

“Toronto is not a farming community. We are a farming community here,” she said. “I’m learning about irrigation, the need for protecting bees, certain types of herbicides and pesticides — trying to balance all of that and the need for safe passage for pedestrians while allowing farmers to farm properly.”

Disero entered politics in the early 1980s as a Toronto separate school trustee, jumping in 1985 to council in the Davenport ward by defeating 25-year incumbent Joe Piccininni.

She was a major force at city hall for almost 18 years, the last six on the council of the new amalgamated city, with posts including chair of the Toronto Harbour Commission and later the TTC.

Then mayor Mel Lastman appointed Disero, a Liberal able to work across political lines, to a task force with a goal of diverting waste from landfill after Lastman’s plan to send waste to a decommissioned northern mine fell apart.

In March 2003, Disero stunned colleagues by announcing her retirement from politics, later setting up a lobbying firm, Boomer Consulting, named after her family dog.

Disero said it was a family tragedy — the 2009 death of her adult son Michael — that prompted her move out of Toronto.

“I needed to run away. I needed to start over,” she said. “I came to visit a friend in Niagara-on-the-Lake and it just felt like home the weekend I was here. The following weekend I came and bought a property and then built a house.”

She worked on her garden and learned about her new home until a Canada Day barbecue in 2014, when friends noted the rapidly growing town’s official plan hadn’t been reviewed in decades. They recalled her political past and urged her to make what was a successful run for council.

Disero says she tried to build alliances but found herself on the losing end of 8-1 votes, at odds with council colleagues who didn’t share her view about sometimes slowing down development amid fears that agricultural land, even in the protected Greenbelt, could become GTA-style subdivisions.

“There were a lot of people saying we needed to put in a tree bylaw, so developers couldn’t just come in and clear-cut. Some around the council table kept calling it the ‘Toronto intrusion,’ the idea that some trees and heritage sites deserve protection, but I didn’t get that from the public,” she said.

“I understood it. It was political — a little bit offensive, but my colleagues on council were not used to pushing.”

She decided to run for lord mayor and beat incumbent Patrick Darte with 4,169 votes to his 2,743.

Disero says in her four-year term, she will push to finally modernize the official town plan and create “an administration that can cope with the development in the area.

“I guess they’re not used to noise control and other issues large urban areas have been dealing with for years. All of those must be brought into the mix here,” while protecting homeowners’ property rights, she said, adding she marvels at Toronto’s growth while visiting her former home.

“I get a bit of a ‘Wow!’ feeling when I visit Toronto, but Niagara-on-the-Lake is my home now and I love every day here.”

Tom Elltoft, a local real estate agent who grew up in Niagara-on-the-Lake, says he is happy to have the Toronto transplant leading his hometown into the future.

“I think it’s great to have somebody who can offer the experience she has in her background,” he said. “We suddenly got on the radar of Toronto developers as they push out and I think we were feeling a little ill equipped at all levels to deal with it.

“You don’t want to close the doors on development — everyone has to grow — but it was feeling a little Wild West.”

David Rider is the Star’s City Hall bureau chief and a reporter covering Toronto politics. Follow him on Twitter: @dmrider

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Anglais

‘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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Anglais

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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