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Toronto zoo board considering company’s pitch to build ‘maglev’ floating train

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Toronto Zoo’s defunct passenger-bashing monorail could whir back to life as a high-tech “people mover” with visitors peering at animals while magnetically levitating over the old track.

The zoo board on Thursday will consider anew a 2016 proposal by Edmonton-based Magnovate Technologies to build, at no cost to the taxpayers, a $25-million driverless ride ferrying people around the zoo in cars floating above the monorail “guideway,” pushed by electromagnets.

Magnovate Technologies is proposing to build a "maglev" train which would float above the old monorail tracks at the Toronto zoo.
Magnovate Technologies is proposing to build a « maglev » train which would float above the old monorail tracks at the Toronto zoo.  (Artist’s rendering / Magnovate Technologies)

Magnovate says approval to proceed would let it seek a mix of government and private investment to prove its technology is better and cheaper to build than “maglev” systems long used in parts of China and Japan and now proposed for a northeast U.S. commuter line.

Most projects percolating internationally, for a technology that hasn’t yet fulfilled its space-age promise but is gaining ground in Asia, focus on speed. Backers of the U.S. proposal say travellers could blast from Baltimore to Washington, D.C. in only 15 minutes.

But the Toronto zoo proposal would glide visitors past animal enclosures at a sedate 10 km/h, accelerating to no more than 30 km/h between five stops.

In its pitch to the zoo board, Magnovate says the ride itself would become a magnet for visitors “desirous of riding the first commercial maglev transit system on our continent.” Tickets could cost between $12 and $15 per ride. Magnovate and the zoo would split revenues under a 15-year agreement.

Zoo staff are recommending the board give the proposal a green light.

“It would be an enhancement from a guest experience” says Jennifer Tracey, the zoo’s senior director of marketing, communications and partnerships.

“Also it would run year-round and be climate-controlled where the current (open-air trackless trolley) Zoomobile runs from May to October and in May and October only on weekends.”

Dan Corns, Magnovate chief executive, says a previous funding pitch for the zoo project was well-received by Sustainable Development Technology Canada but a new application with a firm expression of interest from the zoo board will have a better shot.

The project would show investors and potential clients that Magnovate technology, with cars carrying 10 to 15 passengers running independently or in clusters, darting into a station on demand while the rest of the cluster keeps moving, is viable for bigger urban commuter uses, says Corns.

The vehicles and track would be less heavy than those with traditional connected maglev trains, he said, and costs can be kept down at the zoo because the monorail track can be adapted.

Proponents are hoping the new system, if built, will have a happier run than the Toronto Zoo monorail which ran from 1976 to 1994 and cost $14 million to build.

While lauded as a futuristic way to comfortably view otherwise inaccessible parts of park, the “Domain Ride” had a 1991 crash between trains that injured nine people.

Three years later a train leaving a station lost power on a steep hill and rolled backward into another train, sending 37 people to hospital with various injuries.

“It was like warp speed backwards,” the 22-year-old train operator told the Star at the time. It never reopened.

Magnovate has assured the zoo board that its maglev technology is safe.

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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‘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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