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Amid provincial review, Simcoe County leaders and residents want to chart their own course

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Nadine Woods, a business owner in the Georgian Bay town of Port McNicoll, doesn’t mince words when discussing the notion that a provincial review encompassing 82 municipalities and millions of people will result in improvements to her small community.

“I don’t think they know enough about our area to be able to butt their nose into our area and say that they know how to fix everything,” says Woods, the owner of Port McNicoll Barbershop. “I’m wary of the whole thing.”

Woods wants her local representatives to address the issues themselves.

County leaders couldn’t agree more. They say they intend to get ahead of provincial reviewers by coming up with recommendations of their own for reform.

The government’s announcement this week that it will review the governance of eight regional municipalities and the County of Simcoe has sparked a mix of speculation, concern and hope across the large part of the province that’s affected, which includes the highly-populated GTA regions of Peel, Durham and York. The consequences will also be felt in areas with more rural residents like Oxford and Simcoe counties.

The province says its goal is to cut red tape, find efficiencies and improve services, but some residents and municipal leaders worry the exercise is more about trimming the provincial deficit and getting rid of politicians.

“I think Queen’s Park is hemorrhaging money and they need to find some,” says Woods.

Her town of Port McNicoll is part of Tay, which has a population of roughly 10,000 and is represented by five ward councillors, along with a mayor and deputy mayor, who serve on county council — translating to an average of about 1,400 constituents per representative.

“They’re looking for things to cut here but we don’t have enough already,” she says.

Simcoe County politicians say previous attempts to slash the 32-member regional council (the largest in the province) have failed and the county must address representation across the board — at ward and regional level — that isn’t optimal, and improve service delivery. Made up of 16 member municipalities, all of which have two representatives at the regional council table, the county is a vast patchwork of jurisdictions ranging in population from 8,962 in Penetanguishene to 36,566 in Innisfil.

Spanning from York Region boundary in the south, up to the southern shores of Georgian Bay in the north, it’s also home to Barrie and Orillia, cities that function independently and don’t have a seat at county council, but share county-provided services like paramedics, long-term care and social housing. A county statement boasts of being one of the largest counties in Ontario, with combined population expected to surpass half a million this year.

Considering the looming review, county politicians are urgently developing their own plans for reform.

Anita Dubeau, deputy mayor of Penetanguishene, says the province’s unexpected move last spring to slash Toronto council in half during an election was “a wake-up call” for those in her region.

She says she and her colleagues must be proactive, considering past failed attempts to chop county council.

“I have supported downsizing our council for many years,” she says.

“There has been attempts to try to downsize that house (county council) for some years, but it’s very difficult when you bring it to the floor.”

Past efforts fell through because, among other reasons, the deputy mayor and mayoral representative from each of the 16 townships couldn’t agree on who should concede their seat, Dubeau says.

“I think there is more of a flavour for that now,” she says. “There is a lot of work to be done in the next six months.”

But she says an arbitrary cut like that inflicted on Toronto, would do more harm than good.

“We need to try to come up with a plan on our own,” she says.

Consolidation has been an ongoing evolution for Simcoe County, which once consisted of 32 municipalities — until a rearrangement of boundaries in the mid-’90s.

Tiny’s Mayor George Cornell, who also heads the county council, says “now that the province has come forward with a request for review, that definitely puts (municipal reform) front and centre for the county.

“We don’t want to be waiting.”

He wants to look at representation across all 16 communities to address set-ups that “aren’t optimal,” for a region he describes as “somewhat unique” due to its municipal makeup.

Cornell says it will be on the agenda for the next meeting.

“I don’t get the sense at all that it will be anything like the process used with Toronto,” he says, of the province’s review. “This will be more collaborative.”

Cornell and Dubeau agree the review could be catalyst for how to better deliver public services.

“We (Penetanguishene) do have some shared services with Midland and that’s a good beginning,” Dubeau says. “We have fire services that have been amalgamated.

Simcoe County residents and business owners the Star spoke to expressed a range of opinions about the provincial review, with some saying there is plenty of opportunity to find efficiencies, while others worrying about losing political representation or the province simply bungling the process.

Shanta Cadeau, co-owner of the Old Corner Store in Hillsdale, is among those who support the province.

“I think there is lot of wastage,” Cadeau says.

Across the street Evan Nelson, the owner of Hillsdale Truck and Auto Supply, is also on side. He says he supported the Ford government’s unprecedented move to slash Toronto city council by nearly half, but hopes Premier Doug Ford doesn’t take a similar rushed approach in Simcoe County.

“They should consult with us,” he says.

Missy Edwards, who resides in Tay Township but works as an accountant in neighbouring Midland, fears the review will result in municipalities being amalgamated and residents losing their political voice.

“Even with the councillors we have now it’s still hard to get your voice heard,” she says.

“When they get rid of red tape, it just seem to create more red tape.”

Jason Miller is a breaking news reporter based in Toronto. Reach him on email: jasonmiller@thestar.ca

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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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