Note: I received a response on Saturday afternoon from Councillor Denise Brown, I have asked her permission to post it here, and will do so in the event that she grants that permission. The following is my reply to her response.
To: Councillor Denise Brown
cc: Janette MacDonald, Joel Adams, Bob Usher
Hello, Councillor Brown,
Thank you for your speedy reply and for the additional information. With your permission, I will post your reply on my blog alongside my response (the latter will be posted at urbanfossil.com just after I hit ‘send’ on this email).
To begin, I don’t envy your circumstance – stewarding a city of this size isn’t easy, and I know making the ‘right’ choice may not mean making a popular choice, or even a choice that represents a clear plurality or majority. And yet, in spite of this, you are expected to make the ‘best’ choice – one that will likely not please everyone. Unenviable, indeed.
It is for this reason that I won’t attempt to “armchair quarterback” past decisions, nor will I address the nuances of the proposal’s history and changes as David Billson, CEO of digital media company rtraction and chair of the Pillar Non Profit Board, has done so fabulously in this post on medium.com.
Instead, I want to focus on some of the objections you – among others – have raised regarding this latest proposal and the reasons I would feel compelled to say ‘yes’ to this latest ask were I in your position.
I’ll start with the elephant in the room. Fanshawe has come back to the City, seeing Council as the most expedient way to offset the increased costs of their downtown expansion due to an opportunity that simply wasn’t available in 2011: The purchase and renovation of the Kingsmill’s building.
I’ve spoken with some people who feel that – as you’ve mentioned – the initial ask was promised to cover both the current and the second campus, and that now Fanshawe is seeking to take advantage of the City. This view seems to have been met with a ‘fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me‘ conceit and certainly your response suggests you were viewing this matter through that lens.
I don’t believe that Fanshawe is heading back to an ‘easy trough’ with the latest ask; rather, I believe that the College has seen the benefits of being in Downtown London and wishes to ‘double down’ by adding not 1000 students, but 60% more than the original projection, with capacity to grow to 100% more students – 2000 in total, at a cost of half the initial investment.
Additionally, Fanshawe is not the only beneficiary of this plan: That these students will be a boon to our City is indisputable and the Brantford Study figures referenced by both David Billson and Emerging Leaders certainly supports this position. I’m certain our current, fiscally responsible Council would not have endorsed the initial plan were this not the case.
I’ve also heard the sentiment expressed (and again, your reply also indicated) that Fanshawe seems to have enough money to advance this on their own. I’m no financial whiz, and I have not looked through the College’s financial statements, but in any case, the questions around ‘how much money does Fanshawe actually have‘ really ought to be asked of the institution’s officials, not left to conjecture by the community.
With that said, we have most certainly learned one thing from the first ‘no‘ that we handed the College: if they were bluffing – and we did call their bluff – the fact that the institution let the deal expire should tell us something about their financial position (either that, or they have an awesome poker face).
Similarly, and relating to your concern about the source of the $100,000 per year for the next decade being offered by LDBA (which, as you know, is a business improvement area that has its budget – I believe – based on an enforced levy of downtown merchants rather than the broader London tax base, and is being offered from a constituent group that contributes 9% of the City’s tax revenue), I feel this is also best not left to conjecture, rather these questions should be put to the staff and board of LDBA at committee so that Council can make the most informed choice. I have copied Janette MacDonald, Bob Usher, and Joel Adams on this email so they can have an opportunity to provide a response in this forum, should they so choose.
With that said, if LDBA has chosen to commit to working with community partners in a fundraising effort to provide this support without compromising existing programming, their loud advocacy for this project should – if nothing else – demonstrate how much that organization and its constituent merchant members want this deal to happen. It’s important to note that this support, I’m given to understand, is mirrored by the offices of the City Manager, the Planning Department, and the City Treasurer, the latter indicating the full ask can be covered with no increased burden on the taxpayer.
It’s also been raised that Fanshawe is an academic institution, and as such it’s up to the Province to fund this initiative. From what I understand the reason Fanshawe is expanding is to accommodate organic growth of their program through that Provincial funding. Given that the funding of higher education is the responsibility of other levels of government, the assertion that London should not be footing the bill for these programs is correct; however, it seems to me that the issue is not one of funding the education program, but rather of how to pay for the facilities infrastructure required for new space, and – more to the point – where to put that new space. Again, from what I understand – capital infrastructure has historically been supported by institutional fundraising, and by all three levels of government, including Municipal, and thus this request is not out of order.
A prime example and analog of this model can be found with our community’s hospitals: operations and care are funded Federally and Provincially, but it’s regarded as the responsibility of the host community – through local fundraising and municipal government – to provide a significant financial contribution towards the infrastructure that – with the support of the other levels of government – will house those services.
I think it’s reasonable to assume that Fanshawe could choose to put these facilities virtually anywhere in London; specifically, they could choose to place the new facility in a part of the City that’s far less expensive to build on, even if they were building from scratch. I believe that Fanshawe has chosen – in part – to locate downtown because London has asked both Fanshawe and Western to bring some of their facilities (and their very valuable students and faculty) into our core. That it may be to the benefit of those institutions doesn’t negate the fact that the City can benefit as well – and, in the context of the selected location, the benefit weighs disproportionately in favour of the City in the long term. My view is that Fanshawe is asking that the City help support the further move into the downtown simply because it’s more expensive to buy and renovate in the core rather than place the facilities at a site in another, under-developed section of the City rather than the place we need it most.
Aside from all of the above, the simple truth is that London needs this. We need energetic, vibrant youth to come into the downtown and bring new life and infill density to our core. We need our City’s elected body to recognize one of those rare opportunities that can – relatively painlessly – be a catalyst in a broader sea change that will benefit all citizens of our City.
We also need to think about the messages were sending to large institutions beyond Fanshawe and Western. With our City gaining an enviable, global reputation for innovations in health sciences, advanced manufacturing, and digital media, opportunities for high-value, knowledge worker and skilled labour jobs are not just on the horizon, but at our doorstep; When it comes to the organizations who are choosing London over other places around the World, do we really want to be know as ‘The City That Won’t’ rather than ‘The City That Can’?
Finally, I’ve also heard it said that a lot of London taxpayers don’t want their hard-earned money going to the Downtown because they never go there; or that Fanshawe shouldn’t get their money because their kids are going to another school; or don’t have kids that will attend Fanshawe; or that they’re already paying enough tuition to the school on their children’s behalf. Well, in our city we have a lot of facilities I never use; a lot of programs I don’t have need for; and a lot of projects that I’m not necessarily supportive of. The reason I don’t write letters to you (or to the paper) and decry them is that I know that these places, programs, and projects are important to other people, and that sharing resources to make our City a great place to live for everyone is what can make us a stronger, more vibrant, and prosperous community today, and tomorrow.
Please let me know if I can provide anything further, and I thank you for your tine and continuing consideration in this matter,