City to review some Shindico property deals

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation is claiming a citizen victory at Winnipeg City Hall.

The group joined other critics in calling for the city to bring changes to the way it manages and sells property, saying the real estate industry had lost confidence in the way the city does business.

Colin Craig, the CTF's director in the Prairies, appeared before the city's property and development committee on Monday.

He was joined by Brian Kelcey, a former advisor to Mayor Katz and an instructor in civic politics at the University of Winnipeg.

Kelcey told the committee "what's gone toxic at city hall in the past few years is a culture of deal making" without proper rules.

He urged the committee to change policies now to restore the confidence of the real estate industry and the general public. The first step is public disclosure of property contracts, he said.

Now a city committee has agreed to look into two of the most recent controversial land deals — one at the downtown Canada Post building and the former Dominion Bridge steel fabricating site in the St. James industrial neighbourhood — with the possibility of terminating them.

Both contracts were awarded to Shindico, a company that Mayor Sam Katz has been criticized for being too cozy with.

"The process that allowed for some of these questionable deals to go forward, that process has been stopped. So that's really good news for taxpayers," Craig said following the Monday meeting.

"I think we've also drawn council's attention to the need for transparency in some of these projects."

Shindico is also currently at the centre of the fire hall land swap deal, which is about to face an external review.

It comes following weeks of questions about the tentative deal that was to see the city flip two abandoned fire halls and some land over to Shindico in exchange for property on Taylor Avenue where a new fire-paramedic station has already been built.

Details of the land swap began to emerge after Shindico advertised a lease on one of the former fire halls, located on Grosvenor Avenue, even though the deal had not been finalized.

Katz has authorized the outside review of the deal.

Craig raised the issue about the Canada Post building last month, noting that in 2009, the city handed Shindico a contract to manage the facility — a deal worth more than $150,000 a year to Shindico.

Craig said the city should have put the work out to tender but no other agencies were contacted for the work.

"Obviously we have a concern when the city is handing out hundreds of thousands of dollars without really doing a competitive process to find out what the best rates are," he said.

Katz has also been grilled about a property he purchased from the sister of an executive from Shindico.

CBC News learned that Katz acquired an Arizona home in August from the sister of Diane Shindleman, Shindico's chief financial officer.

Documents filed with the Maricopa County Recorder's Office in Phoenix show that Katz acquired the house, in the Windgate Ranch development of Scottsdale, Arizona, from Teri Nordstrom on Aug. 23.

The house previously sold in 2008 for nearly $1.6 million US.

When asked by reporters where he got more than $1 million to buy the house, Katz listed his business successes, including his work as a promoter and property owner.

Arthur Schafer, an ethicist with the University of Manitoba, said he is concerned there is not enough separation between Katz's personal interests and the public interest.

Shindico's relationship with the city and Katz was also thrust into the spotlight earlier this year when a controversial proposal was pitched to build a $75-million water park near The Forks.

Canalta Development and WaterFun Products want to build a 50,000-square-foot water park and hotel complex on city-owned land across from Shaw Park, home of the Winnipeg Goldeyes Baseball Club — a team that Katz partly owns.

Canalta's agent was Shindico, whose top brass have been Katz's longtime business partners in the Goldeyes.

Canalta eventually pulled the proposal off the table but if council approved the plan, the developers would have received a $7-million city grant.

The city's property committee chair Jeff Browaty said the review is in addition to a larger examination of the city's real estate deals.

Browtaty said he believes the public can be confident in what the city is doing. "I think we're tightening things up and things are going to look better going forward," he said.

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