NOTE: I cam across this recently, and cut and pasted it.
By local Journalist David Berner
Makes for quite disgusting reading
THE STORY OF “O”
By David Berner
Bob Ransford loves Richmond. He was born and raised in Richmond. He actually lives in Richmond. He asked Malcolm Brodie to run for office and helped Brodie get elected in a bi-election in 2001 and then again in 2002. Today, Ransford is heartbroken.
“Richmond is drifting. The City has a corporate vision, but it was crafted by the bureaucratic and political elites in City hall without any public by-in. The only way the elites can achieve their corporate vision is to spend whatever it takes in pursuit of their goal of making Richmond ‘the most appealing, liveable and well-managed community in Canada.’ It is costing us dearly in every way.”
Nothing focuses Ransford’s angst more clearly than The Richmond Speed Skating Oval for the 2010 Olympics. The Oval is a colossus. It is the grandest construction project of the 2010 Olympics and the costliest single project assembled by a Richmond government. Here’s how the official City of Richmond website describes the project:
The Richmond Oval will be home to long track speed skating during the 2010 Games. The Oval is being built by the City of Richmond at a budgeted cost of $178 Million. Post-Games, the Oval will be a centre for sports and wellness. It will boast ice, hardwood and indoor turf surfaces. It is located on 32 acres of City owned land along the banks of the Fraser River. Site clearing and construction have begun and completion is scheduled for fall, 2008. The Oval will qualify for ongoing funding from a $110 Million Legacy Trust to offset operating costs.
The Straight has discovered “the rest of the story.”
The Oval is reported regularly to be “on time and on budget.”
Originally slated for November 2007, completion has been moved first to April 2008, then fall, 2008. Drive by. To date, it looks like a pile of sand.
The oft-quoted $178 Million covers the Oval and the underground parking garage. Never mentioned are the following costs, necessitated entirely by the Oval. Purchase of CP Lands right-of-way (estimated $12M); River Road realignment (est. $7M); Hollybridge Way widening to 4 lanes ($?); Lansdowne Road widening and extensions ($?); new north-south local roads, as yet undetermined ($?); public art; Plaza ($5.2M), travel and consultation $1.5M), and ongoing daily staff time ($?). The true cost is already well in excess of $200 Million and climbing. The Torino speed skating facility was built for $100 Million.
As for the $110M Legacy Trust, that is the capital, not the interest, some portion of which Richmond might acquire. Richmond City Manager George Duncan admitted to me in a recent meeting at City hall that the City might get only $1.9 – $3M annually, even though they continue to trumpet the $110M figure at every opportunity. The Legacy Trust Board has yet to meet.
Who is running this project? John Furlong is the public face of the 2010 Olympics. Who’s in charge of the Oval?
We asked City Councillor Bill McNulty if there is a Mr. Oval.
“No. I guess it’s City Manager George Duncan by default.”
Peter Webster, a developer and seasoned sportsman at local and international levels, is a member of the Oval Steering Advisory Committee. We asked him who’s at the helm.
“George Duncan. But he has so many other issues to deal with: works yard, the firemen, people on stress leave.”
Is there one person who is Mr. Oval?
Shouldn’t there be?
Adds Bob Ransford, “There is no Mr. Oval. To be Mr. Oval, you would have to be a champion. To be a champion, you would have to develop community will, you have to communicate with people.”
Ransford continues, “The Oval began behind closed doors – a megalomaniac idea – the brainchild of a small group of people looking for nothing more than self-aggrandizement. Unfortunately, they also had the keys to the taxpayers’ vault. George Duncan has the world’s biggest Lego set and unsuspecting taxpayers have given it to him.”
One need only study Duncan’s official credit card receipts to witness how carefully he spends taxpayers’ dollars. Aside from a dazzling catalogue of restaurant and hotel charges in almost a dozen locales worldwide, witness only these 3 entries made on December 15, 2005:
Lufthansa- Skyphone, calls to staff in Torino, Italy, $93.82, $117.28 and $11.73.
These 3 calls made, presumably on one flight, must have been of the highest priority.
Duncan confirms that all the Oval project managers and senior staff report to him.
“In the end,” he told The Straight, “the buck stops with me at the administrative level, and at City Council at the political level.”
We asked Bill McNulty if City Council ever challenges Duncan about how he spends public money.
“No. The public views us as a spendthrift council. The Mayor should provide direction, but he doesn’t appear to want to know details. He just wants the Oval built.”
McNulty, Webster and Ransford all have concerns about the lack of hired expertise and a staff that are struggling to operate above their levels of competence.
McNulty offers this impression of one of the many oversees staff trips. “I’ve asked are the experts involved? The staff and council are just not experienced. You see, we’re playing ball with the Big Boys now and most of our people have come from Parks and Recreation. I don’t have any problem with travel, but are the right people going? In Torino, we were there to look at long track skating – that’s what the Oval is about. But instead we had one ticket for long-track and 5 tickets for hockey. We weren’t there to look at hockey.”
Webster questions the leadership.
“City staff doesn’t use the expertise they have around the table. Frankly, I wonder if they know what they’re doing. This is the showcase piece, and they’ve never done anything like this before. The communication from the staff is not good. Look, I’m involved in a small project, about $13 Million, and I talk my guys every day and I get a piece of paper to look at several times a week. It’s a huge step to move from municipal, recreational concerns to a world-class facility. Frankly, staff finds it hard to accept that there are people smarter than them. On the Steering committee, we have doers in the real world, but there are no entrepreneurs on staff. One senior staffer was managing a swimming pool before this.”
Ransford is even more sanguine. “They’ve hired a raft of new people for the bureaucracy. There’s no check on spending at all. But they haven’t hired any experts, people who could really help, because they believe that they are the experts.”
We point out to Duncan that many see him as the undeclared leader. He says, “Look, I’m the guy who went to Council and recommended the 3 advisory committees. I was the one who raised the name of Dr. Roger Jackson as an important contributor and recommended that we hire outside project and construction managers. I’ve just become the lightening rod for any criticism that arises. ”
Bruce Rosenhart, a Vancouver communications consultant and a Richmond resident, is another member of the Oval Steering Advisory Committee.
“The committee is only concerned with the Oval structure, not with any extraordinary costs, like parking, art, the road diversion, and CP Rail. This must not be a white elephant. Richmond has traditionally been seen as Vancouver’s poor second cousin, as a ‘tail-end Charlie.’ The Oval is the architecturally defining facility for Richmond. The only serious question I have is does anyone on council or anyone on staff have a real over-all vision for Richmond?”
Sport BC, the umbrella organization for more than 80 sports groups and 800,000 active participants in the province, has been in discussion with Oval staff for some time now about how they might cooperate on facilities and programs post-Olympics.
After dozens of meetings with Oval staff, Sandra Stevenson, the President and CEO of Sports BC, now asks, “Where is the leadership? Who is the decision maker? I’ve spent too much time exchanging information. How are we modelling a shared vision? It’s not apparent to me. What is apparent is that it’s all about power and control.”
Local Unions are incensed with the Oval project on at least 2 important levels. It was revealed through a Freedom of Information that George Duncan signed an agreement guaranteeing labour peace during the Olympic period. Because the City has a clear obligation to consult with the union on such matters, the union has filed a grievance with the city. Quite simply, Duncan didn’t have the authority to make those assurances. As well, the unions are raising important, and unanswered, questions about security. Asks a union official, “Who is doing security for the Olympics? The FBI, the CIA, CSIS? Will our members be marshalled? And who is checking security levels on the people who are actually constructing the project?”
A recent Steering Committee meeting in July was cancelled. The reason given was that there was nothing to discuss. Six meetings were cancelled last summer.
McNulty says, “This is a huge project. There’s always something important to discuss.”
Webster agrees, “The process has never functioned smoothly. They changed the schedule mid-stream. They only call the meeting together when they think it’s important. The last meeting was cancelled, because they said there was nothing important to discuss. When there’s $178Million and less than 1200 days, there’s always something important.”
Duncan responds that the people who complain are the same people who have themselves missed recent meetings.
How is Richmond City Hall functioning these days with all the Oval excitement in its midst?
Duncan estimates that 10% of his day is taken up with the Oval. Yet he spent 2 1/2 hours with The Straight on a recent morning and churns out Oval-related e-mails and memos by the basketful.
McNulty despairs, “The city is on hold because the Oval is a full-time project. We’re trying to run a city, but this is a full-time project.”
Ransford is a development consultant with over $300M in developments to his credit. He reports, “Today when you go into city hall to deal with some local project, they tell you, “Oh, we can’t do that; everyone’s working on the Oval!” This is an exact repeat of the Tall Ships episode. “We can’t do that; we’re working on the Tall Ships!””
But City Manager George Duncan insists that the work of the city hasn’t stopped. “When we received complaints that some of our staff had told people they were busy with the Oval, I went to council and secured additional funds to bring in more people to deal with the extra work load.”
Was this added to the Oval budget?
“The full scope of the work,” admits Duncan, “costs more than the $178M for the design and building of the Oval. But these things – like re-aligning River Road – have been in our plans for years.”
Moving these roads and re-working the riverfront, however, have all been precipitated by the Oval?
Duncan readily agrees. “Exactly. We have a Land Acquisition Budget, for example. We don’t have to take the money from anywhere else.”
Ransford questions the entire enterprise. “How will we pay for the construction of the Oval? We still don’t completely know. How will we pay to operate the facility after the games? We don’t really know. And will the community be a better place when all is said and done?”
Webster is equally discouraging. “We have no concrete information. We have no business plan. We have no marketing plan. We have no financial plan.”
Where are we today?
Webster shrugs, “I have no idea.”
In letters dated July 13 and August 2, 2004, Bob Ransford warned Mayor Malcolm Brodie of the potential for the current state of affairs.
“Does the public not have the right to know the general details of the bid before you make it? Should not the scope of the project – magnitude of public investment in land, capital cash requirements and guarantees, public uses, etc. be known in advance?
This is now the central focus of everyone at City Hall, and [everything else] has been superseded by the City’s new “Olympic culture.” Shouldn’t we be discussing as a community whether we want to make this shift in focus before we make it?
We are not getting a long-term vision or building on our strengths. Instead we are living in a dream world, where more exciting projects eclipse the mundane.”
Is the Mayor listening?
Are Richmond voters listening?