He continually courted controversy, was synonymous with waste management and his legacy adorns the front of the Great Expansion at St. Thomas Elgin General Hospital.
St. Thomas developer – and author of 2012’s cautionary tale Madame McGuinty’s Teflon Academy – Bob McCaig died this past Wednesday (June 5) at the age of 79.
The former Elgin county school board trustee was not only a frequent contributor to City Scope, but he was also the focus of numerous items in this corner. Inclusion of the McCaig name could be counted upon to generate a considerable response, both pro and con.
His was a black and white canvas, there was no gray on Bob’s palette.
Love him or loathe him, there is no denying – at heart – he was a prolific community booster.
That may surprise many readers as Bob’s financial donations to organizations were generally low-key affairs or handled through the Green Lane Environmental Trust which continues to fund a variety of area undertakings.
After selling the Green Lane landfill site in Southwold to the City of Toronto, McCaig exited the waste and recycling business in St. Thomas and Elgin in 2009 when the Green Lane Environmental Group, of which he was president, sold its waste collection, recycling and materials recovery business to BFI Canada Inc.
The exception to the above community largesse was the $500,000 lasting legacy from Bob and wife Janet to St. Thomas Elgin General Hospital in 2014.
Ironically, 2014 proved to be a somewhat tumultuous year for Bob in the comings and goings at city hall.
In a year that featured a municipal election, Bob garnered considerable attention in a campaign centred on the need for a new police headquarters.
He commissioned Oraclepoll Research to poll 400 city residents over a five-day period to ascertain public opinion on the municipal vote, the current council and the level of service at city hall.
The results were compiled into the St. Thomas Municipal Election Report, which ascertained more than 60 per cent of those polled were opposed to the construction of a new police station.
However, the key finding was the fact where the police will be housed didn’t even crack the Top 12 top-of-mind issues facing the St. Thomas electorate.
McCaig stressed the poll was in no way “an attempt to control council or the mayor’s office.”
Pegged as a disruptive outside influencer, Bob and his polling drew the ire of mayoral candidate Cliff Barwick, who was attempting to unseat Mayor Heather Jackson.
“I am not mentioning any outside names, but the office of the mayor may be attempted to be controlled or unduly influenced by outside source or sources.”
It didn’t take much to connect the dots back to Bob.
On a roll, Barwick continued his tirade.
“I’ve never seen a situation where, in the last three mayoral elections, there has been an attempt to put candidates forward who would be under the influence of outside sources.”
Bob has been called many things, with outside source being one of the more gracious.
In addition to conducting a poll, Bob circulated a petition which warned the city cannot afford to construct a new police facility.
He categorized the petition as being all about “gentle persuasion.”
Bob explained, “The time for tough talk is over. It’s time to lay the information on in terms of facts.”
That petition prompted the following from St. Thomas lawyer Thomas Por.
“Mr. McCaig is a great guy and he has done much for this community but . . . if he feels that strongly about this or any other issue, he should run for council.”
To which Bob responded, “Oh for those of us who would be candidates but for the curse of age!”
The spring of 2014 saw Bob go head-to-head with the city over plans to construct a new community recycling centre to replace the Bush Line transfer station which he owned and operated.
His offer to lease the facility in lieu of constructing a new one didn’t even generate a lukewarm response at city hall in spite of Bob’s reminder, “I seemed to make it work.”
If you wanted to wind Bob up, turn the conversation to labour reform as illustrated in his 2012 letter to Randy Hillier, then Conservative MPP for Lanark, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington.
Gleaned from that letter is this observation.
“Public service unions representing police, fire, teachers at all levels, public service workers, indeed every unionized group in Ontario, has had a free ride at the expense of taxpayers with their inflated pension plans and special circumstances . . .”
Still with labour, Bob and former alderman Gord Campbell had a running battle over the years on such matters, however, we have to thank Mark Cosens for passing along this 2012 photo which we captioned, ‘the city’s newest bosom buddies.’
In 2015, Bob and his brother Don purchased the vacant parcel of land at 672 Talbot Street, previously the site of a car dealership and the YMCA prior to that.
His vision was to build an apartment complex, a game-changer for the downtown.
“If you want to have businesses downtown, you’ve got to have people downtown. This will bring several hundred people to the core. They’re going to want to have places to eat and places to shop. It will be like another Millcreek Place.”
McCaig was referring to his apartment development at 20 Dunkirk Drive.
“I think it’s well worth doing. And if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.”
As he admitted at the time, “the numbers are very difficult to make work” and the project never got off the ground.
Bob’s last appearance in this corner was in the form of a guest editorial prior to the 2018 municipal vote. You can look back on his characterizations here.
BOB MCCAIG REMEMBERED IN WORDS
“I read with horror, alarm and eventually laughter of the request by the St. Thomas Chamber of Commerce for a $5,000 grant to support free enterprise – What a farcical joke! – Our local business organization running to our municipal government asking for a handout.”
“Everything Madame McGuinty did, every move she made was strictly for the benefit of herself, and her power structure. And she did it all with your money – and an STD.
What’s that you say? Why it’s simple friend – an STD means we’re suffering a Substantial Tax Deficit.”
(You can read the entire cautionary tale of Madame McGuinty here.
“Who would have thought of such a straight forward negotiating tactic with our municipal government. Either give me what I want or I’ll threaten to sue you. Why even my warped mind would never have stumbled on that idea – so direct and unequivocal. After all; considering all the money he pumped into the last municipal campaign, he obviously feels he has a right to have his own way.”
(Bob’s response to a letter sent to City Scope from London developer Shmuel Farhi in which Farhi threatened legal action against the city: “Believe me, I am not afraid of courtrooms, especially when I have a case like this.”)
“We don’t need a new police station and the employment of consultants to obfuscate the facts and cost the citizens of our community additional taxes while long-needed infrastructure work goes unfulfilled, is willful incompetence by the majority of council.
They are asking for an RFP (request for proposal). Too bad they don’t have enough balls to say let’s have an RFP for renovation of the old one. Come on. If you really care about your municipality, you would make that effort.”
“It’s not about organized labour wanting to protect jobs. It’s about union interference in the well-being of our community in getting a job done in the DDB area that is being done efficiently by the DDB and heretofore uncared for by city forces. City litter pickup forces have plenty to busy themselves with outside of the downtown.”
And finally, this good-natured (we hope!) remonstrance fired our way back in 2014.
“You thingle-thumbed Blackguard — to have, by inference associated me with the Liberal Party is quite the lowest that you, one of the meanest scribblers of all time, could reach. I plan to write to your employers and demand your salary be cut in half!”
Gonna miss you, Bob.
ALMA GROUND CLEARING NOT GROUNDBREAKING
If you’ve been in the vicinity of the Moore Street property, you will have noticed plenty of earth-moving activity over the past week. It is not the immediate prelude to the construction of the three-tower residential complex earmarked for the site of the former school for girls.
City manager Wendell Graves advised the crews are finishing the formal site cleanup.
“There is no green light yet,” Graves added in reference to the commencement of any construction activity.
“I think they are hoping to be done in a couple of weeks.”
So as not to disrupt traffic flow on McIntyre or Moore streets, the city is allowing truck access directly on to Ross Street via a city right-of-way at the east end of the property.
The city, along with developer Patriot Properties, is awaiting a decision from the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT) with regard to removal of the existing 2008 Ontario Municipal Board order that any development or redevelopment of 96 Moore Street includes a faithful replication of the north façade of the former Alma College building.
Should the LPAT authorize such an action, a heritage easement agreement – previously endorsed by city council – would replace the OMB order on the land title.
The heritage easement agreement includes existing heritage attributes which will be rehabilitated, new commemorative elements which will be introduced to the site, performance guarantees and overall project scheduling/timelines.
According to Graves, the LPAT is in receipt of the easement agreement, however, the city has had no indication of the procedures it will follow.
“We will wait on them for whatever process they are going to invoke and what that will look and feel like,” advised Graves.
“It is totally up in the air.”
RECOGNITION ON HOLD
The 46th annual Honours and Awards banquet, scheduled for Thursday (June 13) has been put on hold and the future of the event is the subject of a report to come to council June 17.
The special evening is devoted to recognizing and celebrating groups and individuals whose contributions have enriched community life.
For an insight into what transpired this year with the awards ceremony, we contacted parks and recreation staffer April Gazda, who is also secretary of the council committee dealing with the event.
“We didn’t get as many applications this year so we are not going to have the banquet. We are going to do a celebration event with the recipients. It could be a wine and cheese or cocktail reception.”
It’s a case of deciding where the city is going to go and what it’s going to do to recognize the smaller group of individuals, added Gazda.
A tight timeframe for nominations this year contributed to the diminished numbers, explained Gazda.
“At council, the honours and awards committee, the Canada Day committee and wall of fame committee were disbanded and they put together this new civic honours committee to encompass everything.”
That left the new committee with only about a month or so to get the word out for nominations. Which resulted in eight recommendations.
“That is just not enough to justify hosting a banquet,” explained Gazda.
The report to council will contain several options including recognition of individuals prior to the start of meetings and opening up the nomination requirements.
“I’m not ruling out a better awards banquet could come out of this.”
The timing of the event will also be looked at as well as a possible rotating list of venues for any presentation.
Gazda stressed, “We are in our 46th year so we don’t want to see it go by the wayside. I am sure council will continue to talk about it.”
Mayor Joe Preston, who is awaiting the report, pointed out “We’ve been recognizing groups and individuals at council. I think that’s a nice way to recognize people.”
He concedes it may be time for change but that is up to the committee “to tell us what you think.”
Preston reminded he was once recognized at a previous presentation.
“I’ve got my own ideas. Maybe it should be part of Canada Day. I’d rather have five minutes before the start of council to talk about how great they are. It also gives us the timeliness.”
Preston advised the expense related to the event is not a factor.
“That never came to my mind. I don’t think you ever eliminate the cost of recognizing people in your community. I’m not ruling out a better awards banquet could come out of this.”
THE READER’S WRITE
New reader Julie Berry forwarded her thoughts on Coun. Lori Baldwin-Sands’ recent attempts to have the city declare a climate emergency.
“I read, with great interest, your opinion piece on the climate change emergency issue, and your take on the most recent council meeting when the motion was brought forward again. It was disappointing to see it described in such a negative way. Lori Baldwin-Sands may, indeed, be vying for the job of leading the Liberals in the next election. I don’t think she would agree that declaring a climate change emergency is a purely symbolic gesture. I certainly don’t.
(Ed. note: In fact, Baldwin-Sands did refer to it as a symbolic gesture on several occasions)
“I would be very interested in a follow-up story with a list of the things that St. Thomas has done in response to climate change. I was at both council meetings and mention was made of some things like storm sewer improvements and trying to build municipal buildings (i.e. the new police station) that use less energy. I believe St. Thomas won an award for the work done on the building. Not the top award, said Mr. Graves (city manager Wendell Graves). That would have been too expensive.
“Joe Preston’s assertion that the city has done fantastic things to help combat climate change really needs a follow-up story. Can he name the things the city has done? Or maybe a follow-up of the work being done by Mr. Graves? If you did an article on what other smaller cities are doing, that might also be interesting. I know a lot of people who would appreciate such a story.
“One thing. The St. Thomas Asset Management report was tabled recently at a council meeting. There is one line in the entire report that uses the word climate change; it’s a vague and meaningless statement, in my opinion.
“I have been in communication with Joan Rymal, who seems to be the council member in charge of dealing with letters from the public. It appears nobody on council, other than Lori Baldwin-Sands really believe that there is an actual climate change emergency. Climate change is real and the future is bleak. If our government bodies react to the challenge the way St. Thomas has chosen to react, there is really not much hope. Declaring a climate change emergency is the first step for our city to confront climate change and actually look into ways a small city can act to inspire its citizens and neighbouring municipalities.
“Some cities are changing the language from climate emergency to climate crisis. Whatever it takes, our municipalities are where real change can begin.
“By the way, Joe Preston also said that it’s not the job of municipalities to deal with climate change. He said that at both meetings where the climate emergency declaration was put forward. He thinks that cities like St. Thomas must wait to see how the province and the nation respond. Clearly, we should not be looking to our mayor for inspiration.
“I did tell Joan Rymal that I am truly grateful for all the work the council does in the interest of our city. St. Thomas has come a long way and is really looking good. It’s a good place to live and for that, we really must thank the people who have worked on council over the years. But, we can do better. We must do better.”
Questions and comments may be emailed to City Scope
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