Commonwealth Campus Corp. painted a dire description of downtown Prince George in its application for the loan at the centre of the Wood Innovation and Design Centre controversy.
According to documents obtained by the Citizen through an access to information request, Commonwealth made a presentation to Northern Development Initiative Trust (NDIT) in 2009 characterizing the downtown as among the worst in the country.
"Sadly, Prince George has the worst downtown in British Columbia, perhaps Canada," the presentation began. "Prince George's downtown unfortunately boasts an unusually high crime rate, an extraordinary fast rising AIDS/HIV population, vacant boarded up retail spaces and excessively high numbers of social service providers."
Commonwealth and its president Dan McLaren were looking for a loan from NDIT to help put together a real estate deal on the 500 block of George Street, which is where the Wood Innovation and Design Centre (WIDC) was being proposed.
McLaren, along with UNBC president George Iwama, CNC president John Bowman and then L&M Engineering director of planning Heather Oland made an hour-long presentation to the NDIT board on Sept. 16, 2009 outlining Commonwealth's plans for a "new downtown."
Former Prince George mayor Dan Rogers was on the board of NDIT at the time and said although it's difficult to remember all the details of the meetings, he recalls the general purpose of the loan.
"It was certainly my understanding that the loan was being recommended to the board for approval [by NDIT staff] because it was for a project featuring the Wood Innovation and Design Centre," Rogers said on Monday.
McLaren's idea was to buy the entire block that contained the P.G. Hotel, its parking lot, the Rum Jungle, the old bus depot and other various retail outlets and then sell part of it back to the city. The city would then donate it to the province for the WIDC site.
Commonwealth would then redevelop the rest of the properties by constructing "new buildings consistent with socially-sound model & tenants requirements."
Eventually the NDIT board of directors approved a loan for over $8 million, although Commonwealth only drew on a portion of that. In November NDIT filed a notice of foreclosure in the B.C. Supreme Court with about $1.4 million still outstanding and payments were past due. The matter is still before the courts.
Many of the specifics of Commonwealth's plans were redacted in the copy provided to the Citizen because disclosure of the information contained in those section were deemed to potentially cause economic harm to a public body, be harmful to the business interests of a third party or declared to be non-responsive to the Citizen's request, which asked for information about NDIT's financial involvement in Commonwealth's purchase of the P.G. Hotel.
Commonwealth said the sorry state of the downtown was driving away investors and hurting the city and the region and required "bold measures" to fix. In its presentation, Commonwealth said the loan would be good for NDIT because it would increase the sustainability of their fund. Other benefits touted included the strong socio-economic need for the project, the fact it would be a template for other communities and that it was a "made in the north" idea.
The provincial government first announced the WIDC centre in 2009 and originally promised it would be a 10-storey building, which Rogers estimated would require an investment of $75 million to $100 million in addition to funds for the education programs expected to take place inside.
"We [mayor and council[ didn't just want another office building downtown, we really wanted an educational program that drew links with UNBC, potentially with an engineering component in it," Rogers said. "That was the message that I was trying to re-enforce with [cabinet ministers] like the advanced education minister at the time."
From the outset, Rogers said he had a difficult time understanding exactly what the province was proposing. In the intervening years the project has been scaled back to a smaller, $25 million building which he said "pales in comparison" to what was initially on offer.
NDP leader Adrian Dix pressed the government during question period Monday, asking why a larger building was promised when the funds hadn't yet been approved by the treasury board.
"It's happening," Premier Christy Clark replied, alluding to the announcement expected within weeks of the award of the contract for construction. "It's going to revitalize the downtown of Prince George. It's going to be a model for the world of what we can do here with wood in British Columbia. After many, many announcements since 2009 it is happening."
The NDP also spent time in question period asking about the involvement of cabinet ministers Pat Bell and Shirley Bond in NDIT's decision to authorize the loan.
"I know the government likes to pretend to try to sweep this off the table here with a lot of different answers, but it's very clear that two ministers have been named in a very scandalous land deal," NDP MLA Maurine Karagianis said.
Bell, who represents Prince George-Mackenzie, repeated his position that there was no political interference in the loan process but he did advocate on behalf of the project.
"I have said over and over again I am not embarrassed by the notion that I advocated for this project," he said. "It's going to be great for downtown Prince George."