Former finance minister Kevin Falcon says the political storm over a collapsed deal to build a palace for B.C. wood products in Prince George was triggered when Premier Christy Clark overstepped the bounds of what the provincial treasury was willing to pay.
On a September 19, 2011, visit to Prince George, home of two of her most powerful cabinet ministers, Ms. Clark stepped up the rhetoric around the long-promised Wood Innovation and Design Centre (WIDC), saying it would be the world’s tallest wood building.
Pat Bell, the Jobs Minister, also repeated the promise, making it difficult for Mr. Falcon, then responsible for the province’s purse strings, to pull back.
“That was an unfortunate description,” said Mr. Falcon in an interview. “As chair of Treasury Board and finance minister, I made it very clear it was not something that should be talked about because it was clearly not something we could deliver on with the dollars available.”
The mayor of Prince George at the time, Dan Rogers, said Ms. Clark’s public announcement that the wooden tower would be the world’s tallest meant the province had committed to a massive project.
“Obviously, when Premier Clark announced a 10-storey building, we were really excited,” Mr. Rogers said in an interview.
“When we did the math, it represented a $100-million investment.”
Mr. Falcon, who was replaced as Finance Minister after announcing he would not be running again in the coming election, said he is a long-time friend of Dan McLaren, one of the disgruntled proponents of the project, first mentioned in the government’s Throne Speech in 2009.
Mr. McLaren and another local businessman named Brian Fehr have alleged that the Jobs Minister made promises and assurances to them that Mr. Fehr’s proposal, using land controlled by Mr. McLaren, would be shortlisted for the government contract to build the Wood Centre. That proposal did not make the short list, however, and an $8.9-million loan to Mr. McLaren by a public trust fund is now in default.
Mr. Falcon said he was careful to stay out of the development of the project because of his association with Mr. McLaren and said he never tried to set up a meeting for the Prince George businessman with the Premier. He said he was not aware that Mr. McLaren had assembled a significant amount of land in the city’s downtown until much later in the process.
“I always advised Dan the same thing, the only commitment I was ever aware of around this property was the $25-million commitment from government, and that was all we would be spending. … The dollar commitment from government never varied. The issue that Dan McLaren constantly complained to me about was that it had been described by the current Premier and Minister Bell that it was going to be the world’s largest wood construction building.”
As the head of Treasury Board, his refusal to budge on the dollar figure effectively killed the project that Mr. McLaren was counting on because a smaller building would not use all the land Mr. McLaren had assembled with the loan from the public trust.
“What I kiboshed was that this was going to be the world’s tallest wood building. I said that was not going to be possible with the dollars available,” he said.
The former finance minister acknowledged that he was under pressure to reconsider.
“That wasn’t particularly well-received by anyone, including Dan. But that was the only commitment we were aware of at Treasury Board and certainly we didn’t have the fiscal room to make the world’s tallest wood building.”