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Marcus Gee

Rob Ford can't take full credit for Woodbine Live Add to ...

Rob Ford is good at sputtering about waste and corruption at city hall, his critics say, but what has he actually done for the city in his 10 years as a city councillor? Mr. Ford has a ready reply: Woodbine Live.

The Etobicoke North councillor and front runner for mayor says he has played a leading role in securing the flashy entertainment project for Toronto. "I know how to deal with CEOs of huge corporations - that's how I landed the largest development in Toronto's history," he said in a recent newspaper interview. "Woodbine Live, I did that."

In fact, say many of those involved in the project, Mr. Ford had little to do with landing Woodbine Live.

Developers have been dreaming for years about building on the huge tract of underused land around Woodbine racetrack. It started happening when Woodbine Entertainment Group found a U.S. partner in the Cordish Company, which has made a fortune building urban entertainment complexes in Baltimore, Houston, Tampa and other cities. Their $1-billion, 81-hectare Woodbine project will create a giant playground with concert hall, conference centre, four-star hotel, cineplex and skating rink.

To get the deal done, Woodbine worked closely with the mayor's office and city departments on issues such as zoning, local job creation and a proposed tax deferral. City officials say that Mr. Ford followed the progress of the project with interest, but didn't take a lead in any of the detailed work or negotiations with Woodbine.

Councillor Kyle Rae, the chair of the economic development and culture committee (and also a harsh critic of Mr. Ford), says he met five or six times with the developers or their agents and Mr. Ford was never involved.

According to city records, Mr. Ford was not present at a meeting of the economic development committee that decided Woodbine should qualify for the tax deferral. Nor was he present at a meeting of the planning and growth committee in October, 2008, that approved a community-improvement plan for the area.

Steve Diamond, a developer and lawyer who represented Woodbine in its dealings with the city, says that says he does not recall ever having had a one-on-one meeting with Mr. Ford.

"I never dealt much with Rob Ford on the issue," he says. Though Mr. Ford was "helpful and supportive," he says, "I don't believe it is fair to suggest he was the single catalyst for the project."

Yet Mr. Ford persistently suggests just that. When I asked him whether it was really fair to say that he "landed" the deal, he said: "Absolutely. I was the one who was instrumental in bringing things together."

When his rival for the mayoralty, Rocco Rossi, suggested at a recent debate that Etobicoke councillor Suzan Hall was just as influential, Mr. Ford said: "She had nothing to do with it. I was the one doing all the leg work."

That came as news to Ms. Hall, who says she did plenty, including serving on a local committee looking at job creation. "Why lie about me?" she says. "I don't know why he feels he needs to denigrate others to promote himself."

To be fair, Mr. Ford has been a vocal booster of the project. Jane Holmes, a corporate vice-president at Woodbine, calls him a "steadfast champion." He showed up for community meetings to explain it to the public, kept in touch with some city officials about how it was going and spoke out for it at city council.

But given that Mayor David Miller and most of council were heartily in favour of the project, which was approved in July, 2007, his cheerleading was not particularly decisive. What councillor wouldn't champion a project that promised to bring thousands of jobs to his ward?

In any case, cheering the project is different from landing it. To put it politely, Mr. Ford's version of his role is exaggerated. But, then, so is much of what escapes the blustering councillor's lips. This is the man who recently claimed to have made 250,000 service calls to constituents over a decade - a rate of about 68 calls a day even if he was on the line 365 days a year, including Christmas.

The Ford style is to make blunt accusations (city hall is corrupt) and sweeping claims ("Woodbine Live, I did that") and never mind the facts. Typical politician, you might say. Except that Mr. Ford claims to be different - the tell-it-like-it-is guy who cuts through the guff of the glory-hogs at City Hall. The tale of Woodbine Live suggests he is quite capable of a little hogging himself.

Follow on Twitter: @marcusbgee

 

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