Toronto’s business community gives Ford a thumbs-down

The Globe and Mail

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford photographed during a City Council session on Nov 14, 2013 at City Hall. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Toronto’s business community is adding its voice to the calls for Rob Ford’s resignation and a change of direction at City Hall, saying the scandal is damaging the city’s reputation.

Major business groups such as the Toronto Region Board of Trade have expressed concerns about the long string of damaging news reports emerging from Toronto City Hall, but smaller business owners are also worrying about the impact of negative global media coverage on the city.

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Bruce Poon-Tip, founder of adventure travel company G Adventures, said Friday it took years for the city to recover from the negative publicity generated during the SARS epidemic crisis in 2003, and it faces another tourism hurdle overcoming the publicity about Mr. Ford’s drug and alcohol use and erratic behaviour.

“I do think this damages the reputation of our city and the hard work of a lot of people who have worked hard to build Toronto back from the days of SARS,” he said.

During a speaking tour in Australia in May, Mr. Poon-Tip said he was introduced at three events as being from the home of the “Crack Mayor.”

“If anything, it is more of an annoyance, but our politics are now looking like an unstable developing country, and that cannot be good for investment,” he said. “Rob Ford should step down. I don’t think a leave of absence is enough at this point. It keeps finding new lows and it has gone from crazy to kind of sad.”

Toronto-based media research firm Cormex Research said this week its latest review of global newspaper stories that mention Toronto shows 22 per cent of the stories have been negative so far this year – with a majority of the negative coverage involving stories about Mr. Ford. That’s a sharp increase from 12 per cent negative coverage last year, and 3 per cent in 2011.

Andrew Laing, director of Cormex’s MediaLAB project, said Friday the statistics are going to look even worse when new numbers are released next week covering the prior week of media coverage. He says the negative publicity will harm the city.

“The governance of this city has been absolutely ridiculed right around the world. Why anybody down the road would think favourably on this city as a place to invest in, I don’t know,” he said. “Could you imagine being a group of Toronto businessmen trying to get the Olympic bid with this kind of profile?”

But Janet Ecker, president of the Toronto Financial Services Alliance, which is dedicated to developing Toronto as a centre for financial service companies, said in an interview she believes most people in business will make investment decisions based on fundamental factors such as business opportunities and work force, and not the “theatre of the absurd” of politics which doesn’t affect them on a day-to-day basis.

“But certainly the longer it goes on, the less helpful it is, and the more it could start to undermine the city’s reputation,” she said. “I think most people see this as an aberration – it’s not speaking to the fundamental culture of our government.”

Jeffrey Singer, a partner in law firm Stikeman Elliott’s Toronto office, is troubled by Mayor Ford’s antics but believes the city’s businesses will be able to ride out the storm.

“My presumption would be that this would have no real effect on investment in Toronto or in Ontario,” he said. “It is a weird sideshow, but I don’t think it would have any meaningful” repercussions when it comes to attracting investors. However, Mr. Singer notes this does not mean he finds the situation acceptable. “I’m truly upset,” he said of Mayor Ford.

Bill Holland, chairman of CI Financial Ltd., one of Canada’s largest mutual fund companies, said he is finding Mr. Ford “thoroughly hilarious” and believes his situation “has little or no bearing on the business community of Toronto,” but added he also feels the mayor should not stay in office.

“We probably need to have better protections to make sure we don’t have a politician like this running around,” he said.

The Toronto Region Board of Trade, which on Nov. 1 called for Mayor Ford to “take a leave of absence until the situation is resolved,” said its position has not changed in light of this week’s developments.

“The Mayor of the city must put Toronto first,” Carol Wilding, the organization’s chief executive, said in the original statement. Mr. Ford, she said, is not able to put Toronto first in light of the “distraction” and cannot effectively fulfill his duties.

“Putting Toronto first means the Mayor must be able to effectively address our city’s key priorities such as attracting investment, jobs and talent from around the world,” Ms. Wilding said.

For companies facing any possible association with Mr. Ford, the scandal is especially worrisome. This week, the Toronto Argonauts football team issued a statement distancing itself from the mayor after he gave a press conference while wearing an Argos jersey and acknowledging he may have driven while drunk.

On Friday, the Canadian-based maker of Iceberg Vodka, whose vodka brand has been linked to Mr. Ford in police documents, said it believes driving under the influence of alcohol is “unacceptable and inexcusable behaviour.”

With a file from Tara Perkins

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