A leftover Throne Speech promise from four years ago has come back to bedevil the B.C. Liberals.
In the midst of a big push to increase the use of B.C. wood, the government in early 2009 promised: “A new wood innovation and design centre will be established in Prince George and affiliated with the University of Northern B.C.”
“It will promote new expertise in advanced building systems, engineered wood products, interior wood design and applications, and other value-added products.”
It spent the next few years being re-promised and inching through the approval and organizational stage. So it hasn’t promoted much of anything.
Except for a burst of interest this week in the land-acquisition process, after a losing bidder’s blistering letter to a fairness monitor came to light, courtesy of the CBC.
Opposition leader Adrian Dix demanded answers Tuesday to questions raised about how the government handled the much-promised project. The New Democrats are also intensely interested in how the government handled the formal complaint about how one interested party fell by the wayside after taking an expensive gamble on the project.
Developer Dan McLaren, a Liberal financial backer, lodged a formal complaint in November with the lawyer hired to monitor the fairness of dealings on the project, Jane Shackell.
He said his firm was approached by the province to assemble lands for the centre, which it did. He said the province also encouraged the Northern Development Initiatives Trust to lend funds and services for the project.
McLaren said UNBC and Partnerships B.C. gave initial confirmations that his property would be the site for the centre, and the city of Prince George also got involved in planning on that basis.
But in 2011 they filed a formal expression of interest and got no acknowledgment.
Then Partnerships B.C. staff said they were unaware of all the deals done to acquire the land, despite minutes that prove otherwise, he said.
“The province continually assured us that we had nothing to worry about ... Encouraged us to stay quiet ... that it ‘would all work out.’ We relied on those assurances.”
Despite those comforting words, another site was picked, and McLaren’s company is now out in the cold, and he’s clearly furious about it.
“Our complaint centres on breached protocols, broken promises, misrepresentation, false warranties and bad faith.”
Among the questions being asked Tuesday: Why did fairness adviser Shackell determine that the complaint was outside her terms of reference?
And what happened to the allegations after she decided she wasn’t going to look into them?
Justice Minister Shirley Bond promised further information on Shackell’s findings in the days ahead.
The letter of complaint was copied to Premier Christy Clark, deputy minister Dana Hayden and an official in the legal services branch.
But Bond said her ministry has received no information about the complaint.
Asked what she did with the complaint, Clark said the fairness adviser determined that the process was fair, clear and properly followed by non-partisan and highly regarded civil servants.
The CBC reported that Shackell acknowledged the concerns raised in McLaren’s letter, but said they didn’t fall within her mandate to investigate.
So the issue that occupied question period was: Who did investigate, and what did they determine?
At this point it appears the close look that seems to be needed hasn’t been taken yet. So the claims are just hanging out there.
Not mentioned in the letter but at the centre of the action on Tuesday was Jobs Minister Pat Bell, a Prince George MLA and an ardent supporter of the project.
Bell said it was an arm’s-length process and the fairness adviser has already reported out.
He said she “investigated anything that had anything to do with the procurement process ... Her advice was that the process should be completed and that the tender should be awarded.”
He said he did not recall any meetings with the proponents in question over that period of time.
It could be a case of sour grapes on the part of a losing bidder who thought he had an in with the government, but didn’t.
It sparked enough interest on the part of the suspicious Opposition, however, to lodge a number of questions that were only partly answered.
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