Whatever happened to Buck-a-beer’s promise to allow convenience stores to sell beer and wine, ending the Beer Store’s quasi monopoly?

It was Doug Ford’s signature election pledge in the Provincial General Election on 7 June 2018.

The legislation was duly introduced and passed in a flash on 6 June 2019 with the legislative process taking less than two weeks from start to finish. 

But the legislation has not been proclaimed and is not yet the law of the land

(The Ontario Cabinet decides when to ask the Lieutenant Governor to proclaim it.)

Breaking Contract could cost $1 billion

A report in today’s Globe and Mail reminds us:

Last year, sources with the big brewers told The Globe that breaking the contract could see the government forced to pay up to $1-billion for added distribution costs and Beer Store layoffs.”

It goes on:

“Constitutional experts said the government has the power to legislate any such penalties away. But critics, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, warned doing so would create a chill on signing contracts with Queen’s Park.”

“In a co-ordinated social media campaign last June, cabinet ministers posted photos of themselves expressing dismay at the lack of beer and wine at convenience stores across the province. Then-finance-minster Vic Fedeli pledged that change was imminent. But the government’s critics repeatedly decried its focus on alcohol, which also included the Premier’s “buck-a-beer” campaign and new rules meant to allow tailgating.”

August 2020

As it happens, I met Newmarket-Aurora’s MPP Christine Elliott at her Constituency Office last August, focussing entirely on the Beer Store legislation and on the casual abandoning of standard Parliamentary procedures. (The Bill had no Committee Stage and there was no opportunity for interested parties and members of the public to give evidence.)

Health Minister Christine Elliott, who is also Doug Ford’s Deputy, assured me local convenience stores would be able to sell beer and wine by August 2020.

Promise made. Promised delivered.

Not yet.

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Newmarket Mayor John Taylor has abandoned plans to allow a fourth storey on buildings in the Town’s downtown Heritage Conservation District.  

He planned to allow these so long as the additions were set back 15 feet from the street.

Taylor signalled the change of heart at Monday's Committee of the Whole after a short debate on the unlawful demolition of the Simpson building and the negotiated settlement with Bob Forrest’s Main Street Clock Inc. The recommendation will go up to Council for approval next Monday (10 February 2020.)

Taylor told councillors he floated the four storeys proposal years ago as a response to Forrest’s condo plans:

“The (Heritage) Conservation District Plan allows a maximum, I believe, of three storeys and this came about at the time of the Clock Tower application for first nine storeys and then seven storeys. This was I believe actually moved by myself but as a way of suggesting that we would not consider seven storeys but perhaps one more storey for the set-back – and if it was appropriate.” 

Main Street "thriving"

Taylor now says four storeys are no longer needed.

“The street is thriving. There’s people investing in it. There’s new building and renovations, extensive ones going on all the time and it (the Heritage Conservation District Plan) is doing exactly what it should do.”

Taylor’s decision draws a line under one of the most tumultuous and chaotic periods in the recent history of Newmarket’s historic Main Street.

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In November 2019 the Heritage Advisory Committee considered a report on Little Brew Hops at 209 Main Street South which proposes a change to the facade of the building and an additional floor at the back of the building. Concerns were raised about whether the rubble stone foundations could carry the weight of the proposed additional storey. 

Height and Heritage. This is how the City of Toronto wants to protect the area around Queen Street West.

Newmarket Councillors deserve a round of applause for acting decisively to bring developer Bob Forrest to book for ordering the unlawful demolition of one of the Town’s most historic properties smack bang in the heart of the downtown Heritage Conservation District.

That said, Bob Forrest got off lightly

Councillors agreed their negotiating strategy in a closed session meeting of the Council on 2 December 2019 which led to the decision not to prosecute:

“Town staff gathered evidence and information, including speaking with others included in the project, regarding the demolition and undertook a fulsome review and assessment of its recourse options…

“After careful consideration of past penalties imposed by the Courts under the Acts in similar situations that may provide precedent, and the Town’s objective to protect its heritage and continue to move forward with the development and revitalization of Main Street, the Town determined that it was more effective, efficient and would render the best possible achievable outcome to pursue recourse and consequences against Main Street Clock Inc. outside of legal action. Accordingly, rather than pursue prosecution under the Act, the Town sought and achieved a prosecutorial result through an agreement with Main Street Clock Inc. securing both a penalty payment and a full rebuild of the Simpson Building. The rebuild requirements will be registered on title.” 


Unfortunately, the report going up to councillors tomorrow (3 February 2020) doesn’t tell the whole story. (Click the link at the bottom of this blog to get to the full report.)

Astonishingly, the narrative does not formally tell us who ordered the demolition (though we know it was Forrest) nor why. The Town pulled its punches in order to get Forrest to agree to settle without going to Court.

Bob Forrest says he 

“acknowledges and regrets”

that the historic building which once housed the apothecary of the first female pharmacist in Ontario was 

“taken down without proper permissions”.

Forrest says that ultimately he was responsible. 

It’s a bit like a dog owner getting caught when his pet poops on a neighbour’s lawn. He didn’t do the deed, of course, but he accepts responsibility.

Limiting reputational damage

Cleverly, Forrest has limited the reputational damage to himself personally and to his business but he will still make millions from his project. He bought the Clock Tower (the old Federal Post Office building and the adjacent 1956 telephone exchange) for $2,340,000 in March 2011. It had been on the market for $3,275,000. 

Forrest later bought the buildings to the south of the Clock Tower (184-194 Main Street South) for $1,760,000 from Michael Bryan. In total he paid $4.1M. 

His Clock Tower property with the 1956 addition was listed for sale in November last year for close to $9M. The parcel of 188, 190 & 192 Main was listed at $1.25M and 194 Main at $1.19M. The demolished 184-186 Main Street did not have a price attached to the vacant land.

Last week, the first property to be restored and renovated, 194 Main Street South, was listed for sale at $1,299,900. (photo above)

Paying off the penalty

In the space of three months the asking price for one of Forrest’s properties had leapt by more than $100,000 – enough to pay off the Town’s penalty.

Forrest has very deep pockets and - even when added to the rebuilding costs of 184 Main Street (put at around $300,000) and the forfeiting of the Town’s grant of $100,000 for doing up the facades - the penalty doesn’t look too painful.

Town staff tell us they reviewed past penalties imposed by the Courts in similar situations. My own survey of Ontario municipalities with Heritage Conservation Districts confirms that what happened here in Newmarket was very, very unusual.

All the elements of a successful prosecution were there. Forrest knew the importance of the property he demolished – he had commissioned a Heritage Impact Assessment on it. He knew his way around the Ontario Heritage Act and he is a developer with decades of experience under his belt. His decision to order the demolition was calculated, not inadvertent.

Of course, if it had gone to Court all sorts of things could have come out in the wash – including the lamentable record of the municipality in protecting its most historic buildings. Forrest’s Main Street properties were allowed to deteriorate and visibly decay over the long years they were left empty.

So, what more is to be done?

I hope the Town will do a “lessons learned” exercise – as it did with Glenway

Here in Newmarket, which markets itself as an historic destination complete with a huge triumphal arch at Main and Davis telling people they are entering the historic downtown, heritage should be part of the warp and weft of policy making.

It shouldn’t be an afterthought or be left to one “heritage” planner to hold the fort with no oversight. Protecting our heritage is a matter for everyone. 

Bob Forrest is probably thanking his good fortune. That he will walk away from the chaos he created, millions in the black.

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Photo above right from Newmarket Today.

The Minutes of Settlement between the Town and Forrest's Main Street Clock Inc, dated 17 January 2020, are here.

Update on 4 February 2020: You can watch the Council debate on the settlement at 2.52 into the video.


Yesterday’s summit on gun violence convened by Toronto Mayor John Tory turned out – at least for me - to be a bit of a damp squib. 

The Mayor says the meeting didn’t focus on a handgun ban but on controlling the flow of guns coming across the border. We’ve known about the porous border for years.

We are told that of the 78 homicides in Toronto last year 44 were gun related.

But how many others were maimed and left with life changing injuries? We mourn for those who are killed but what about the living? The young woman in the prime of life, Danielle Kane, shot in the Danforth, left paralysed from the waist down. We should weep for her too – and for all the others who survive, injured and traumatised. 

Until we get details of the Federal Government’s plan to give powers to Toronto and cities like it to ban handguns we shall continue to dance around the main issue rather than confront it. We need to ban handguns.

Our new MP for Newmarket Aurora, Tony Van Bynen, believes, like me, there should be a nationwide ban. 

Unworkable and ineffective

The Toronto Star has been demanding that politicians act, describing the Government’s proposal to give cities like Toronto the powers to ban handguns as “unworkable and ineffective”

“The idea that individual cities can usefully impose bans on handguns defies logic…”

I have asked Mr Van Bynen to explain how the Government’s proposal will work in practice. I have also asked him to raise the issue in the Liberal caucus and seek a meeting with the Minister responsible, Bill Blair. Only last week, in Blair’s own patch in Scarborough, one man was shot in the chest and died and another was shot in the head and is in hospital with life threatening injuries. A woman was shot in the hand. This kind of brutal gun violence – which appeared at the bottom of page 4 in the Toronto Star on 26 January 2020 - is becoming normalised.

I’ve also asked our MP to table a series of Parliamentary questions (see below) and to let me know if he supports the class action lawsuit brought by victims of the Danforth shooting against gun maker Smith and Wesson. 

Elsewhere… Tony Van Bynen has been appointed to the House of Commons Health Committee. It meets this afternoon (Wednesday 29 January 2020) to elect a Chair and Vice Chair. 

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  • What estimate the Minister has made of the cost to Municipalities of (a) implementing and maintaining a local ban on handguns or (b) restricting access to handguns?
  • If the Minister will make it his policy to collect statistics on the number of people who have been left permanently disabled as a result of a handgun assault, specifying in each case the nature of the injury?
  • How many persons under the age of 18 have been (a) fatally shot and (b) wounded in each of the last 10 years by someone using a handgun?

Every year the Town of Newmarket spends a small fortune hiring outside consultants to do things it says it cannot do in-house.  Perhaps the staff with skills are tied up on other work. Or the required skills aren’t available.

The Planning Department, for example, is spending over $200,000 on consultants to work on the Mulock Secondary Plan. The planners say they don’t have the “bandwidth” to do this work. They have also hired people to help design a strategy to safeguard stable residential areas from inappropriate development.

After last year’s municipal election our councillors were asked to decide their strategic priorities for the 2018-2022 Council term, again using a team of outside consultants.

Newmarket Public Library hired Pesce and Associates

“to complete a review of the NPL operations with the intention of determining how best to position the NPL for current and future success”. 

Why can’t the work be done in-house?

Only last week staff recommended consultants should be hired (at a cost of $100,000) to look at the possibility of redrawing ward boundaries to ensure rough parity in ward populations. There is a growing imbalance. Jane Twinney wanted to know if at least some of the work couldn’t be done in-house. 

In the event, councillors agreed to postpone the review until the next term. But what struck me most was the way our councillors recoiled at the thought of spending $100,000 on outside consultants. 

In fact, the figures show the Town spends millions every year buying in help. (The table shows the spend on consultants by area of service over the past five years.)

A quick look at the Town’s “Bid Opportunities” page shows the extent of the services bought in by the Town. Currently consultants are being sought to design recreation management software (program registrations, facility bookings and so on) and to come up with ideas on what might be done with the old Fire Hall on Main Street which has been empty for years.

Consultancy is big business

The consultancy sector across Ontario is booming as municipalities farm out work that used to be done in-house. Three years ago I warned that the Town’s institutional memory was being contracted out to the private sector. 

I blogged about the astonishing case of the Newmarket planning consultant Howard Friedman who had a long-term contract with the Town to manage its relationships with the development industry. Friedman, who was the interface between the two, became a fixture and fitting. The then Director of Planning, Rick Nethery, told councillors there was a lot of staff turnover and new people hired by the Town could not begin to match Mr Friedman with his long 18-year tenure in the job. (I don’t know if Mr Friedman still has a contract with the Town.)

The Public Interest

The best in-house staff have a clear idea of what is meant by the public interest.  

When we buy in outside help consultants may be more circumspect. There are any number of professional heritage consultants – architects and planners – whose clients are drawn from both public and private sectors. In my experience, they tailor their professional advice to their clients’ needs. And developers and municipalities often have very different perspectives on how heritage properties should be maintained, retained and adapted.

The Town’s former Chief Administrative Officer, Bob Shelton, believed going out to private consultants helped the Town to handle the peaks and troughs of a variable workload. 

Some departments are clearly under more pressure than others. It is possible to wait over a year to get a report from staff addressing issues of concern that have been raised by residents. 

So I can understand why councillors (often reluctantly) agree to buy in outside help – to take the pressure off staff.

But do we get value for money? 

An article last year in the academic journal Canadian Public Administration (One step forward, two steps back? Consultant influence on local economic development policy in Canada) tells me cities in Canada are

"increasingly outsourcing economic development policy advisory and development to private consultants"

and that

"the policy documents authored by consultants tend to be similar in style, scope and language; and from a policy perspective, there is a convergence of policy as cities are recommended the same economic development strategies."

In fact, the language used is often a straight lift with slabs of text being taken from one report and pasted into another – for a different client.

The authors analysed the economic development plans of ­­­­cities in Ontario “to identify the influence of consultants on the policies within the documents”.  They found “homogenization” of policies which are cut and pasted from one client’s plan into another’s.

What is the answer? 

When our councillors go out to the market to buy in services they should insist on originality with policies specifically tailored to Newmarket. 

And if a template has been used we should all be told about it.

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Click this link to get to the Town's Bid Opportunities website page.