TORONTO - Who are these Developers, and Why are they tearing our Centre, and us, down? This is the salutation with which an ever-increasing number of people greet me and the Corriere Canadese staff - on and off the record. Some well up with tears, unable to hide their frustration at aggressive resolve of the “Developer(s)” to tear down the Columbus Centre, and to prepare to the way for a massive redevelopment of the southwest corner of Dufferin and Lawrence.
Whether they are Residents on the campus, Residents in the extended subdivision surrounding the Centre, members of the Health Club or Donors who gave for an ideal that went to the heart of their being, they are unanimously against the demolition – a regrettable, inevitable conclusion in the minds of some, given the application now before the Ontario Municipal Board.
On the surface, the project appears rife with inconsistencies, unclear messaging, program mismanagement and “misuse” of public funds. The Government of Ontario has called for a pause in the planning, to be followed by more “acceptable” proposals. It has a $32.8 million stake in the game – the cost to build a new school, whose justification is beginning to beg credulity.
The Province reveals skepticism because relationships with those who run/own the Columbus Centre have not always met expectations. In fiscal year 2012-2013, the Ontario Trillium Foundation gave them $455,700 to “renovate the roof of this 180,000 square foot community facility…” The owners of the premises now repeatedly describe it as dilapidated.
In 2014, a combined “team of investigators” from the Ministry of Education and from the City’s Child Welfare Services descended upon the Columbus Centre Day Care facilities following complaints by parents. A forensic audit, going back five years and lasting five months, found evidence of egregious malpractice and misallocation of funds, prompting the investigators to allege “potential fraud”.
The Day Care Program was placed under government supervision for the next five months. Funds were withheld for 2014.
Villa Charities, hired a law partner of the Chair to handle all Press enquiries and to “negotiate” away the potential consequences of the audit and any infractions of the law. They reached a settlement. No charges were laid. Villa Charities was allowed to pay back a portion of the grants claimed and received during the period under audit.
The amount including interest and penalties exceeded a million dollars. Neither Board members nor staff returned calls to the Corriere. No members of the Board were held responsible.
In the interim, two senior staff members were unceremoniously dumped. Law suits ensued.
The long-serving CEO was eased out, but allowed office space in the facility, from which to exercise his role as associate editor of a Montreal based magazine, now considered a “house organ”.
Villa Charities restructured itself in the late summer of 2014 (the Plan had been in the works for some time) in a restricted Annual General Meeting, closed to the public and the Corriere Canadese.
Broadly speaking, two entities emerged: Villa Charities Foundation and Villa Charities Incorporated (VCI). Two “affiliated” organizations, Vita Community Living and Mens Sana, withdrew from Villa Charities. Legal wranglings over the assets, estimated to be in the 80 to 100 million dollar range, if unresolved may yet end up in Court.
VCI “owns” the Columbus Centre (among other “assets”), it is a real estate developer specializing in Seniors’ housing. That is a euphemism for studio or one bed-room condo units. Perfect for empty nesters, young people starting out on their own, or International students looking for abode nearby an educational institution. There are five such [private] schools in a four-kilometre radius from the Columbus Centre campus. Six, potentially, if one considers a reconfigured Dante Alighieri Academy.
A new CEO, the former COO, was hired. He lasted a year. His replacement, recruited from the private sector, seems to have taken seriously “the opportunity to help Villa Charities reaffirm its special place in the GTA’s Italian community”.
In less than a year, he and VCI parted company. Whereupon yet another CEO was hired. His task? Probably “to sell” the project to the interested public, including the Seniors in the two buildings VCI owns on campus.
I attended one of those meetings. Had the audience been a mere ten years younger, they might have been difficult to restrain. His answer to their repeated question of “why are you pushing to do what nobody wants?” was a lame, I paraphrase, “it is what the Founders envisioned”.
Of the seven Founders, three are still with us.