The lonesome legacy of Matty Moroun

By Gord Henderson, The Windsor Star

Life is no bowl of cherries when you’re an ailing 85-year-old male, not unless your idea of a good time revolves around the four Ds, drooling, dribbling, drowning in fluid and dreading what’s coming next on the rocky road to oblivion.

But perhaps it’s different for billionaire Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel “Matty” Moroun.

Perhaps, when you’re worth a crisp US$1.5 billion and rank 303rd on Forbes’ list of the richest Americans, the aches and pains of growing old and decrepit and losing all your friends are dulled by the “fun” of still being in the game, even with one wizened foot in the grave.

Is this still fun for Matty? That question popped into my head while Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder were inking the pact that will see a new downriver bridge built, ending Moroun’s hugely profitable monopoly on cross-border truck traffic.

A few years ago I accepted an invitation from bridge president Dan Stamper and then company lawyer Susan Whelan to tour the Gateway Project, the $230-million collection of roads and ramps the company was building on the U.S. side of the bridge.

To be honest, I failed, despite the best efforts of my guides, to recognize what this jumble of construction activity was attempting to achieve.

It was too dark, too ungodly early in the morning and way too far beyond my feeble grasp of engineering to see the big picture.

Back in Canada, over coffee at a McDonald’s on Huron Church Road, I tried to fathom what drove Moroun.

Why would an old man who has more money than he could ever hope to spend, squander his last precious years squabbling with multiple levels of government when he could be living like King Midas down in the Caribbean or in some other exclusive haunt of the filthy, pampered rich? Is it really about the money? Or is it about the game?

Sure, the money is important, Stamper agreed. No doubt about it. But the game, he told me, is everything for his boss. That’s what keeps the competitive juices flowing.

The game, of course, is the giant chess match the Ambassador Bridge and governments on both sides of the border have been playing for close to a decade. It’s all about think-ing several strategic moves ahead and continually trying to checkmate your rival.

That makes total sense to me. A lot of seniors feel irrelevant. Some, sadly, see themselves as a burden.

But this 85-year-old, courtesy of his wealth and domination of a vital international trade corridor, gets to duke it out with the governments of Canada, the U.S., Ontario, Michigan, Windsor, Detroit and other municipalities while being viewed by key North American industries, including the automotive and transportation sectors, as an infuriating impediment to progress and job creation.

People write nasty stuff about Moroun. He’s been called every name in the book. And deservedly so, in my view. But they are writing about him.

And if the target of that bile happens to be the least bit narcissistic (what tycoon isn’t?) , that’s probably enough. Better a villain in a black cape than a nobody.

Or is it? Surely some of the joy went out of this marathon game of gotcha in January when Moroun and Stamper shared a Wayne County cell, clad in green jumpsuits, for failing to complete the Gateway Project as ordered.

How humiliating was that? And how much fun was it when the courts forced the bridge company to hand over $16 million US to have the project completed by the Michigan department of transportation?

The game has been immensely profitable for the Moroun family, not to mention for the battalions of legal, PR and political mercenaries it has employed.

If it’s true that the bridge company takes in $60 million in toll revenues annually – double its 1979 purchase price of $30 million, the mother of all bargains – imagine how lucrative each year’s delay has been. Moroun has been piling up the dough while holding up the inevitable.

But at what cost? You can’t take the money with you. Not so much as a penny. We are all paupers in death. But you can leave a legacy and, sadly, it appears the legacy of Moroun will be that of a shrewd but stubborn old guy who used every trick in the book to retain his lucrative monopoly, no matter how many industries it undermined or much-needed jobs it held back.

He could have been a hero, this troubled region’s answer, on a smaller scale, to legendary billionaires like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet who are reinventing philanthropy with their smarts and breathtaking generosity.

Moroun will be remembered, if he’s remembered at all, as an immovable obstacle, a boulder in the road. That’s a shame because he could have been so much more.