Mayor’s secret talks continue with bridge company
The Windsor Star
Make no mistake – as far as the Ambassador Bridge ownership is concerned, the current secret talks between its Canadian Transit Company president and Windsor’s mayor are all about getting government approval for the twinning of its international span.
“Yes … we’re not walking away from that plan, we’re doing everything we can to rev up those plans,” said CTC president Dan Stamper.
The difference now is that, after years of brawling it out in the courts, the owners of the privately owned bridge, the single-richest commercial trade crossing in North America, want to make nice with their Canadian host municipality.
“We’d much rather work with the city than fight the city,” Stamper told The Star.
That’s probably because it’s been a losing fight so far for billionaire bridge owner Matty Moroun. City solicitor George Wilkki said this week that the municipality just received a $1.3-million cheque from the Ambassador Bridge representing court-awarded costs against the company and a residents group led by Hilary Payne that fought alongside it.
“We won the lawsuit — until that point the bridge had little incentive to sit down with us,” said Mayor Eddie Francis, just one of a number of politicians personally named in court actions launched by the owners of the Ambassador Bridge.
But there’s just as big an incentive for the city to sit down, namely to discuss the future of about 100 bridge-owned homes in Olde Sandwich Towne, all vacant and boarded up and representing a large neighbourhood blight.
“The city’s goal is, we want to restore a sense of normal to that neighbourhood,” said Francis.
The question remains, however, as to what the closed-door talks are about and where there might be a meeting of the minds.
“As far as I’m concerned, these discussions have nothing to do with a second bridge span,” said Francis. “Just because the Ambassador Bridge wants something doesn’t mean it’ll happen.”
The bridge company is well aware that the mayor and city council are under enormous political pressure to do something about the ugly neighbourhood eyesore represented by Indian Road and the surrounding collection of abandoned homes. City bylaw officers have been keeping close tabs on the situation, but as long as a private owner continues to pay taxes, tend to the grass and weeds, clean up after fires and vandalism and doesn’t allow the buildings to collapse, there’s little the municipality can do.
Stamper said it would have been his preference to see those homes torn down four years ago. The city hasn’t said no to demolition, but it has long argued the bridge company must first submit a formal plan outlining what it intends to do with property zoned residential and designated for protection under heritage policies upheld by recent court rulings.
Stamper said the several discussions he’s had with Francis so far are about “how to remove those houses that are causing so much aggravation for the community and for us.”
While a second span parallel to the west of the existing bridge is the ultimate goal for CTC, Stamper said the immediate objective is getting municipal and federal approval to expand the existing customs plaza. That’s needed to accommodate secondary inspection of cargo trucks that can currently only occur at an off-site location south on Huron Church Road.
The Ambassador Bridge has acquired properties along Indian Road and elsewhere west of the existing plaza, which Stamper said federal agencies would like to see expanded, but in between lies a stretch of municipally owned Huron Church Road.
“We will not have any discussions that include consideration of closing Huron Church or reconfiguring Huron Church,” said Francis.
One of the carrots being dangled in front of the city is a bundle of approximately 20 of the bridge’s 100 acquired west-side properties that Stamper said the bridge company doesn’t need for its plans. “I’m open to … what the community would like to see,” he said.
But Francis said: “Let’s be clear — they have a long way to go to rebuild the trust of this community.”
While agreeing the mayor should meet and discuss the situation with Stamper, MP Brian Masse (NDP – Windsor West) said the city should be wary given the bridge company’s record. “I don’t see how they should be rewarded, especially after what the neighbourhood has had to endure,” he said.
Masse, who has also had regular run-ins with the bridge company, said he’ll be at Sandwich and Mill Streets on Saturday to protest Canada Post’s proposed closure of its postal outlet at that location. “It didn’t help to lose a hundred households,” he said of the bridge company’s expansion plans, which he also blames for having “a role” in local school and business closures.
The parties involved in the mayor-bridge talks, including a representative of the Canada Border Services Agency in the most recent meeting, aren’t divulging details.
“I do trust the mayor on this issue,” said Ward 2 Coun. Ron Jones.
In an emailed response to a query by The Star, a spokeswoman for the CBSA would only say that it “meets regularly with stakeholders including municipal governments and bridge authorities.”
The owners of the Ambassador Bridge, built in 1929, recently filed an application with Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality, proposing to take the existing bridge out of service and build a new one “to the west of the existing span bridge.”