Invest North Bay has dropped TWG as its marketing agency A statement issued by the INB Board gave no reason for breaking the two-year contract, but results have been disappointing and the effort has failed to attract new businesses to the city.
The marketing strategy targeted two distinct audience groups, immigrant investors and those seeking to escape the gridlock and congestion of the GTA. The strategy, which was to be implemented over the course of the next two years, includes branding and a dedicated website - inbay.ca.
But with little to show in the way of concrete results, Invest North Bay has been a money pit for taxpayers.
At the time of the $10 million dollar request, even Board President George Burton had to admit he wasn't happy with Invest North Bay's performance.
"It's a tough game and very competitive. We're hoping that 2019 is going to be a very good news year for the city. My hope is 2019 is better than 2018 and we're really optimistic."
The question is, why break a contract, potentially worth over a million dollars now? What did taxpayers gain from it?
TWG is a prominent agency in the city, with its owner Bill Ferguson managing the past election campaigns of Mayor Al McDonald and MPP Vic Fedeli. Ferguson also served as Chair of the Canadore Board of Governors during Burton's term as president there.
BayToday reached out to Ferguson, but was told, "Enquiries about Invest North Bay should be directed to Ian Kilgour." A second, more detailed request drew no response.
The Invest North Bay Board falls under Kilgour as the City's Director of Community Development and Growth. He would not agree to be interviewed on the matter.
Nor would North Bay CAO and Invest North Bay board member David Euler agree to an interview to discuss the issue.
It doesn't look good when we can't get City Hall experts to be accountable, so we also reached out to Invest North Bay President Burton to ask why the contract, worth potentially 1.2 million, had been broken. We got no response.
The whole issue has raised questions in the community.
Bill Ferguson was Chair of Canadore’s Board of Governors and chaired its executive committee when Burton received a five-year contract extension paying him a total of $1.2 million.
“We are very fortunate to have George at the helm of Canadore,” said Ferguson in a Sept. 2015 news release.
So we wanted to inquire, given the apparent conflict of interest by past financial and business ties, if Burton had declared a potential conflict of interest when the $1.2 m contract was originally granted to TWG, and request whether the Board had been given other proposals to vote on. Did he even tell the Board of his past Ferguson/TWG connections?
"Four companies submitted," replied Burton by email. "The submissions were scored on the criteria set out in the RFP. A summary report of the submissions was prepared by city purchasing department and was presented to the Board for decision."
Burton did not respond to other questions or agree to a phone interview, but issued a statement that said the INB marketing initiative was one of the recommendations from the city's strategic plan.
"The INB marketing initiative was publicly tendered by the city on behalf of INB. The contract was awarded based upon pre-established criteria as per the city’s policy."
Burton says a selection committee was struck, with himself being one of the members.
Regarding his dealings with Bill Ferguson, Burton said, "In June 2015, the College Board authorized the Chair (Mr. Ferguson) to finalize a contract renewal by no later than July 15 with the services of Hicks Morley. Mr. Ferguson’s term on the Board ended August 31, 2016 after completing the maximum of two consecutive terms."
BayToday, through Communications Director Gord Young, also requested an interview with Mayor Al McDonald for an explanation but was denied. It marked the15th consecutive request for information from BayToday that McDonald has refused. McDonald is also an Invest North Bay board member.
We wanted to know, given the ongoing connection between McDonald and Ferguson, whether McDonald had also declared a conflict of interest when the contract was doled out.
Bill Ferguson was McDonald’s mayoral campaign manager and led successful campaigns during the 2010, 2014 and 2018 elections.
Late Wednesday afternoon, McDonald responded by email.
"I have hired TWG for their services of communications, creative and marketing the last three Mayoral campaigns and paid them for their services. What I paid to TWG is public information. They are a local firm and they do great work. I have known this local company for 20 years," wrote McDonald.
"An RFP (request for proposal) was issued and was public and open and firms had the ability to bid. All firms must pass the City guidelines. The Board as a whole would have voted on the winning bid."
But it is unclear whether the Board even saw any other proposals. George Burton and Al McDonald were both on the committee that recommended the TWG contract. McDonald does not see that as a conflict.
"I do not believe there was any conflict of interest. I do not have a pecuniary interest in TWG, I have never owned any shares of TWG, nor have any of my family members been employed by TWG, now or in the past. If I or any councillor for that matter had to declare a conflict with every business we have dealt with over the past twenty years from everything from marketing firms to plumbers in North Bay, everything would be a conflict unless we excluded all North Bay firms from bidding as a council. I declare my conflicts to the best of my abilities.
"But to be open and transparent, William Ferguson did make a contribution to my campaign as did many others."
It's unclear how much cancelling the contract at this time will even save the city. Freedom of Information requests filed by Don Rennick suggests that there is less than $200,000 remaining to be paid on the original $1.2 million contract liability.
Given the silence of the top Invest North Bay officials, we turned to Rennick, who has acquired considerable knowledge of the organization by filing numerous Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.
Rennick also has considerable experience with City Hall secrecy.
He says Invest North Bay was doomed from its inception in 2015 and was promoted by the mayor ostensibly as a means attract new businesses to the area, but feels the real reason was to divert accountability away from the mayor and council for the rapid losses of businesses, whose exodus was due to the failure of council to reign in the ever-increasing tax and utility burdens.
"As early 2016, I and others attempted to point out the folly of an organization that hadn’t produced plans having any reasonable chance of succeeding," Rennick told BayToday. "The plan seemed to be 'Give us a blank cheque and we’ll get back to you with the results.'
"That blank cheque came in 2018 in the form of a $1.2 million ad contract awarded to TWG Communications. To date, Invest North Bay has spent over a million dollars of that sum without a single thing (new business) to show for it, and the cancellation of the contract was clearly too little too late."
Rennick is also attempting to discover the procedures used to award that contract.
"To date, Invest North Bay has been less than forthcoming," he admitted.
"After some prodding, earlier this month, Invest North Bay issued its 2019 report to council. It was due last March a year ago," explained Rennick. The report has yet to be publically available on the website.
"One can understand their reluctance in releasing the report based on benefits listed following the four years and over two million dollars allotted to the efforts. The lone statement in the report that indicated even a hint of actual promise was from a conference held in back in May 2019. That comment was 'One lead has now made a commitment to set up operations in North Bay when funding is secured.'”
Rennick says the next step should be to immediately disband Invest North Bay.
After BayToday initially contacted Kilgour for comment, Invest North Bay hurriedly issued a terse statement.
"The Invest North Bay Board has concluded its contract with TWG Communications for a North Bay Marketing and Promotion Plan campaign in the GTA under the no fault clause in the contract.
"Invest North Bay and the City will use the developed marketing and research materials from the contract to promote North Bay to the GTA and investors.
"The Board made this decision earlier this month and the project will be winding down with the transfer of marketing and research materials and final payment reconciliation. Those details have yet to be finalized and require Board approval.”
The Board of Directors, with council members in bold, as listed on the website includes:
George Burton, President
David Euler, CAO
Al McDonald, Mayor
Dave Mendicino, Councillor
Jonathan Muterera, Treasurer
Marcus Tignanelli, Councillor, Secretary
See the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act here.