(Artvoice 18 November 1999)

Freshwater Sharks 

by Bruce Jackson

Three interesting Peace Bridge events in the past week:

—Representatives of the Ambassador Bridge organization in Detroit told the Public Bridge Review Panel why New York and Ontario should turn over to them operation, control, and ownership of all border operations in this area. The Panel overwhelmingly rejected the offer a week later.

—Fort Erie Mayor Wayne Redekop told the Public Bridge Review Panel why he opposed anything other than the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority’s twin span plan idea.

—The Canadian government and the Public Bridge Authority, after a month-long delay, announced that Buckland & Taylor, Ltd., of Vancouver, would work with American engineers in evaluating bridge and plaza options.

Trust Us
In a public session at the studios of WNED on Wednesday, November 10, ,  two executives from the firm that operates the Ambassador Bridge linking Detroit, Michigan, and Windsor, Ontario,  and two engineers from a Florida consulting firm they brought along for support, made an elaborate pitch to the Public Consensus Review Panel. As they talked, they showed one PowerPoint slide after another, and answered and deflected questions. I kept thinking of four freshwater sharks who had swum over from Detroit, drawn by the scent of money in our waters, energized by the possibility of feeding long and well at our expense.

The two executives were Dan Stamper, president, and Remo Mancini, corporate vice-president, of the Detroit International Bridge Company, operators of the Ambassador Bridge. The two consultants were Scott Korpi and Brian Mirson, both of American Consulting Engineers, based in Land O’Lakes, Florida.

Mancini began the presentation with a tacky eight-minute video in which their friends and some truckers told us what a swell bridge the Ambassador Bridge was and what a swell duty free shop it had and how the bridge really got you from one side of the river to the other side of the river. The music track was execrable. It reminded me of those commercials for plays in which they have “ordinary people” in the lobby telling us with oppressive enthusiasm what a great and inspiring family experience and theatrical experience it was.

Then they posed several good questions, none of them new. It was like they’d looked at all the articles in Artvoice and the Buffalo News and the videos of the Public Consensus Review Panel hearings and extracted the key issues raised again and again by the Olmsted Conservancy, the Episcopal Church Home, and all the other community groups that have been so passionate and articulate about the various aspects of this issue. (Their only fresh idea–which seems screwy to me–is to relocate everything so it runs along the International railroad bridge, but in the question and answer period they didn’t seem the least bit attached to that, so I assume it was just something tossed out to get our attention.)

The really interesting thing about their presentation was having this one group articulate the concerns of so many community organizations all at once. It was as if many of the most important parts of last August’s Review Panel’s public hearings had been compressed into one brief utterance. That was refreshing: it reminded everybody what this was all about, what got us here, what was being asked, what problems stood in the way of rational answers. They asked such questions as:

— What’s the rush to build a new bridge? Can’t some of the present problems be solved by better traffic management and more staff at the toll, customs and immigration stations?

—Why don’t we do an environmental impact study to find out what the real needs and limitations are (exactly the basis of the lawsuits in state supreme court)?

—Why are we dealing with the bridge as if it were a standalone issue, without implications on parkland, the environment, the trade corridor?

They didn’t seem to have any specific ideas about what they would do when they took over, other than that they’d build a signature bridge somewhere around here and would apply their management skills so well we wouldn’t have to worry about anything ever again. They said that a smoothly-operating trade corridor was necessary for the region’s economic and mental health. To nearly every question about design, location, cost, and capacity they said we’d have to wait on the environmental impact study.

All they seem to ask of us is that we grant them complete control of the whole operation. They’ll run it as a profit-making enterprise and they promise us various unspecified benefits when they develop a lucrative new bridge and get money from the two governments to give trucks and cars access to it. Their basic attitude, finally, seemed paternal: you kids in Buffalo and Fort Erie can’t get your acts together so Big Daddy from Detroit will take care of it. All you kids have to do is agree to give Big Daddy all the money. And control.

Who is Daddy?
The Ambassador Bridge is wholly owned by CenTra Inc, a holding company owned by reclusive Grosse Pointe businessman Manuel Moroun. CenTra was started by Moroun’s father, Tufick. Moroun owns a lot of property in and around Detroit and several trucking companies. He seems to be very good at leveraging his large contributions to the Republican Party into public funding for access roads to his properties. He went to the same high school as novelist Elmore Leonard–University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy.

He recently settled, after ten weeks of nasty trial, a lawsuit filed by his two sisters seven years ago. It was about control of CenTra. His sisters were seeking $53 million; the settlement was not disclosed. The sisters had accused their brother of “shareholder oppression and keeping them out of the business.”

At the Public Review Panel here last week, Remo Mancini wouldn’t answer with any specificity a question about the company’s profits earned and taxes paid, but he did say that “Our property taxes in both Windsor and Detroit are quite healthy. Our corporate taxes are quite healthy.... We’re proud taxpayers and proud to be good corporate citizens.” He didn’t mention Moroun’s recent lawsuit attempting to force the state to give him refunds for more than $4 million in state taxes on gas sold at his duty free Ammex store, which is part of the Ambassador Bridge operation. A lower court rejected Moroun’s original claim and a three-judge appellate panel upheld that decision last month. Moroun’s lawyers said they would appeal.

The Sounds of Silence
That’s not the only issue the Detroit guys avoided. “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter,” wrote John Keats, musing about painted figures frozen forever on an old bit of pottery. Translate that to what went on at the Review Panel last Wednesday and it reads: “Those guys talked loudly, but what they didn’t say shouts.”

They discussed increased auto traffic across the Ambassador bridge in the past seven years and ascribed it all to brilliant management. Not one of them mentioned the presence and impact of Casino Windsor, a huge gambling establishment just beyond the Canadian terminus of their bridge. When Peter Cammerata  pointed out that the opening of slot machines in Fort Erie in October increased Peace Bridge traffic 7% the first month, they had no reply. (According to Public Bridge Authority officials, that 7% rose to 13% in November.) Sure, some of their traffic flow is attributable to good management, but surely some is attributable to that immortal Kevin Costner line, “If you build it they will come.” In this case, "it" was a casino.

But what happens if lots and lots of them come? Ambassador Bridge president Dan Stamper said, “In the late 80s we had congestion at the Ambassador Bridge and there was outcry that there was a need for another bridge. And there were a lot of people who were quoted in the paper and on tv saying ‘We need another bridge, we need another bridge now.’ We doubled our traffic since then without adding one additional lane over the water.... We did that in a matter of months, not in a matter of years, by managing the traffic and working with the Customs and Immigrations agencies to improve their process.”

That’s all no doubt true, but what he didn’t mention, and neither did any of his three associates, is that his firm is now busy trying to get a twin span constructed, that the Canadian town across the river is saying there are obstacles because of road capacity and environmental concerns, and that there is another guy in town saying the bridge should be located further up the river. They’ve got many of the same arguments, issues and problems there that we’ve got here, but they never said that to the Panel.

They weren’t much more direct in their responses to questions from the audience. When someone asked, “Where else have you built and operated a bridge?” Stamper said they operated the “Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor,” but he wouldn’t admit that they hadn’t ever built any bridge anywhere.

The first time Stamper spoke at last Wednesday night’s session he said, “We’re here today because we were asked to be here.” Two times questioners from the audience asked, “Who asked you to be here?” Both times they avoided giving a straight answer. The second time they were asked the question, Stamper looked left and right, looked down, made a gesture with his head, after which Mancini got up and said, “We’ve been invited by this committee. I have a letter signed by Mr. David Carter that I received about a week ago with some followup phone calls. And I want to sincerely thank this committee for having us. It’s been an honor to appear before you.”

What patronizing horseshit.

Stamper and Mancini both knew that question wasn’t about why they were there that night but why they were in Buffalo at all. I’d asked Mancini the same question when he was in Buffalo the previous week and got evasion. When Buffalo News Washington reporter Doug Turner asked them the same question in October they “declined to identify the person who aroused the company’s interest in the issue.”

Mancini’s answer Wednesday night reminded me of the scene in Christopher Marlowe’s Jew of Malta when Barabas, on his way home from setting fire to a nunnery, is challenged on the road by two friars. One of the friars says “Thou hast committed–” Barabas interrupts him and says, “Fornication. But that was in another Country: and besides, the Wench is dead.” That’s the Barabas Gambit: when they’re asking you questions about something you don’t want to cop to, answer a different question and hope that will keep them so busy they’ll forget about what they really wanted to know.

People hardly ever forget what it was they really wanted to know. I don’t know what possesses salesmen to think they can sell evasiveness when they’re in front of a panel of lawyers, business people, politicians, and community activists. Even if they the Ambassador Bridge people had good ideas about what to do here, that kind of evasion would turn people against them. Why would you turn over a cash cow like the Peace Bridge to someone whose major line is “Trust me” and they won’t tell you the truth about things you can find out anyway?

The Pols
The Detroit guys were sponsored by our U.S. senators. The Review Panel gave them that airtime because the staffs of senators Moynihan and Schumer asked for it. The week before the Panel event, the Detroit guys were in town meeting nearly everybody having anything to do with the bridge issue: politicians, community groups, reporters. The meeting I went to was organized by Senator Moynihan’s office. After the Detroit guys left town, Senator Schumer issued a statement saying that their ideas deserved our consideration. But the local politicians had a different reaction: Buffalo Mayor Anthony Masiello said they were “a big waste of time” and Fort Erie Mayor Wayne Redekop said considering their ideas was delaying everything even more.

Redekop is wrong: considering their ideas isn’t delaying anything because the collaborative engineering project is continuing on schedule. The only delay there was occasioned by the month-long delay of the Public Bridge Authority and Transport Canada in naming the Canadian engineers. The fact that the Panel heard these Detroit developers in a public session has nothing to do with that process.

Someone in the audience said after it was over, “I bet Moynihan invited them in last summer before the panel got going and was stuck with giving them a venue. Otherwise this doesn’t make any sense. They’re just not up to his good sense on this.” That’s a possibility. Someone else suggested that the two senators wanted an opportunity to consolidate the key questions raised by various community groups and critical journalists in town, which the Detroit guys did, and to embarrass the Public Bridge Authority for its short-sighted management of the bridge, which the Detroit guys also did.

But why would we want to have the Detroit guys come in and take it all over, apply corporate efficiency, and then take all the money home to Manuel Moroun? If the two senators are backing that horse they’re wrong; if they were trying to make a point, well, they made it and it’s time to move on. Our problems aren’t going to be solved by turning everything over to a secretive rich guy in Grosse Pointe, Michigan.

We’ve got to get off the dime on the bridge and we’ve got to see that the bridge is part of a much larger regional development issue, and we’ve got to understand that we’re the only people who can deal with all of these issues in a way that serves both sides of the river well. The Review Panel knows that, which is why on Wednesday, November 16, all but two of its members voted to reject the proposal. The two exceptions were Jim Kane and Jack O'Donnell, the representatives of Senators Moynihan and Schumer.

The only pol right on the money this time was Tony Masiello.

(Next week: What Fort Erie Mayor Wayne Redekop said.)

Bruce Jackson is Artvoice's international affairs correspondent.

copyright 1999 Bruce Jackson

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