The drip-drip-drip of bad financial news out of the MaRS Discovery District threatens to turn it into the kind of festering controversy that eats away at the credibility of government. There’s no evidence of the type of political meddling and outright corruption that made the gas plant and ORNGE scandals so potent, but Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals need to get a firm grip on the situation before it does more damage.
The latest blow to the credibility of MaRS (for Medical and Related Sciences) and the politicians that have supported it so enthusiastically was last week’s revelation that taxpayers are paying nearly half a million dollars a month to cover loan payments on its spanking new, but mostly empty, 20-storey building across College St. from the provincial legislature.
In the grand scheme of government spending, it’s not an enormous amount — it could add up to as much as $7.1 million this year as payments rise. But it risks becoming a symbol of the type of casual waste that has marred the Liberals’ 11-year reign at Queen’s Park all too often.
In the case of MaRS, it is doubly unfortunate. The idea behind the organization was, and remains, laudable — to marry business know-how and scientific expertise from our world-beating universities and research hospitals to create startup companies in such fields as health and information technology. Who could disagree?
But the real estate mess is already tarnishing the whole enterprise, which claims to have had a $3-billion impact on the economy over the past dozen years through mentorship, networking and funding research. So far Ontario taxpayers are on the hook for $309 million to buy out the U.S. developer of the mostly empty “Phase 2” tower, Alexandria Real Estate, and to cover other costs accumulated by MaRS for this ill-fated project.
Infrastructure Minister Brad Duguid says the government will recover all that money, and the risk associated with the development is secured by the impressive building itself. But after the gas plants, ORNGE, eHealth and the rest, the public has scant patience for promises followed all too often by fresh revelations of dubious spending and wasted money. If there’s anything else we need to know about this deal, let’s hear it now.
At the same time, the government needs to ask hard questions about how MaRS is performing 12 years after it was launched. As the Star has written before, it’s long past time when those in charge could hide behind the unimpeachable mission of the venture.
We need to know if it is being managed as effectively as possible. Is it as nimble as it should be, or has it succumbed to bureaucratic bloat (having a third of employees earning more than $100,000 a year doesn’t help that perception)? Is a shakeup at the board or among senior leaders needed?
And is there a better use for the office tower at the centre of this ongoing saga? The possibility that civil servants may be relocated there just to fill up empty space is troubling; that would have nothing to do with the MaRS mission of fostering innovation.
First, though, let’s have no more financial surprises. The government’s reputation and our pocketbooks don’t need that.