Brandon Folk Society's Friends in High Places

Article excerpt

BRANDON -- Has Brandon East NDP MLA Drew Caldwell abused his position as an MLA and his relationship with Premier Greg Selinger in order to obtain more than $1 million in provincial funding for a corporation founded by Caldwell and managed by his wife?

That is a question many Brandonites are asking as new details emerge relating to efforts by the Brandon Folk Music and Art Society to obtain almost $4 million of taxpayer support in order to convert the former Strand Theatre in downtown Brandon into a 450-seat performing arts centre.

In March of last year, the non-profit corporation submitted a 200-page funding application to the federal Department of Canadian Heritage, seeking a contribution of $2,088,066 from the Harper government toward the projected cost of the project. The balance would come from the provincial government ($1,114,065), the City of Brandon ($474,000) and from society fundraising ($500,000)

The application was signed by Shandra MacNeill, Caldwell's wife. In the BFMAS organizational chart, which forms part of the application, she is identified as the "Chair (Acting Artistic Director)" and as a member of its board of directors. Caldwell says it's a volunteer position.

Under that funding scheme, taxpayers would contribute at least 88 per cent of the total cost of the project, but it would be wholly owned by the society on completion.

I say "at least" because BFMAS has raised none of the $500,000 and, under the project's cost projections, the reserve is large enough that a BFMAS contribution could be unnecessary.

Taxpayers would be paying millions for a facility that they would have no ownership stake in controlled by the wife of a sitting government MLA.

In addition to a copy of the society's articles of incorporation, which show that BFMAS was incorporated by Caldwell and others several years ago, the application also contains a feasibility study which identifies Caldwell's taxpayer-funded constituency office as a committed tenant of office space in the building.

Also in the application is a copy of a letter (on "Manitoba Legislative Assembly" letterhead) signed by Caldwell, in his capacity as MLA for Brandon East, in which he strongly endorses the project. It does not disclose that his wife is chair of BFMAS.

The application was denied by the federal government in a letter dated March 14. That letter states that "The fundraising and business plans provided were optimistic and did not demonstrate that your organization has the capacity to successfully manage the capital project or the new facility with significant increased fixed costs. …