Law school dream takes $20M hit
Conversion of Paul Martin Building now up in air as province pulls funding
A catastrophic blow has been dealt to the city’s long-standing dream of moving the University of Windsor law school into the downtown’s Paul Martin Building. The $20-million commitment made just before the June 7 election by the previous Ontario government under Kathleen Wynne — to renovate the federal heritage building into a landmark law school — has been cancelled by the ruling Doug Ford government, Merrilee Fullerton, a spokeswoman for minister of training, colleges and universities, said this week.
Fullerton’s director of communications, Stephanie Rae, said “the funding for the relocation is not going ahead.”
In emails to The Star, she said the decision is based on the Progressive Conservative government’s promise to restore accountability and trust to Ontario’s finances. “Part of that process means making tough decisions about projects across Ontario. Our government is being forced to clean up the irresponsible and reckless financial decisions of the previous Liberal government,” she said, adding that “empty promises” made by the Liberals in an election year have led to a $15-billion deficit. The government has identified a number of projects that are “not aligned with current fiscal priorities,” she said.
“We are making reasonable and pragmatic decisions on projects as we return to balanced budgets.” The university had shelved the downtown move in the summer of 2017 after years of unsuccessful efforts to convince the Ontario government, which funds postsecondary education, to financially back it. But the $20-million commitment made by the Wynne government in May revived the project. University officials were assured that it was a “solid” commitment, approved as part of the Ontario budget to provide the money in 2019-20. Contacted Thursday, U of W spokesman John Coleman refused to say whether the university knew about the Ford government’s cancellation, or what the university intends to do about it.
“I can’t speak on behalf of the government but everybody knows they ’re experiencing some difficult financial issues and they’re looking for efficiencies, and we’ve got some plans and we look forward to announcing them, and we’ll have more details at that point,” he said. “I can’t say anything more at this point.”
He refused to say whether the university still planned to move into the Paul Martin Building, which the federal government has been hoping to dispose of. It’s been largely vacant in recent years. The feds are renovating a big office building at 441 University Avenue West to house many of its Windsor-area employees. It spent $3.3 million several years ago to repair the building’s crumbling limestone facade but that was seen as just a Band-Aid provision that didn’t address its many interior deficiencies.
The city was looking at buying the building for $1 and then turning it over to the university to house the 800 students and faculty in its well-regarded law school. Council has agreed to spend $15 million to help with the renovation, as part of its strategy to revitalize the downtown by encouraging both the university and St. Clair College to establish downtown campuses. Public Services and Procurement Canada, the federal agency managing the building, was unaware that the province had pulled out of the $20-million commitment, spokesman Jeremy Link said Thursday.
“We continue to have discussions with the city about the future of the Paul Martin Building, we continue to be supportive of transferring it to the city for a nominal sum for a public purpose.” Mayor Drew Dilkens was out of town and couldn’t be reached on Thursday to comment on the city ’s next move.
If the university doesn’t want the Paul Martin Building for its law school, it does have some other potential uses.
Windsor Public Library is currently searching for a new downtown site for its central branch after agreeing in March to sell its current building on Ouellette Avenue to the Downtown Mission for $3.6 million. It intends on moving into temporary space in the new city hall in June while a new library is either built or renovated, a process expected to take three to five years. The six-storey Paul Martin Building — named after the late federal cabinet minister Paul Martin Sr., father of former prime minister Paul Martin — was built in the early 1930s and is considered one of the city’s premier heritage buildings.
It may be just the type of building being sought by Michigan tech companies looking to establish operations in Windsor to take advantage of the availability of well-educated Canadian and international tech workers. The former Fish Market building at Chatham and Ferry streets — set to open next year as a tech centre for Dan Gilbert’s Quicken Loans — is on the same block and many hope it’s just the start of a wave of tech firms setting up in cool buildings in the core. Downtown Business Improvement Association chairman Larry Horwitz acknowledged there are other potential uses for the Paul Martin Building, like a library or a tech firm. “Whatever use that keeps it as a gemstone in the core, we should embrace, but I think right now the law school is our best opportunity,” he said, referring to the fact a law school has mature students who have more money to spend and want to live nearby. That translates to hundreds of more people living and spending in the downtown, he said.
“It creates so many opportunities around it that other uses might not,” he said. “The law school is one of the biggest boosts you can do for the downtown. It would catapult it to a whole other level.”
He vowed to continue fighting for the city, the province and the feds to get together on this project. “We’ve gone through this where the law school is off the table, on the table, off the table,” he said, suggesting there’s an opportunity to get it back on the table. “I’m still pretty optimistic about it.”
There were plans to renovate the Paul Martin Building downtown as a new home for the University of Windsor’s law school, but the provincial Progressive Conservative government now says it won’t support a $20-million commitment made by former premier Kathleen Wynne.
Turning the Paul Martin Building into the location of the University of Windsor’s Law School would have brought an influx of students into the core and been a boost for business. Downtown Business Improvement Association chairman Larry Horwitz said he remains “pretty optimistic” about the law school proposal.