Invest North Bay, a development corporation created to encourage economic development in the city, is calling it quits.

The board won't seek to renew its operating agreement with the city. The firm entered into a five-year agreement with the City of North Bay in 2016. The agreement is set to expire in July.

The board said city council should transition it to an economic advisory committee aimed at enabling "opportunities for the local business community to provide input to the city’s future economic success.”

“The model that we had wasn’t working and everyone knew it and so we looked at five options at how we look at restructuring this,” said Invest North Bay board member and city councillor Marcus Tignanelli.

The move comes after Invest North Bay faced criticism over its handling of a $1-million funding request to city council in 2017. The request became the subject of an inquiry by the city’s acting integrity commissioner, former Superior Court Justice George Valin.

The money was used to finance a $1.2-million marketing campaign by TWG Communications, aimed at luring investors, including immigrants, from the Greater Toronto Area to North Bay. That agreement ended in March 2020 under a no-fault clause.

Integrity commissioner

As part of the integrity commissioner's inquiry, North Bay Mayor Al McDonald and former Invest North Bay president George Burton were investigated for “allegedly exerting improper influence” over the decision to provide TWG the $1 million contract. Critics said that was in contravention of the city’s code of conduct, due to McDonald and Burton's relationship with the firm’s creative director and partner, William Ferguson.

Ferguson served as McDonald’s election campaign manager in 2010, 2014 and 2018. Most of McDonald’s election expenses for those first two elections went to TWG for advertising and marketing. Ferguson also donated $1,200 to McDonald’s 2018 campaign.

In his report, Valin said neither McDonald nor Burton exerted improper influence in the decision to award TWG the contract. But he did determine that at no point did either of them disclose the personal or business relationship with Ferguson.

Tignanelli maintains the decision to shut down operations was not based on the investigation.

“It’s one of those coincidences where people will say you’re sweeping this under the rug and not dealing with the allegations, but you know what? It’s not my place to deal with that,” said Tignanelli.

The integrity commissioner's report prompted taxpayer advocates Kevin Ferris and Nicole Peltier to write a letter to the board, calling on it to act on the alleged contraventions of the development corporation’s conflict of interest policy.

'Abject failure'

“Invest North Bay Development Corp. was an abject failure,” said Ferris in an interview. “There have been no return on the investment put into that board so the taxpayers of North Bay have really been duped by this whole thing."

Ferris and Peltier are demanding Invest North Bay make public all of its documents required under the Municipal Act. If not, Ferris said the pair will file a Freedom of Information request to force the board to do so.

The two sent a letter to Invest North Bay’s executive director Ian Kilgour on Tuesday and also wrote a separate letter to council demanding action.

“INBDC (Invest North Bay Development Corporation) has been a local board since its inception but has never acted accordingly,” said Ferris. “As such, it has been conducting closed meetings in violation of section 239 of the Municipal Act for the last five years.”

Burton, who resigned back in September and is now the president of Canadore College, issued a statement to CTV News Tuesday afternoon.

“The corporation did have some success in identifying North Bay’s ability to attract investment. But there was never any guarantee that investment would come,” said Burton. “This decision to not renew the operational agreement with the City of North Bay is one for the board of directors to make.”

Meanwhile, Ferris is asking for McDonald to “step up and admit responsibility for his behaviour.”

“His conduct violated his own policy and his own board,” said Ferris. “We’re tired of this stuff here. We’re not going to back down.”