Niagara Parks Commission Chairwoman Fay Booker has no immediate plans to replace departed Parks executive Joel Noden – at least not until the provincial agency goes through an extensive strategic planning process.
“We’ll have to see,” Booker said Tuesday. “This isn’t our busiest time of the year. We’re coming into some down-time now, so this gives us the opportunity to take a step back, to look at everything and see how it’s best for us to proceed.”
Noden, the former executive director of revenue operations, marketing and business development, was the key man behind the scenes for most of the NPC’s high-profile events, attractions and advertising campaigns. He was in charge of generating revenue for the money-losing NPC, which is not funded by Ontario taxpayers.
“We want to talk to all of our employees and get an idea of where they think we need to go,” Booker added. “It may be that we need to fill the position based on a really great idea that someone has. We just don’t know.”
Booker would not say if Noden left on his own or was asked to go.
“He’s pursuing some opportunities in the private sector,” she said.
According to a Globe and Mail report published earlier this week, an investigation has been initiated into an untendered publishing contract entered into with REV Publishing of Niagara Falls and signed off on by Noden, involving distribution at commuter newspaper boxes. The story states Noden said there was insufficient time to seek other bids for the tourism sector publication as funding came available in late spring and circulation was wanted in time for the start of the summer vacation season.
Tourism Minister Michael Chan, who was in the region Wednesday at a Niagara Falls Chamber of Commerce luncheon, said the situation presented an exception to the procurement rule.
“The issue right here is, yes, it is a single procurement, but is this an exception to the directive? The issue is the GO boxes,” said Chan. “The reason, according to the presentation to us, is that REV Publishing has exclusive rights to those GO boxes, and those GO boxes (are) a key vehicle in terms of distribution of those magazines. Because of this exclusivity, the RTO (Regional Tourism Organization) board decided we have to deal with REV Publishing. We need the GO boxes as a vehicle to distribute those magazines.”
“We looked at the whole thing and decided this was an exception to the procurement rule. So this is why we are satisfied,” added Chan.
Connie Fancy, director of Torstar Direct Services, says that is not the case.
“We (Torstar Direct Services) hold an exclusive contract with Gateway Newstands to distribute free non-daily publications into racks within Gateway’s TTC and GO indoor locations. Our Street Box Media program allows access to over 1,300 outdoor street boxes. Niagara This Week (part of Torstar’s Metroland chain of community newspapers an affiliated company) would certainly have access to all of these locations,” said Fancy. “Torstar Direct Services specializes in offering distribution to non-daily free publications across the GTA.”
Fancy also noted that distribution can be planned and implemented in less than two weeks, so quick turnaround is a typical aspect of their standard service.
Noden’s phone was still taking messages Tuesday afternoon, but he did not return calls. His cell phone message said the user was unavailable.
Noden, who was paid more than $130,000 in 2009 according to a list of public-sector employees, travelled the world attempting to drum up business and ideas for the Commission. He was a frequent visitor to China in anticipation of the country’s inclusion of Canada on its list of favoured destinations. Noden was responsible for the Commission’s involvement in the New Year’s Eve concert in Victoria Park. He was the driving force behind The Fury, the controversial and struggling multimillion-dollar ‘Disney-like’ attraction at Table Rock.
He also devised a recent series of advertisements, which advised people to forsake Toronto in favour of travel to Niagara. The ad series drew the ire of Canada’s largest city for suggesting that Toronto was a dangerous, noisy and dirty tourist destination.
The ‘Shake off the City’ series of advertisements were eventually scaled back and can no longer be found on the Commission’s website. Noden ended up apologizing for hurting Toronto’s feelings, but also said at the time that Niagara Falls and the Parks Commission couldn’t possibly have afforded to buy the type of media attention generated by the $300,000-program.
In addition, he was co-chairman of a newly created tourism marketing group, one of 13 RTOs launched by the provincial government last spring.
Noden’s departure was announced in an e-mail to Parks Commission employees Tuesday from acting general manager Bob McIlveen.
The e-mail read, in part: “Please be advised that Joel Noden is no longer an employee of the Commission. He is pursuing opportunities in the private sector to leverage his knowledge and capability. This change will make it necessary for NPC to reorganize its corporate structure significantly. There will be a separate memo outlining these organizational changes issued shortly.”
McIlveen is the executive director of corporate services. He is currently filling in for general manager John Kernahan, who is on sick leave. Booker said she expects Kernahan will return to work next week.
Noden’s exit comes during a period when the Parks Commission is under unprecedented scrutiny. Long criticized for the secretive, closed-door nature of its enterprises, the heat was turned up in 2008 when it was revealed the NPC had awarded an untendered 25-year lease to operators of the Maid of the Mist tour boat excursions.
That came to light only through the efforts of former commissioner and Niagara Falls businessman Bob Gale, who eventually quit his position as chairman of the Commission marketing committee. When his complaints to fellow commissioners and the government fell on deaf ears, he brought his concerns to the Ontario integrity commissioner. It took two government reviews before the Ontario Ministry of Tourism and Culture ordered the Niagara Parks Commission to conduct a competitive bidding process for the Maid of the Mist lease, which is currently under way.
Gale, for his part, was not reappointed to the NPC when his three-year term expired in February of 2009. The controversy over the boat-tour lease also led to the resignation of NPC chairman Jim Williams, who was replaced by Booker last May. Then, two months later, vice-chairman Archie Katzman stepped down from his position and announced he would leave the commission next fall after 40 years.
The Parks Commission, which has about 300 employees, is a 125-year-old Crown agency accountable for the preservation and administration of lands in and around Niagara Falls. While technically it receives no government funding, it functions with the implicit financial backing of the province.
The Commission has lost money for at least four consecutive years, despite Niagara Falls being the busiest and most popular tourist attraction in Canada.