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Winnipeg Freee Press | 17Dec2011 | Mia Rabson
Rights museum left in lurch
of money; opening delayed; a top executive quits
OTTAWA -- The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is now without
a board chairman as the institution grapples not only with cost
overruns but also delays in its opening.
Winnipeg business heavyweight Arni Thorsteinson's resignation
takes affect Jan. 01, 2012.
There is no word yet on a replacement for Thorsteinson --
whose abrupt decision to leave the board was met with silence from the
federal government that initially appointed him.
Thorsteinson will now rejoin the museum's fundraising arm as a
board member instead.
"He has been a tremendous supporter of the project from early
days and will continue to focus his efforts on private-sector
fundraising as a member of the Friends of the CMHR's Board," said
museum spokeswoman Angela Cassie. "We are all extremely grateful for
Thorsteinson did not return phone calls Friday.
His is the latest in a string of resignations that have
plagued the museum this year.
Last winter, chief operating officer Patrick O'Reilly left his
position. Shortly after that Victoria Dickenson, the chief knowledge
officer, departed for Ontario.
The project is also plagued with financial woes and time
delays. Earlier this year, the museum suddenly announced it would not
be able to open in 2013 as planned. This week it admitted even a 2014
opening may be in jeopardy.
Cassie told the Free Press this week
while construction of the building at The Forks will be finished next
year as planned, the museum isn't issuing contracts for inside work
because it does not have the money in hand to pay for the work and
Sources say the museum is as much as $45 million over its
$310-million construction budget, mainly because of the rising costs of
interior work and the technology needed for the unique exhibits that
are planned. One highly placed government official said the CMHR is now
looking for bridge financing from Ottawa to help cover that shortfall
and Thorsteinson's departure is linked to those discussions.
The federal government originally invested $100 million in
capital and $21.7 million annually for operating costs. The Friends of
the Canadian Museum for Human Rights are on the hook to raise $150
million from private donors. They are $20 million away from that goal.
The province contributed $40 million in capital and the city
offered $20 million.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has flatly refused to provide
any more capital grants or operating dollars to the project.
Thorsteinson's term wasn't supposed to end until June 2013. He
has been involved with the museum for several years as a fundraiser. He
also chaired the advisory committee that consulted across Canada about
what content the museum should develop.
Manitoba regional minister Vic Toews, who has local authority
for the government's role in the project, deflected questions about the
museum to Heritage Minister James Moore.
A spokesman for Moore said the minister had no comment.
University of Manitoba | 01Dec2008 | Alumni Newsletter
It Takes Two
Thorsteinson and his
Susan Glass talk about their
shared life -- from the
big builds to the ballet.
Arni Thorsteinson is a real estate mogul. There’s an
impressive dollar figure behind that statement: $2.5
billion. That’s the combined value of Thorsteinson’s privately
owned real estate development company Shelter
Canadian Properties Ltd., its U.S. equivalent Shelter
American Holdings Inc., and the trio of publicly traded
Real Estate Investment Trusts he manages.
For further proof of the 60-year-old’s real estate savvy
look no further than the boomtown of Fort McMurray,
Alta., where, Thorsteinson says, Shelter’s $750 million in
hotels and apartments makes them the region’s largest
landlord and developer. He has spent the last three decades
in real estate and amassed an empire of investment properties
across western Canada and into the United States
including notable Winnipeg addresses like CityPlace shopping
mall, luxury condominium One Wellington and Club
Regent Casino Hotel.
And – he’ll tell you – he’s quite the bowler.
“I was the junior five-pin champion,” Thorsteinson says
proudly of his youth title.
“Arni is competitive at everything he does,” quips his
wife Susan Glass.
Married nearly 25 years, together they’re one of
Winnipeg’s finest fundraising and philanthropy teams.
They’re a power couple without attitude. When asked if
he bought himself something fancy (like a Rolex watch
or a new car) after closing his first big deal Thorsteinson
promptly replied, “Nope. Not my style.”
On a white-knuckle cold September morning, he and
Glass have no qualms about standing in the biting wind
for an hour during an On Manitoba photo shoot. They’re
happy to pose in front of rubble and rebar instead of
within the warmth of Shelter’s headquarters 26 floors
above the banks of the Assiniboine River. This is the
future site of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights – a
project that’s close to their hearts. Thorsteinson, who’s
chair of the museum’s advisory committee, talks in developer’s
terms about the scope of this project with its $300
million price tag and its unique position as the largest
private/public sector cultural initiative ever undertaken in
Canada. He says: “It’s the most important opportunity for
Winnipeg in my lifetime in my opinion.”
Born in Rosetown, Sask., and raised in the tree-lined
character neighbourhood of River Heights in Winnipeg,
Thorsteinson (who has an older sister, Aldis Hunt) recalls
his childhood during the 50s and 60s in simple terms: “It
was very pleasant and easy living.” His mom Mayme was a
schoolteacher; his dad Johann (Joe) worked as a superintendent
for Pioneer Grain.
The business bug bit early – at 10 he started delivering
newspapers. Next came lawn cutting, which he eventually
parlayed into a landscaping firm. Given his affinity for
entrepreneurialism, Thorsteinson says his fate was always
clear: “There was no question that I wanted to enroll in the
school of commerce.”
When he did finally arrive at the University of
Manitoba’s business school (now the Asper School of
Business) Thorsteinson immediately looked for ways to
get involved, network and take on leadership roles. He
joined the Phi Delta Theta fraternity and the Commerce
Students Association, and that’s how he first met Glass.
She was their lady stick and he was senior stick.
A relationship didn’t blossom for Thorsteinson and
Glass until several years later when they reunited while
working on the political campaign of a mutual friend. In
the meantime, Thorsteinson graduated in 1971 and took
a job with Winnipeg firm Richardson Securities of Canada
as a research analyst and securities underwriter. Five
years later, he invested in Shelter, a company first started
by U of M architecture grad Graham Lount [BArch/45].
Thorsteinson eventually purchased Shelter outright in
Glass too was born in Saskatchewan (Prince Albert). Her
parents divorced when she was 13. An only child, she and
her mother Helen moved to Winnipeg so her mom could
continue her education. (The elder Glass is a renowned
academic and former dean of the U of M’s faculty of nursing.)
They moved to New York while Glass was in high school and there
she made a fortuitous discovery. “I had the benefit of…the best of
Broadway in the heyday of musicals like My Fair Lady and Camelot
and those kinds of things which piqued my interest in live theatre
and live performance.” Today, she and her husband are among the
Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s strongest supporters. The ballet company
recently nominated the couple for a National Philanthropy Award
in the category of outstanding volunteer fundraisers.
Glass’ passion runs so deep she says she can envision a dancer’s
movements simply by hearing a melody from a previous performance.
And the vanity plate on her car reads ‘BALLET’.
After a 15-year career in computer systems management and
marketing with Air Canada in Winnipeg and Montreal, Glass dedicated
herself as a community volunteer. Between them, Glass and
Thorsteinson have sat on more than two dozen boards and committees
affiliated with the arts, their alma mater and businesses such as
Onex Corporation and Ben Moss Jewellers Ltd.
Anytime they commit to something, they roll up their sleeves and
get involved personally, says Sheila Molloy [BComm(Hons)/05],
executive director of the Associates of the Asper School of
Business, a group Thorsteinson has been involved with since
the early 1980s. “Their support is not just philanthropy. They’re
giving their time, their energy, and their voice. We should all take a
page out of their book.”
Their motivation to give back is deeply rooted. “Our families have
always believed in supporting non-profit institutions – cultural,
educational, health, sports,” Thorsteinson says. “There’s a long
in Winnipeg of doing that and we’re by no means unique.”
But it’s also a case of striking while the fire is hot. Thorsteinson
says the past decade has been the most expansive economic years
in the history of western Canada, so now, “There’s an opportunity
(for Winnipeg) to achieve things that wouldn’t have been possible
maybe 15 years ago but it needs commitment and leadership and
Citing the airport expansion, the inland port project and the
Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Thorsteinson says he
believes Winnipeg is “in a boom era.” But as far as he’s concerned, a
Winnipeg teeming with development opportunities still needs a full
complement of attractions like professional sports, entertainment,
culture, and services like education and healthcare to retain people
and secure a bright future. “You need all of that so they go hand in
hand,” he says. “You really can’t separate them.”
Glass, whom Thorsteinson affectionately calls ‘Sunshine’, says she
and her husband are a team. “Everything we do, we do together,”
the 63-year-old explains. That includes collecting contemporary art
glass and taking road trips on their Harley Davidson motorcycles.
Hers sports a leopard-print paint job. She explained the pattern is
part of her “persona.” (It makes up much of her wardrobe and their
Lake of the Woods cottage is decorated in an African motif.)
The northern Ontario cottage country is the couple’s favourite
retreat – it’s also where Thorsteinson says he made his first
deal: a subdivision of 30 cottage lots. They spend their
summer weekends there and host Thorsteinson’s niece, nephew and
grandnieces. He plays golf as well but admits his forte isn’t on the
fairway. When asked if he was a golfer, he replies, “Bad one.”
Glass says her husband has little leisure time but concedes,
“I don’t think he’ll ever retire.” His typical workday runs 12 hours
and he’ll often work on vacations too. Shelter employs about 800
people and is responsible for 200 multi-unit rental, condominium,
commercial and hotel properties – which includes 12,000 suites and
about eight million square feet of commercial space.
“The day never ends for him or the week never ends,” says Glass.
“He’s constantly on the phone. Even when we do travel, no matter
what time zone we’re in, he’s always working on this time zone.”
Not long after Thorsteinson took full ownership of Shelter, the
real estate market experienced a massive recession. Then, in 1995,
he was named in a vote-rigging scandal that rocked the provincial
Progressive Conservative party. For Thorsteinson, that experience
is in the past.
“You have to look forward and not backward,” he says. “I don’t
think you can be successful and active and involved in many parts of
our community whether it’s cultural or business without attracting
some adverse publicity at times.”
His ability to shrug off adversity and stay positive is one of the
attributes Glass most admires in her husband. While discussing
the recent American subprime mortgage fiasco with On Manitoba
earlier this fall, Thorsteinson said he was bracing for the impact on
Canadian soil but he also remained optimistic.
“He’s very, very positive…which is helpful for me because I sometimes
tend to focus the other way,” says Glass. Or as Thorsteinson
puts it, “Susan thinks it’s going to rain and I think it’s going to be a
beautiful sunny day…I‘m by nature perennially optimistic.”
Thorsteinson and Glass play off each other’s strengths. In business,
where relationship building is paramount, Thorsteinson uses
Glass as a sounding board because she’s “a good judge of character.”
He also admires her empathy. Adds Glass with a laugh, “I’m always
questioning and asking, and I give my opinions pretty freely. He
doesn’t ask for them; I just give them.”
Glass says Thorsteinson’s ability to remember peoples’ names,
business backgrounds and genealogy is “astounding.” And when it
comes to fundraising, she says, his help has been invaluable.
“He can always get me the appointment and I can make the sale.”
The Arni C. Thorsteinson Exchange Program involves
participants from Ben Gurion University of the Negev and
the Asper School of Business. A total of 20 undergraduates
from the two institutions will participate in the 2011 exchange.