Rumours of more

(First Published Financial Times of Canada, September, 1989)
By Adam Corelli

COBURG, Ont. — IT’S AFTER 6 at the 5 O’Clock Club, a Friday night gathering of men and women at the Cat and the Fiddle pub in Cobourg, Ont. As the informal membership of friends and acquaintances gradually relaxes, all of the familiar and important themes of life in small-town Canada are raised and discussed in an offhand but intensely serious way. Most say they like the new dry beer. Some are convinced that the Weight Watchers diet plan is the soundest way to shed spare poundage. Others aren’t so sure. As every generation does, they express doubts about the community’s youth, and what they’re really up to. But mostly, the 5 o’clock fraternity talks about a rumor.

Months ago, word began to spread in Cobourg about the coming of an automobile-assembly plant, courtesy of Chrysler Canada Ltd. With the passing of time, this will-o’-the-whisper has taken on flesh and bones. Ian Keyes, a factory worker, declares that he knows beyond doubt that the plant is coming. Others pitch in with reports of the number of people they’ve heard will be hired: 1,200, 2,000, even 4,000. Sara Jones, the waitress at the Cat and the Fiddle, pauses in the midst of serving beer to say she thinks she knows someone who will help build the plant. “It’s a parts plant, isn’t it?” she adds. A mechanical contractor declares that he, too, will be helping to build the plant. But, of course, there are skeptics, too. Ralph Curtis, a printer, says he first heard the rumor seven years ago. Since nothing has happened, he’s not in the camp of the believers. His pal, Dean McCaughey, who sits on Cobourg Council, doesn’t know what to think. On this night and every other night, only one thing is certain: the world is coming to Cobourg in peculiar ways.

It matters not at all that Chrysler Canada has been emphatically denying the rumor for many months now. “It’s definitely not us,” says Moe Closs, the president of Chrysler. “We are absolutely not putting anything in there.” What’s more, he adds, Chrysler is not involved in joint-venture plans for Cobourg with any other automaker. But the rumor is making life difficult for the auto giant. Alan McPhee, a public-relations manager at Chrysler, says he began fielding calls roughly six months ago. Within the past month, speculation about Chrysler and Cobourg has intensified. He now gets inquiries daily. “I just got one the other day from some people who live in Toronto but own land in Cobourg,” McPhee says. “They were hoping the rumor was true.”

In both its history and its landscape, Cobourg is the epitome of the commonplace. The town boomed briefly in the 1850s as a fresh-water port, before settling comfortably into somnolent small-town obscurity. It boasts of being the birthplace of Marie Dressler, who shook off the dust of Cobourg before the turn of the century to become a star of vaudeville and, later, moving pictures. But Dressler has been dead since 1934 and her memory lives on with only the most die-hard cinema buffs. Yet since the rumor started, Cobourg, at least among its residents, has become a name-droppers’ paradise. It is said that Alfred Sung, the fashion designer, is moving to town. A nephew of Ferdinand Marcos has just purchased a tract of land on which to build condominium apartments. Donald Hunter, an heir to the Maclean-Hunter Ltd. publishing fortune, stands to make a bundle on his substantial property holdings in the area. And Farley Mowat, the veteran literary brawler who hangs out in nearby Port Hope, is feeling defeated by the relentless encroachment of civilization and is about to head out to the wilderness, or some approximation thereof. Surprisingly, some of the above is true, or partly so.

Chrysler or no Chrysler, there can be little doubt that Cobourg is caught on the edge of change. Perched on the eastern fringe of the great dark cloud of carbon monoxide, concrete and money that the world calls Toronto, Cobourg’s 13,800 residents glory in their surroundings: pretty and prosperous countryside that stands in sharp relief to the metropolitan bulge that has already slouched west and north. Just west of Cobourg is Oshawa, which for decades has been defined and dominated by General Motors. Cobourg, by contrast, thrives on diversity. The community has some 80 industries, only a couple of which have a payroll of more than 1,000. Unemployment is a moderate 5.9%.

And so it is that the prospect of a huge car plant is greeted with something less than unalloyed pleasure by even the most money-dazzled, hell-bent-for-progress boosters in town. For instance, there’s Frankie Liberty, who works night and day to lure jobs to the region. “It would be an enormous adjustment for the community,” says Liberty, who is director of the Diamond Triangle Economic Development Commission, which encompasses Cobourg and nearby Port Hope, Hope Township and Hamilton Township. She adds, “There is a difference of opinion on whether that kind of plant has a positive impact on a town. “

KING STREET, COBOURG, bears a distinct similarity to the main thoroughfare of several other small towns strung out along the shores of Lake Ontario. It consists of several blocks of Victorian three-storey buildings that stretch gracefully along the harbor. The days of Cobourg’s importance as a commercial shipping port are long past, and the boats that bob in the water-way these days are the possessions of weekend sailors. The jewel of King Street is Victoria Hall, a magnificent mid-Victorian structure built for $110,000 during the 1850s and restored and updated in 1983 at a cost of some $6.5 million. It is here that Cobourg residents go to find justice, culture and even a cure for potholes, for the hall houses the provincial courts (built to replicate in miniature the Old Bailey of London), an art gallery, and civic offices.

Not all of Cobourg’s architecture is as pleasing or picturesque as King Street. Feathered out from the center of town, past the substantial homes that are sprinkled through middle-class neighborhoods, are modem subdivisions, some consisting of row housing, others of factories and warehouses punched out, cookie-cutter style, from corrugated steel. These islands of development are joined by roads much wider than those laid out by the town’s founders, the better to get people and products onto Highway 401. About two miles from Victoria Hall, beside a strip mall that is still under construction, stands a modern two-storey building of singularly utilitarian appearance. Frankie Liberty occupies an office on the second floor of this structure. On a recent weekday, she sat with a dozen messages neatly spread along her desk and talked about the rumor that has taken hold in Cobourg. A woman of 41, Liberty pursues industry with passionate conviction. But before she launches into a soliloquy on the merits of a giant auto plant arising from a field now undisturbed by all but the lowing of Holsteins, Liberty is careful to state emphatically that she’s foursquare in favor of a strong sense of community and a great admirer of the area’s pastoral beauty.

Still, Liberty itches with curiosity about Chrysler. For months, she has sought answers, and in turn, others have sought her out with their questions. She’s been called by an official of the Federal Business Development Bank; by a number of reporters for newspapers and radio stations in the surrounding area; by Christine Stewart, the Liberal MP for Northumberland, a riding that includes Cobourg within its precincts; and frequently by local tradesmen, contractors, and others in search of business. The rumor follows her home at night and on her social rounds. “I was at some party, sort of a government function, last summer when someone from the premier’s office said they heard we are getting a plant.” But Liberty has no answers for them. “I don’t know who started it,” she says. “Maybe it’s some local real-estate guy hoping to spark a jump in land values. “

Tracing the rumor to its source is like reconstructing a fender-bender on a busy street comer: just about everyone you talk to has a version of events but no two agree on the cause. It has wound its way throughout the region, gathering force if not substance, and become part of Cobourg mythology. Just about all of the 34,480 residents of the Diamond Triangle, as well as the Cobourg Daily Star, the Saturday Morning Post and other local news-gathering organs have searched for answers. But the stream of stories and speculation have only served to raise more questions.

For most, belief is a matter of faith rather than conviction. But in its curious way, the rumor has affected even the most stolid pragmatists. David Weir is an agent for Darrell Kent Real Estate Ltd., a large Toronto firm that established a branch office in Port Hope several years ago after its founder and namesake bought a palatial retreat there. “I concentrate on the facts of life, and rumor doesn’t influence me,” says Weir. When Darrell Kent died last year, a story made the rounds that fashion designer Alfred Sung had purchased Kent’s well-appointed summer home. Weir insists that’s not true. Still, even Weir became spooked enough by the Chrysler plant rumor that he shelved plans to buy a pretty old farmhouse located on a nearby hilltop, because, it was said, the plant was going in close by. Says Weir: “I backed out of the house deal because who wants that next door?” And this from a man who is not influenced by rumor.

Clarke Stephens is torn between doubt and desire. An agent at Ken Hockin Real Estate Ltd., Stephens dismisses the rumor. “I never really believed it, quite frankly.” Yet he adds that he’s heard Chrysler is looking for land. “You hear 800 acres, 600, 1,200, but you hear 1,200 the most.” Such a parcel, he figures, would cost at least $18 million. He bases this on a multiple of a recent sale. He just sold 200 acres for $3 million, so he figures 1,200 acres would fetch at least six times that amount. And once you start doing the numbers, well, it’s easy to dream. Stephens believes there are probably no other tracts of land near Toronto that are as large and as well served with water, electricity and access to transportation as those near Cobourg. But he’s not convinced such a large development would be good for the area. “Services are bursting at the seams,” Stephens complains. “We’ve got so many things going on. I suppose it would be wonderful for me. But there would be some bad for the community.” At the same time, it’s entirely possible that the rumor could help to enrich the likes of Clarke Stephens. But he says he is unaware of any land speculation based solely on the rumor. “It would be fun to hear where the thing ever got started,” he says. “Usually where there’s smoke there’s fire.”

FOR 30 YEARS, Larry Hall has made his living separating fact from fancy in and around Cobourg. Hall is renowned for the tenacity with which he pursues the craft of reporting. His work for the Independent, later called the Saturday Morning Post, and stringing for the Globe and Mail have won him a reputation for accuracy and sound judgment. Now 56, he has applied a working life of experience and the zeal of a much younger man to tracking down the rumor. His conclusion? It’s bunk. Since the rumor first reached his ear three years ago, Hall has interviewed every character in this small-town drama, some of them a dozen times or more. But, having failed to find any basis in fact for all the talk going round, Hall has developed a theory. It starts with the persistent reports that the plant will be located on 1,000 acres or more of prime farmland mid-way between Cobourg and Port Hope. “This rumor kept coming at us,” says Hall. “Myself and a couple of other people find it unusual. So I said somebody is feeding this thing.”

To develop this thesis, Hall turned his attention to Donald Hunter, whose father was a principal of Maclean Hunter Ltd., the Toronto publishing conglomerate whose interests include Maclean’s magazine, the Sun tabloid newspapers, and many other highly profitable enterprises. Hunter owns Hunco Farms Ltd., a vast concern that produces feed, seeds and fertilizer. Hunter’s spread is located right in the area where the plant is rumored to be going in. “It is my conclusion that Don Hunter is feeding this thing,” says Hall. “Even people in Toronto real-estate circles have heard it. So let’s assume there is no plant. In whose best interest is it that the rumors continue? Well, he owns all that land, and land values are going up.”

But Don Hunter makes it abundantly clear that theories such as that propounded by the likes of Hall are generically the same as the stuff he bags and sells to make crops grow. He’s by no means a native son to the Cobourg area, but his roots are firmly planted. Two years ago, Hunter built a handsome home of grey stone atop a rise that gives him a splendid view of his surrounding farmland. A half-kilometre tree-lined dirt road runs from Highway 2, leading to Hunter’s estate. A stone and wrought-iron gate guards a driveway that winds past a simple rock garden with a pond in the middle and California-style bushes dotting its periphery. Tennis courts flank the house. The front stoop is balanced with clean white pillars framing the rock garden and distant fields. With arms folded across his chest, Hunter stands solidly on the stoop, talking reluctantly and somewhat impatiently. “I’ve told a few people, no, I have not sold, I’ve not listed the place,” Hunter says. “Really, that’s all I can tell you. Chrysler has come out and said they’re not coming and I haven’t been approached.” He is clearly anxious to conclude the conversation. “I don’t know what else to do,” he says. “You are wasting your time and you’re wasting my time.”

A few months back, the rumor mutated. Port Hope restoration consultant Rod Stewart recalls drinking beer one night with a reporter from a local radio station. After a few bottles had been emptied, the reporter had convinced himself of the soundness of his muddled musings. “He was just talking away into his beer,” Stewart recalls. The journalist had formed the belief that the Canadian Auto Workers pension fund was looking to buy land in the area. This particular variation never played on radio, but local newspapers have picked up the theme. Stewart thinks the rumor is without foundation, and he’s miffed that it’s proved so persistent. He came close to obtaining a contract to restore a house, but the prospective owner backed away, fearing the effect an auto plant would have on the character of the area. Stewart agrees. “Turning us into a Whitby or Pickering would be awful,” he says.

OVER IN PORT Hope, 10 kilometres away, Don Plummer considers the rumor with sad resignation. Plummer, 56, is the proprietor of a drug store on Walton Street, the town’s main thoroughfare. The store was opened in 1928 by Plummer’s father, and he in turn plans to turn it over to his son, Scott, 30. Observes Plummer: “Toronto has already spread further east even though Port Hope has tried to stay a small town.” One of Plummer’s happiest memories is climbing the hilly area as a child. He knows only too well that the presence of an industrial plant would make such excursions unpleasant and perhaps even impossible for his grandchildren. “It’s been an old town with a lot of history and I think a lot of people would like to preserve it,” he says.

No one more vocally than Farley Mowat, who has spent his life scouting wolves, whales and other wildlife. Now Mowat, one of Canada’s most celebrated writers, spends much of his time at his home in Port Hope with a weather eye out for the great, ugly sprawl that he feels is stalking him and his neighbors. Mowat believes Toronto’s expansion is destined to swallow the region. “Over the last eight months, the first signs of the great wave of effluvia from Toronto has hit us,” he says. “It’s quite obvious that that big cyclops under the (CN) Tower there has turned its awful glassy eye eastward. And it was going to happen. The bigger the city, the more rotten the core, the more non-human the structure.” Mowat is convinced that he has seen the future, and it is not good. “This area will become another part of the industrial and urban sprawl. And it will vanish out of time. And so will I. As the great cesspool overflows I can always run faster than it does, even if I have to run all the way to the east coast.”

The business card of Cobourg’s mayor says: “Angus V. Read Mayor (and) Co-ordinator of Industrial Development Service.” As his card suggests, Read is determined to expand the local economy. He continually courts prospective industries. He frets about the declining availability of industrial land in Cobourg proper – now less than 100 acres – and says the municipality will have to work out a deal for orderly expansion with neighboring Hamilton Township. “Progress is essential to long-term change in society,” says Read. “People seem to think you can hold things in time. But it’s going to move on whether you do or not.” Still, Read is as confused as anyone about the rumor — but on balance he, too, figures it’s without foundation. “I’ve heard for a month now that the deal was closing next week.” But despite his intense desire for local growth, Read speaks glowingly about the area’s mix of small- to-mid-size employers. He doesn’t want the community to lose balance. “The only thing I don’t like is that the real-estate market gets higher than it should over a rumor like this.”

Naturally enough, the rumor worked its way to the Canada Employment Centre in Cobourg. “Everybody has heard of it,” says Liz Basinger, a counsellor there. In the past few months, she says, a number of people have come in to ask about their employment prospects at the plant. Trouble is, says Basinger, it’s impossible to provide any answers: “It’s so vague, and yet when you look at the amount of land out there, you wonder what’s going to happen five to 10 years down the road.”

Back at the 5 O’Clock Club, the talk has turned from car plants and weight loss to exiled dictators. Ian Keyes, the factory worker, is in fine form. A few years back, he swears, a relative of his tried to kill Ferdinand Marcos, who has since been deposed as president of the Philippines and now lives with his wife Imelda and their bank accounts in Hawaii. That’s a pretty good story, but Keyes has a better one. Somehow, he says, a land-hungry nephew of Marcos found his way to Cobourg. And Keyes obliged, he says, by selling him property on which to build a condominium-apartment project. “I won’t tell him about the connection between our families until I get my money,” Keyes laughs. A despot’s descendant becoming a developer in quiet Cobourg? Well, anything’s possible. Besides, if Chrysler ever does get around to building that plant, people are going to have to live somewhere. And if neither condos nor car plants come to pass, such rumors are as good a way as any to pass the time in Cobourg.