Inside the wild, wonderful world of ‘Dannyland’

Former premier Danny Williams is betting billions on the Rock
30 MAY 2013--ST. JOHN’S, NL--DANNY WILLIAMS: Former NL Premier, Danny Williams, on the Glendenning Golf Course, which he owns, in St. John’s, NL. Photo by Paul Daly
Inside the wild, wonderful world of ‘Dannyland’
Paul Daly

What local wits have taken to calling “Dannyland,” “Williamsburg,” “Afdanistan,” or better-still “Udanda,” isn’t much to look at. A vast stretch of rocky hills and low-lying bogs covered with scrubby spruce and fir trees at the far western limits of the city of St. John’s. But the former premier of Newfoundland and Labrador has a vision. Piloting his black Maserati Quattroporte at something just short of lightspeed along the two major highways that border the 2,400-acre plot, Danny Williams points out the location of a future industrial park. Then he whizzes past the soon-to-be site of a giant big-box shopping complex. In behind, deep in the bush where fancy Italian sports sedans dare not tread, will lie the schools, hospital, recreation complex, maybe even a satellite campus for the university. And housing, lots of housing. The master plan, tacked to the wall of his downtown office, calls for everything from townhomes to a seniors’ apartment tower to sprawling suburban estates—as many as 5,000 dwellings in a community that will eventually grow to the size of Gander. The largest housing development in the history of the province—if not all of eastern Canada.

But as is his wont, Williams’s ambitions are even grander. Eschewing the usual mix of strip malls and ticky-tacky boxes, he’s hired a team of architects and urban planners and given them marching orders to make the residential component pedestrian- and people-friendly, with small shops, pubs, restaurants, a village green and skating pond at its core. “It will be one-stop shopping for families,” he enthuses. “I’m trying to bring a bit of Europe to Newfoundland.” (The official name for the development, which he’s not quite ready to publicly unveil, will be a nod to his mother’s Irish heritage.) He’s not limiting his search for ideas to the old country. While in Florida on vacation this past winter, he spent a day driving around the town that Disney built—Celebration, USA—snapping photos of its canals, sculpted pathways and old-fashioned porches. “I like the Southern look too,” he says.

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The fact that his experience as a developer is limited—a modest 264-unit affordable housing project on the other side of the city—is not an obstacle. Neither was the reality that much of “Dannyland” sits above 190 m—too high to tap cost-free into the municipal water and sewage system under long-standing rules. (The city planning department recommended turning down Williams’s initial rezoning requests in the absence of a legal agreement on who will pay for the infrastructure, but were quickly overruled by council.) Nor the concerns about traffic, storm runoff, or even the manner in which some of the land was acquired—by the blind trust for his business interests while he was still in office, transactions that Williams says he played absolutely no part in.

It’s an object lesson of the power of the first rule of real estate. Back in the late 1990s, when the pre-politics Williams bought the bulk of the land in a public sale by the Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Corp., he was the only bidder for 1,400 acres of not-so-nice wilderness out near a campground where townies still go to get away for the weekend. He built a snazzy golf course on a small corner of it and sat on the rest.

Now it’s the last major piece of undeveloped real estate in booming St. John’s. Just a 10-minute drive from downtown—five, if you’re Danny—with a view of the harbour and Cabot Tower for the homeowners, and situated right on the Trans-Canada Highway for the business park. Location, location, location.

After successful careers as a lawyer and then an entrepreneur, Williams was a rich man before he ever entered politics. Picking—and winning—fights with Paul Martin and Stephen Harper over offshore oil revenues and equalization made him the most popular politician in Newfoundland’s history. But in the two years since his surprise resignation from office, his profile has hardly diminished. First, he brought pro hockey back to the Rock in the form of the AHL’s St. John’s IceCaps. Now, he’s embarking on a real estate play that could end up being worth as much as $5 billion. The man everyone used to call “Danny Millions” might soon need to upgrade his nickname.

Everyone wants to know about his health. The rough-looking guy in the elevator, proudly clutching the $20 bill he has just extracted from his friend “Charlie,” inquires. So do the customers at Ches’s Fish and Chips. “Danny, how are you feeling?” a man shouts across the café. “You look a lot younger since you left office,” says a woman. Pauline Christobelle Theresa Mason Rodden Aubut, resplendent in a zebra-print sweater and plenty of topaz jewellery, stops by the table to invite a man she’s never met, but feels she knows, to stay at her place in Arizona anytime he wants. It’s relaxing down there. Just what he needs, she says.

They needn’t worry. As he approaches his 64th birthday, a deeply tanned and trim Williams says he’s never felt better. The heart troubles—a leaky valve—that required surgery during his final year in office are well behind him. And he’s back playing in his regular weekly pickup hockey game, and even managing to fit in the odd round of golf.

It’s understandable that the public thinks the health scare was behind his decision to quit—he was, despite a series of setbacks, still enjoying the highest voter approval rating in Canada at 67 per cent. And a third term as premier was a certainty. But Williams says he had always planned to exit after two. “If you stick around for too long, you start to believe your own bulls–t,” he says. “There’s a maximum utility to your service.” The to-do list he had drawn up when he entered politics and became leader of the provincial Progressive Conservatives in 2001, was basically crossed off. “We had knocked off all of these milestones. More than I could ever dream. All that was left was the Lower Churchill.” Striking the $6.2-billion deal to harness the power of Muskrat Falls and ship the excess electricity to Nova Scotia and U.S. markets actually kept him on the job months longer than he planned. Williams tells a story about getting down on the carpet of the premier’s office and curling up in the fetal position during a conference call with the province’s chief negotiator after talks hit yet another snag.

Still, his abrupt departure in late November 2011 didn’t just surprise the public. Kathy Dunderdale, his then-deputy and now his replacement as premier, learned of the plan only hours before the announcement. And the speed of it all—Williams was packed up and gone within a week—eventually caught up with him too. “It’s amazing. You go from fielding calls 24/7, and waking up in the middle of the night worrying. Then all of a sudden, all those responsibilities are lifted from your shoulders,” he says. Just after New Year’s he dropped off a load of suits and shirts at his dry cleaners and was startled to realize he didn’t have an answer to the standard “when do you need them back” question.

It was the kind of fallow period where men suddenly find themselves struggling with ancient vows to write a novel, try yoga, or learn to play the Beatles songbook on the piano. But fortunately it never came to that. Within weeks of resigning, Williams was presented with an opportunity to bring the AHL’s Manitoba Moose to St. John’s. The project was secret at first—the team’s owners, True North Sports and Entertainment, were in the throes of negotiating the NHL’s return to Winnipeg. But Williams and his second-in-command, Glenn Stanford, knew the business, having both been involved with Toronto’s farm team, the St. John’s Maple Leafs, before the club left town in 2005. “All of a sudden I went from a void to being very busy,” says Williams, who holds the titles of president and CEO. A born micromanager, he even helped select the IceCaps name and design the logo.

When he originally ran the numbers—Williams is leasing the club for an initial three-year term at just over $1 million a season—he figured it would be a break-even proposition at best. The team has performed a lot better than that. Over two full seasons, the IceCaps have sold out every seat and corporate box at the 6,287-capacity Mile One Centre. And despite the distance, St. John’s has become a favourite stop on the AHL circuit. Club employees who don’t travel with their teams have even taken to sending money to buy into the 50/50 draws where the pot regularly exceeds $20,000. (The IceCaps’ share is distributed to community groups via Williams’s eponymous charitable foundation.)

Williams calls the hockey club a labour of love. And the passion has been reciprocated. Justin Simms, a St. John’s filmmaker who is working on a documentary about the former premier for the National Film Board, was on hand with his co-director Bill MacGillivray to capture the scene the night of the team’s inaugural home game. “There were people climbing over each other to shake Danny’s hand, or touch him,” he says. “It really gave us a clear picture of just how beloved he is.” And it confirmed another notion that Simms had been wrestling with. “I’ve often thought he’s the most famous Newfoundlander to Newfoundlanders.” Not just for his accomplishments, but for what he represented: a province that was finally rich and powerful enough to go toe-to-toe with anyone.

That abundant thirst for battle hasn’t gone away just because Williams is no longer on the political stage. Within weeks of leaving office, he’d fallen out with Dunderdale and his party, bailing on a tribute dinner that had been organized in his honour. It was a rift that reportedly began with a small slight—the refusal of someone in the premier’s office to provide him with the cellphone number of a former cabinet colleague—and widened after a failed bid to place his former communications director on the province’s Offshore Petroleum Board. By the time Dunderdale rejected his request for a government subsidy to offset the IceCaps’ travel costs, Williams wasn’t even pretending to be polite anymore. “I can take a horse to water, but I can’t make her drink,” he pointedly told reporters.

When asked about the current state of their relationship, he’s diplomatic. “I’m trying to be mellow,” he says with a grin. But he hasn’t been shy about sharing his opinions on some of the government’s hotter files like Muskrat Falls, or the future of the fishery under a proposed free trade deal between Canada and the EU. Some of that is him defending his own legacy, he says. Another part is the media putting him on the spot. Still, it’s exactly the sort of sniping from the sidelines he used to bristle at while in office. When Brian Peckford criticized his own handling of the fishery back in 2007, Williams told reporters that former premiers should “shut up and go away.”

In Williams’s case, neither action seems likely, or even possible. Unlike Peckford, who has long lived in British Columbia, and Brian Tobin, who went back to Ottawa and then moved on to Bay Street, Williams remains firmly rooted at home. A jump to federal politics, once a temptation—he says he thought about it briefly after his resignation—is now “absolutely” out of the question. Recently divorced, he wants to stay close to his four children and seven grandkids, all of whom live St. John’s.

He’s tried to erect some walls around his new life—firing off warnings to some of his more persistent media critics that he’s no longer a public figure, and suing a local blogger for defamation over an article he posted about the financing of the Muskrat Falls project. But in a small place like Newfoundland, everything a big man does is fodder for news or gossip. And Williams will never be accused of living inconspicuously. In addition to the Maserati, there’s a Dodge Prowler and two Dodge Vipers parked in the garage at his downtown condo. (The white Bentley convertible he bought off eBay a couple of years back is at his house in Florida.) There’s also the stunning $5.8-million glass-and-steel home he’s been building on a steep hill overlooking Outer Cove at the north end of the city. “I’ve worked really hard all my life,” he says. “And I’m going to spend some money.” Although in this case, it’s more than he wanted. His former contractor recently filed a $1-million lien against the property for unpaid bills, and Williams quickly countersued, citing mismanagement, shoddy workmanship and overcharges for materials and labour. “It’s been a nightmare,” says the former premier.

Russell Wangersky, an editor with The Telegram who wrote a book on Williams, says he can’t imagine that he’ll ever leave, or stop making headlines. “Danny has been anchored here forever,” he says. “And he doesn’t do stuff small.” Williams’s political legacy may not be quite as shiny as it once was—the golden years of oil-fuelled government spending sprees he oversaw have given way to deficits and budget cuts. But he remains a lot more popular than his replacement, who is currently running a distant third in the opinion polls, and has an approval rating of just 21 per cent. “In our online comments, there’s a fair bit of ‘things would be better if Danny was there.’ It’s a bit of a cross to bear for Dunderdale,” says Wangersky.

And now literally in his building phase, Williams seems destined to haunt her and successive premiers for decades to come. Like an unofficial head of state, or maybe just Newfoundland and Labrador’s rich, attention-loving uncle.

In the fish and chips shop, Williams shares a story about being out to dinner the night before at the local Keg with two of his daughters and their kids. When he asked for the cheque, he was told another patron had already paid it. “It was just someone who wanted to thank me for what I’ve done for the province,” he explains. “It happens a fair bit.” Dannyland, it appears, is a lot bigger than 2,400 acres.