For the past year, master dry stone craftsman Dean McLellan has been working on the new Niagara-on-the-Lake gateway project.
He had leveraged his relationships with Willowbank School of Restoration Arts and Upper Canada Stone Company Ltd. to get materials donated for the project.
And he reduced his prices to “rock bottom” to get the project on budget, McLellan said in an interview on Tuesday, June 28.
After all that, the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake refused to give him a deposit for materials and labour and he was forced to withdraw from the project.
The new gateway to NOTL’s Old Town will sit at the top of Mississauga Street and Queen Street, right on the golf course.
“Never in my life have I ever been told (that I can’t get a deposit),” McLellan said.
He’s been a mason for nearly 30 years and is the only master dry stone mason in Canada.
“It just blew me away.”
McLellan said he was particularly unhappy with his dealings with NOTL’s manager of parks and recreation, Kevin Turcotte.
He said the town at one point suggested McLellan take out a bank loan to cover the upfront costs of the project.
“I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’”
“I do massive projects. Some of these homes and people I work for, I’m there for five or six years.”
“I’m not a small-scale builder, I’ve done things for millions of dollars here. I’ve never been told I can’t have a deposit.”
During a committee of the whole meeting on June 13, Turcotte said the town had contracted Aldershot Landscape Contractors to do the work.
“Next thing I know I hear they are contacting Aldershot. Our discussions hadn’t even finished,” McLellan said.
During the same meeting, Turcotte said the town had also acquired Menno Braam to do the drystone work. Braam is also a dry stone mason.
This came as news to McLellan and Braam, who have been colleagues and friends in the industry for more than 20 years.
Braam also teaches at Willowbank and the two have done drystone workshops at Red Roof Retreat in NOTL.
“He said he’s never spoken to them. He called Aldershot and Aldershot still doesn’t have a contract with them,” said McLellan.
Braam confirmed that he had no involvement with the project when it was announced to council.
“I wracked my brain to see if I could recall ever hearing about it or talking to any of the people involved about it but, yeah, no one had reached out,” Braam said in an interview.
During the meeting, Turcotte explained that the town is allowed to single-source a project without the typical competitive bidding process if it benefits the town to do so.
This is written into section 14.2 of the town’s procurement bylaw.
Chief administrator Marnie Cluckie said it is not in the best interest of the town to single-source without a competitive process often.
But she said this situation was exceptional due to the specialized nature of the dry stone work, the overall value of having Aldershot Landscaping complete the entire project and being able to complete it on schedule.
But it seems that, without McLellan, getting the project done on the current timeline is not possible.
Braam has now been in touch with Aldershot. He said the town and Aldershot had been aiming to start the project in the fall.
But, seeing as Braam didn’t know he would be involved until after town council approved the contract, he isn’t available.
“I spoke with them yesterday. The last I heard is they are going to ask for more time because, of course, I didn’t know about it until a few days ago,” he said.
“I can’t start in September because I’m already booked well into the fall.”
The town and Seferian Design Group, which created the design for the project and had been integral to the process, did not respond to questions about the timeline by our publication deadline.
Braam said he is happy to be involved in the project so long as the town and Aldershot can work with his demanding schedule.
A private, specialized craftsman just like McLellan, he also said he would not have been able to cover the deposit costs on his own.
“If I was in the same position I would have done the same thing because I can’t float that kind of expense ahead of time,” Braam said.
“I guess Aldsershot is willing to do the work with no deposit. But they’re a massive company, I can’t afford to do that,” said McLellan.
Being specialized tradesmen, people like Braam and McLellan do not have the deep pockets of large landscaping firms like Aldershot, he said.
The project is being funded by a $250,000 donation by NOTL resident Gerry Kowalchuk.
McLellan was particularly disappointed that he had leveraged his good relationships with Willowbank and Upper Canada Stone to reduce costs and have premium stone donated for a project from which he has now been ostracized.
“Perry Hartwick, he owns Upper Canada Stone quarries in Madoc. I kind of leaned on him and he was willing to donate 25 tonnes,” McLellan said.
“I also teach at Willowbank School of Restoration. I spoke to them and they were willing to donate some beautiful, beautiful sculptured pieces that had come from the St. Thomas courthouse.”
“So it’s kind of a slap in the face to them too.”
“Perry won’t give them stone now and Willowbank won’t because they’ve had a bad experience with them as well.”
He couldn’t give an exact number but McLellan estimated it as tens of thousands of dollars worth of material the town could have had for free that has now been lost.
He said he had spent lots of time revising his proposal in order to make it suit the town’s demands.
And everything seemed like it was good to go.
“I had final pricing for them and they agreed to it, all that sort of thing. I kept my prices at the very rock bottom that I could.”
“This is the frustrating part, I priced it down as far as I possibly humanly could to get away with being OK with the project and then still to be told (that I couldn’t get a deposit).”
McLellan said the town paid him for one six-hour meeting, roughly $400, but that barely accounted for all the work he had done on his own to get the project proposal ready and the myriad revisions required to bring it on budget.
The town also asked him to sign a contract that would make him responsible for all aspects of the project, from building the wall to irrigation, lighting and landscaping, McLellan said.
“I refused to do it because I don’t have knowledge of that kind of stuff,” he said.
The town did not responded to inquiries from The Lake Report as of deadline.