Big business and local government: Matty Moroun, the Ambassador Bridge and the City of Windsor.

Author:Sutcliffe, John B.


This paper examines the role of one powerful business owner in local government decision-making. The paper examines Manuel Moroun's efforts to influence local government decision-making in Windsor, Ontario. Moroun is the owner of the Ambassador Bridge (the most significant North American border crossing in terms of the volume and value of trade), which connects the cities of Windsor and Detroit. Moroun is currently engaged in an effort to build a replacement bridge and prevent the construction of a publicly-controlled bridge that will break the monopoly that his bridge currently enjoys. In this campaign Moroun has sought to influence local governments. This paper examines these efforts and the degree of their success in influencing the decisions taken by Windsor City Council with respect to the border crossing. The paper examines different explanations of Morouns influence in local politics. The conclusions reached are that Moroun is a major player in local politics. He has not however dominated local decision-making and has not enjoyed as much influence as in the United States. Windsor City Council has been prepared to oppose his policy goals and have been at least partially successful in these efforts.

Keywords: municipal government, big business, border crossing, urban regimes


Cet article examine le role d'un chef d entreprise puissant dans le processus decisionnel du gouvernement local. L'article examine les efforts de Manuel Moroun a influencer le processus decisionnel du gouvernement local de Windsor, Ontario. Moroun est le proprietaire du pont Ambassador (le poste frontiere le plus signifkatif en Amerique du Nord en termes de volume et valeur d'echange), qui relie les villes de Windsor et Detroit. Actuellement, Moroun est engage dans un effort pour construire un pont de remplacement et empecher la construction d'un pont de rechange sous controle public qui rompra le monopole dont son pont beneficie actuellement. Dans cette campagne, Moroun a cherche d'influencer les gouvernements locaux. Cet article examine ces efforts et le degre de succes de leur influence sur les decisions prises par le conseil municipal de Windsor par rapport au poste frontiere. L'article examine les differentes explications de l'influence de Moroun dans la politique locale. Les conclusions atteintes sont que Moroun est un acteur majeur dans la politique locale. Cependant, il n'a pas, domine la prise de decision locale et n'a pas eu autant d'influence qu'aux Etats-Unis. Le conseil municipal de Windsor a ete prepare pour s'opposer a ses objectifs politiques et a du moins partiellement reussi.

Mots cles: gouvernement municipal, grandes entreprises, poste frontiere, regimes urbains Introduction


Scholars of municipal politics in Canada and elsewhere have long studied the influence of major business interests, financial organizations and property developers on municipal decision-making (Cobban 2003; Peterson 1981; Leo 1997; 2003; Stone 1989; 1993). A central question in this scholarship is whether these actors influence the local democratic process and thus secure advantageous regulatory or development decisions that are not necessarily in the interests of the wider local community. This question is given added urgency, it is often argued, by the mobility of modern capital and business in an era of globalization and by recent economic conditions that have created or added to fiscal problems facing municipal governments (Hackworth 2007; Leo 2002; McAllister 2004; Ruppert 2000).

This paper examines this question by analyzing a case study involving a financially powerful business and property owner and his efforts to influence development decisions within Windsor in Ontario, Canada. The businessman in question is Manuel (Matty) Moroun who, although a resident of Michigan, controls a business empire that extends into Canada. The most significant, if not the most profitable, element of this empire is the Ambassador Bridge that links Windsor with Detroit and which is a central element facilitating the flow of North American trade. In addition, Moroun's companies have significant land holdings in both Michigan and in Windsor.

Over the past decade, Matty Moroun has sought to construct a new span and plaza on properties he owns immediately to the west of the existing Ambassador Bridge (the so-called twinning or enhancement of the Ambassador Bridge). This is a complicated development proposal that requires approval from a wide range of actors on both sides of the border (Sutcliffe 2008; 2011; 2012). The municipal government does not sides of the border (Sutcliffe 2008; 2011; 2012). The municipal government does not have unilateral control over these policy decisions and Matty Moroun's attempt to influence the border policy debate is by no means restricted to the municipal level. This case nevertheless presents an opportunity to examine one individual's attempts to influence a Canadian municipal government because the proposed twinning of the Ambassador Bridge requires that Matty Moroun deal with Windsor City Council. In this relationship, Matty Moroun has employed several strategies, including legal cases and public campaigns, in order to influence the municipal council's position. This article examines these attempts and their impact.

Business Interests and Canadian Municipalities

The recognition that business interests (along with property developers, and commercial and financial elites) have the potential to shape municipal decision-making is not new and has long been the subject of academic examination in multiple settings (Cobban, 2003; Dahl 1961; Hackworth 2007; Savitch and Kantor 2002; Leo 1997; 2002; Stone 1989; 1993). It is also one that generates controversy.

According to one perspective, business interests enjoy a dominant place in local policy-making because of the financial resources they control and because of their economic importance to the local community as well as municipal governments' traditional responsibility for providing services to residential and commercial properties. Municipal politicians recognize the importance of business interests' capacity to shape local economic development and therefore their importance to the economic vitality of a local community. In addition, municipal politicians recognize the possibility that business interests may relocate to an alternative location and thus withdraw their resources from the local tax base (Peterson 1981; see also Cobban 2003: 233; Harding, Wilks-Heeg, and Hutchins 2000).1 This account of urban politics highlights the dominant position enjoyed by these business and development interests within the local community, and the extent to which elected politicians feel obliged to develop policies that reflect their interests (such as lower business taxes and development costs), at the expense of investing money in tackling other issues such as social exclusion or urban poverty (see Sellers 2002; Leo 2003). These arguments have increasingly been linked to the prevalence of neoliberalism as a philosophy dominating politics at different territorial levels over the last two to three decades (Harvey 2005; Hackworth 2007). Neoliberalism emphasises that government regulation and intervention should only occur sparingly and that instead individuals and businesses should operate "within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade. The role of the state is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such practices" (Harvey 2005: 2). In the view of some scholars, this governing perspective has affected municipal governments by placing substantial limits on their decision-making capacity, particularly as it relates to powerful business interests (see Tindal and Tindal 2009:18-19; Hackworth 2007). Ruppert's study of Toronto, for example, argues that private business interests increasingly dominate governance of the city and, as a result, local government is a "shell emptied of its content" (2000: 285).

A related view, building on the work of Clarence Stone, argues that municipalities can be dominated by an alliance between business (particularly local developers) and elected officials in an 'urban regime' (Stone 1989; 1993). An urban regime points to the existence of a stable relationship forming among actors at the municipal level that allows them to pursue mutually advantageous policy goals (Leo, 1995). A 'corporate regime' linking business interests and politicians is one possible example of such a regime with the actors possessing a shared interest in an urban policy agenda that favours business and development. While disagreement exists regarding the existence of urban regimes in Canadian settings (Cobban 2003; Leo 2003), this disagreement focuses on the stability and permanence of relationships at the urban level. There is a much wider agreement that different business interests can be influential at different times in municipal policy-making (Rayside 1991). As noted above, the reasons for this can relate to the capacity of business groups to shape the municipal economy. In addition, it may result from their access to municipal decision-makers or from their ability to contribute to municipal politicians' election campaign funds.

Mega-projects, such as the construction of major league sports stadiums or other major infrastructure projects, are sometimes used as an example of the pervasiveness of business interests as an influence on municipal governments. In this view, mega- projects are promoted by municipal governments, in part because of the pressure to develop the 'world class' reputation of the municipality and thus make it desirable to mobile businesses, capital and investors (see Sassen 2001; Swyngedouw, Moulaert, and Rodriguez 2002). Swyngedouw et al. conclude that mega-projects contribute to situations where cities "hide in their underbelly perverse and pervasive processes...

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