Frontlines

The sheik of Massawippi

Peter Hutchinson April 23 1979
Frontlines

The sheik of Massawippi

Peter Hutchinson April 23 1979

The sheik of Massawippi

CLOSEUP

One of the big events of the summer in North Hatley last year was the landing of a 25-pound lake trout on Lake Massawippi. It’s that kind of town, a beautiful, bucolic resort community where nothing much ever happens. And if the summers are quiet, then the winters—when the population is halved to some 750 full-time residents—are positively dead. Until this year.

Within a few weeks in February and March, the normally sleepy community in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, long established as a summer retreat for Montreal’s anglophone elite, was shaken by the realization that 50 per cent of its downtown properties had just changed hands. The North Hatley Hardware Store, the Hob Nob Restaurant, La Rose aux Vents gift shop, Ride’s and Caunter’s Marinas—all went to area businessmen seemingly acting on their own behalf. Excitement was multiplied by the next discovery, that behind every one of these transactions was one man, a Moroccan businessman who has quietly spent the last m seven summers in North o Hatley, Saad Gabr. £

The rumor mills, the o paranoia mills, went into -top gear. Some excitable lo° cals were convinced there f was some kind of scam go^ ing on, that this must be the ^ first step toward Arab dom£ ination of Canadian business. As one avid fisherman saw it, “They baited the hooks and are waiting for fish to bite. They want to buy everybody and start their own kingdom.”

But other citizens saw things in a more positive light. They’ve watched the decline in the numbers of visitors to North Hatley in recent years. The uncertainty over Quebec’s future has taken its toll and economic conditions have deteriorated. While few businesses have closed, many had been offered for sale, with no takers. “Nothing has been bought that hadn’t been up for sale,” noted one local. “Tom Ride’s been trying to sell his marina for five years. Jack Guild put up the Hob Nob [Restaurant] three years ago.” Still, even these people were irked by the way the deals were consummated and the secrecy involved, with a Lennoxville businessman, Howard Leslie, and an investment consultant from Ottawa,

Paul Van Vlack, acting for Gabr.

The Gabr group remained exceptionally quiet as gossip and consternation built for weeks. At a lively and sometimes heated council meeting on March 5, Mayor George St. Pierre told some 70odd residents that he had been assured by Van Vlack that nothing more than a face-lift would be carried out—for the time being. To guarantee that, the meeting voted to freeze all construction and demolition permits for three months. A committee of councillors and concerned citizens was established to revise current bylaws to prohibit excessive development.

Finally, in late March, the Gabr group broke its silence and the mysterious developer, who had just returned from England where he spends a lot of

his time, began to speak animatedly and emphatically about his vision for North Hatley. “Canada is a country of great potential,” Gabr expounded from his simply but elegantly furnished summer bungalow. “We want to develop Canada

while developing small communities. North Hatley will be an example for the rest of Canada of how a community can be developed.”

Just last September, Gabr brought 30 of the Arab world’s wealthiest businessmen to Montreal to interest them in a line of sophisticated audio components his firm is marketing. Now he is willing to invest something like $18 million to establish his centre of operations in North Hatley. First, he said, he would “build an export centre for the development of overseas markets and the promotion and sales of Canadian products.” This would include an international exhibition hall and related service facilities—hotels, restaurants, shops. “People who come to North Hatley now can’t stay in North Hatley. If we provide them with things that keep them happy, establish and build the right services, they will stay longer and spend more money.”

The second stage is the development of a technology centre, including research and development labs to design and produce electronic products for overseas markets. Also planned are a centre to produce audiovisual aids to promote their overseas sales and a training program for technicians from Canada and abroad.

As well, there would be an investment company to provide short-term, nointerest loans “in such a way that no one in North Hatley will be out of work because he can’t find $2,000. Instead of charging interest we will participate with him in the loss or profits. We will invite people with ideas. That is the risk we have to take and that is how to develop a community.”

Gabr, a zealous Moslem in his mid50s, was eager to dispel two misconceptions; first, that he is the thin edge of an Arab petro-dollar wedge—he maintains

that he’s the sole sponsor of the project—and second, that he wants to change the face of North Hatley, where he has spent his summers by choice for seven years. “We want to do this while maintaining the beauty of the area. We need a clean environment for electronics. Who said development means sky-

scrapers? We didn’t say it. When they think of development they look to Montreal.”

If North Hatley doesn’t want Saad Gabr, he’ll go elsewhere. Mayor George Kirby of Lachute, north of Montreal, has already visited Gabr to offer his town. Other communities in Ontario and Nova Scotia have apparently expressed more than a passing interest.

Gabr’s vision is seductive: “I believe that one day if North Hatley is really developed the right way, everybody will have the right house, the right car. If we fail to find somebody who needs something in the community we have succeeded. We want a community that is topped with cream and doesn’t require any more cream. Is that a good objective? Why don’t we all work for that?”

There are skeptics who think it’s all too good to be true. For the moment, North Hatley is effectively a company town. Those who have sold their businesses are staying on for a year—and some for longer—as employees. Just how far Gabr’s company will change the course of events for the town will depend on the recommendations of the hastily formed zoning committee, due to be announced by early June.

Peter Hutchinson