CANADA

Sun, sand and power

The Canadian connection in Palm Beach

BARRY CAME February 19 1990
CANADA

Sun, sand and power

The Canadian connection in Palm Beach

BARRY CAME February 19 1990

Sun, sand and power

The Canadian connection in Palm Beach

CANADA

In Palm Beach, the season does not really start until the birds arrive. They come in two varieties, only one of which is winged and feathered. Nobody is quite sure what migratory urge prompts some 2,000 turkey vultures to congregate each winter over the gilded strip of sand and coral off Florida’s east coast, although there is an uneasy suspicion that it might have something to do with the average age of the human inhabitants of the place. But there are no doubts about the unfeathered migrants, many of whom begin their annual pilgrimage in Canada. As Montreal tycoon Charles Bronfman, a leading member of the Canadian flock, cheerfully remarked, “If you’re a snowbird, there simply is no better place than this island.”

The distillery magnate and owner of, among

other things, the Montreal Expos baseball team is typical of the Canadians who annually turn the luxurious U.S. resort town into the southern headquarters of Canada’s rich and powerful. A list of Bronfman’s neighbors near his mansion on North Lake Way reads like a who’s who of Canada’s elite. Conrad Black, media baron and chief executive officer of Hollinger Inc., is down the road; so too is Paul Desmarais, chairman of Power Corp. of Canada, the Montreal-based financial giant. Richard Thomson, chairman and CEO of the TorontoDominion Bank, is not far away; nor is Steven Stavro, president of Toronto’s Knob Hill Farms. Robert Campeau, of the beleaguered Campeau Corp., is in the vicinity, as are leading CEOs including George Mann of Unicorp Canada Corp., Donald Lowe of Canadair and Alec

Rigby, who used to own Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Former prime minister Pierre Trudeau likes to drop in, as does aspiring prime minister Jean Chrétien. And Prime Minister Brian Mulroney has visited at least twice since assuming office in 1984.

Palm Beach, a sliver of sand 22 km long and less than two kilometres wide, is haven to an extraordinary concentration of Canadian wealth and influence. It is a presence that shows no signs of slackening. Last month, yet another example of the enduring Canadian interest surfaced when developer S. Lyon Sachs inaugurated a $60million hotel that his company—Ottawa-based Urbandale Realty Corp. Ltd.—built on the beach at the southern end of the island. The 212-room Ocean Grand, a five-star luxury resort fashioned out of black glass and white marble, is the first hotel to be constructed on Palm Beach’s Atlantic Ocean shoreline in 35 years. It is also very likely to be the last: the hotel’s three low-slung buildings occupy one of the few remaining tracts of appropriately zoned beach front left on the island. “It’s all gone now,” said the Ocean Grand’s managing director, Peter Ploss, sweeping an arm up the long stretch of palmfringed white sand on the hotel’s doorstep. “Even if there was any land around,” he added, “the chances are Q slim that anybody could get another g project like this approved—not by the g people who run this town.”

I In fact, Palm Beach’s elected mayor Q and five council members receive no salary. Instead, they pay out of their own pockets for their expenses—and for the power to ensure that Palm Beach remains the sort of exclusive haven that it now is. “They have no favorites,” said Ploss. “Everyone is treated with the same contempt.” Municipal laws in Palm Beach, and zoning ordinances in particular, are rigorous. Some are downright bizarre. In Palm Beach, skateboarding is not allowed on public streets, nor is surfing on public beaches. Until a year ago, men could not jog without a shirt. But the ordinances seem mainly designed to ensure that the common horde is kept safely on the other side of the three drawbridges that connect Palm Beach to the rest of North America. Palm Beach must be one of the continent’s few towns with more than 10,000 people that does not have a hospital, a cemetery, a mortician, a public library, a used-car lot, a dogcatcher, a garbage dump, a movie theatre, neon signs. There is not even a McDonald’s.

But for the cosseted and the self-indulgent who find refuge in Palm Beach from the rigors of winter in Toronto’s Rosedale or Montreal’s Westmount, there is no deprivation. “The thing I like best about Palm Beach is the freedom that it gives me,” said Bronfman, as he relaxed in the family mansion that looks

towards the twin towers of New York billionaire developer Donald Trump’s soaring condominium in West Palm Beach on the mainland. “Here, I can pretty well be what I want to be. It’s out of the way but it’s not in the boondocks. I have friends here—in the business world, in the philanthropic world, If I need it, there is

plenty of intellectual stimulation.” With a nod across the placid blue waters towards West Palm, where the Expos hold spring training every year, he added, “And of course, the team is here every year, too.”

While few of Palm Beach’s Canadian residents can boast the ownership of a professional baseball team, most clearly do value the resort for many of the same reasons expressed by Bronfman. In spite of the island’s hotels,

Palm Beach remains an exclusive place, giving its residents the kind of freedom and seclusion that money cannot always buy elsewhere—and that, even there, carries a staggering price. There is an estimated $4.8 billion worth of real estate on the island’s 14 square miles. The average price of a home, many of

which are occupied for only part of the year, was $1.4 million last year.

And Palm Beachers, including the transplanted Canadian variety, jealously guard their privileged privacy. Outsiders are not welcome at their clubs. Their houses, small palaces really, are screened by carefully sculpted, 20-

screened by carefully sculpted, 20foot-high hedges of ficus and sea grape. Many have tunnels burrowing under the seafront road to private beaches.

Power Corp.’s Desmarais is one of the least accessible residents. His mustard-andwhite beach-front mansion, an unhappy marriage of Greek temple and California crematorium, is watched by armed guards. They responded to queries about the owner’s whereabouts with a noncommittal “Hard to say, hard to say.” Desmarais’s social secretary, Deirdre McGurk, greeted inquiries with a practised wariness. Pressed to gauge the chances of a meeting, she replied laconically, Q “Nice try.”

P Privacy aside, there are g other attractions that contin| ue to lure moneyed Canadi° ans to Palm Beach. The climate, particularly in the

winter, is superb. This is largely due to the genial influence of the Gulf Stream, which brushes the shores of the island. And the place is undeniably beautiful as well as scrupulously clean. "It looks like it's been raked every morning," said Rigby, a native of St. Catharines, Ont., who has been a permanent resident since he sold the Ripley's newspaper feature in 1984. "Sometimes, it's almost unreal." Palm Beach can have that effect, especially for Canadian snowbirds equipped with the means to flee winter's dreary grip. But there is also a certain grimness about the place that is not always evident. It is reflected in small, telltale signs. Green's Pharmacy, for instance, whose dining area and old-style soda fountain have been the scene of many a power break fast, recently underwent an expansion. The extra space was needed to store the wheel chairs and walkers that many of the patrons require. All of the cubicles in the washrooms at Dempsey's, another favored hangout, are equipped with handrails. Of the 8,446 voters registered in the last presidential election, 4,878 of them-almost 58 per cent of the total-were 65 years of age or older. Indeed, time may be the only reality that even Palm Beachers cannot escape. And those turkey vultures, wheeling and circling in the clear blue winter skies high above the coconut palms, may well understand.

BARRY CAME