Peddie cash: What happens when a philanthropist tries to build ‘the best small town in Ontario’

Richard Peddie once served as president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment. Why has he opened a bookstore in Amherstburg?
By Mary Baxter - Published on Oct 07, 2020
Co-owner Richard Peddie and lead bookseller Lori Wightman inside the River Bookshop in Amherstburg. (Mary Baxter)

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AMHERSTBURG — Richard Peddie studies a “Sputnik” light fixture that extends nearly two feet below the ceiling in the centre of his Amherstburg bookstore’s second-floor event space. “This has got to go,” the 73-year-old Canada’s Marketing Hall of Legends alumnus says.

He summons Lori Wightman, the store’s lead bookseller. “There’s the screen —” he points ahead to an area just before the fireplace — “we’ve got a camera here” — he points behind him — “and even sitting at the back, you won’t be able to see half the screen, so it’s coming down.” Wightman, who, until she started at River Bookshop earlier this year worked as the Amherstburg library’s resource assistant, peers up.

Peddie, who retired as president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment in 2011 after reportedly receiving an eight-figure golden handshake, launched River Bookshop, which he owns with his wife, Colleen, on August 14. He’s hardly a stranger to the world of sales and marketing — or of construction and design, for that matter. “I’ve built television networks,” he says. “I’ve built six restaurants, a soccer field, an arena.”

But never, during his lengthy career, has Peddie operated a bookstore, and there’s been a learning curve. “We were the rookies who went to the first book fair with all the publishers and we’re sitting there, and we looked at each other: ‘Should we get one book or two or three?’” he says. The store — the result of an investment of more than $1 million to restore the building in Amherstburg’s downtown — is the latest step in Peddie’s ongoing effort to help revitalize Amherstburg, population 22,000, which he began in 2019 after the town’s mayor, Aldo DiCarlo, invited him to lead the town’s community foundation. (Peddie owns a home in the municipality and grew up in nearby Windsor.)

DiCarlo had wanted someone to run the Amherstburg Community Foundation (previously helmed by local politicians) who could help rebuild confidence in the community and “provide people with security and comfort,” he says. Peddie’s approach, which DiCarlo describes as “no one gets paid [on the board and administration], and 100 per cent of the funds raised go back to the community,” seemed like a good fit.

Since July 2019, the foundation has raised more than $230,000 to develop walking trails, a local playground, and youth programming at the Amherstburg Freedom Museum and to grow a fund to restore the Carnegie building that houses the library; $64,000 of it has been distributed to 11 non-profit groups for various projects. For example, $5,500 went to Amherstburg Community Services so it could buy an industrial dishwasher to support its meals-on-wheels program.

Ryan Gibson, a professor in regional economic development at the University of Guelph, notes that Peddie’s decision to get involved with the community is not unusual and that a number of people who have forged successful careers in cities then return later in life to help the smaller communities of their youth: in 2006, for example, siblings Zita and Alan Cobb — she an executive in the Canadian technology industry and he a former high-ranking federal public servant — along with their brother, Anthony, established Shorefast, a foundation geared toward revitalizing communities on Fogo Island and Change Islands in Newfoundland (The Cobbs grew up on the island; Zita and Alan currently co-chair the foundation.) “It speaks to connection to place,” Gibson says. “They feel that they're part of that, and they want to be part of its future.”

The challenge with such returns, he adds, is ensuring that there’s “a realistic match” in vision, particularly over the long term: “The bigger question that communities should be asking themselves when these opportunities come forward is how do the opportunities match long-term community priorities. Because it may be that there's an opportunity, but it's maybe not the priority of the community.” And that could create friction and division.

Adam Saifer, a postdoctoral fellow with the Canadian Philanthropy Partnership Research Network at the Université du Québec à Montréal, says that when a person with deep pockets decides to help a struggling community, there is potential for them to become a local “monarch.”

“Money begets power,” he explains. He, too, cites Shorefast as an example. “In the media, everybody portrays it as something that's fantastic,” he says. “But there are a lot of critiques. There are people that live on Fogo and feel that [the Cobbs have] come in and remade the town in their own image.”

That foundation, however, is private; community foundations, such as the one in Amherstburg, tend to offer “a more democratized approach,” he says.

Peddie has a “true passion” for Amherstburg, says town councillor Peter Courtney. While “some people think some of these ventures [undertaken by the foundation] should be just paid with taxpayers’ dollars,” he says, “it takes a village to make our town successful.” The foundation, DiCarlo adds, is surveying the community to get a sense of its priorities and attitudes.

Yet Peddie says he and his wife wanted to do more on their own for the town. “And the first thing we’ve come up with is this,” he says of the bookstore.

He describes the store’s function as a “third place,” a term used to describe a social environment, but not a home or a workplace, in which people can exchange ideas — and socialize. 

Upstairs, where the problematic light currently hangs, he will host regular discussion series on topics as varied as racial justice, sports, falconry, and urban planning.

Most of the speakers will appear remotely — that had been Peddie’s plan even before the pandemic because of Amherstburg’s distance from larger centres. Public-health measures limit the number of people they’ll be able to accommodate in the event space, but they’re working on plans to broadcast the events over Zoom too, he says. (The pandemic also pushed back the opening of the store.)

Downstairs in the bookstore, trade is already brisk, Wightman says. Their bestseller so far is Windsor Before and After — a local history book by Chris Edwards and Elaine Weeks. “We bought 10 [copies] of those, and we sold those,” she says. “Then we bought a case of 20, and we've got three left of that.” 

Peddie describes the bookstore as primarily a philanthropic venture to foster community. “This wasn’t the way I invested at Maple Leaf Sports, where I got a very healthy return on investment and increased enterprise value by six times,” he says.

Wightman disagrees. It’s a philanthropic opportunity “so far,” she says.

Peddie grins. “So far.”

And, Peddie adds, he’s not done yet. “I’m prepared to invest more,” he says, although he won’t say in what. “If you're not investing in a town, it's eroding.” His goal, though — and the foundation’s and the mayor’s, too, he says — is to make Amherstburg “the best small town in Ontario.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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