Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Past and the Future Meet in Ward 3

Welcome to the first part of my six part series “Better Know a Ward.” (Any relation between this column and a sketch done on a popular late night comedy show is purely coincidental.)

This week’s ward: St. John’s, the fightin’ third. Located in the centre of the city, it’s home to both some of the wealthiest and poorest neighbourhoods in Guelph and counts the Library and Exhibition Park amongst its landmarks, as well as a number of heritage homes and buildings. Diversity is also a feature with many new immigrants settling into the Willow area, speaking 26 languages. The councillors representing this diverse sector are the thrice-elected Maggie Laidlaw and freshman June Hofland. I talked to both of them following a Ward meeting in the main council chamber at City Hall.

Amongst the concerns of Ward 3 residents is the usual: property taxes, transit, city services and termites? Yes, it seems that the wood eating insects are something of a nuisance, coming into the ward following the rail line and moving up Woolwich Street.

“One of the issues that was contentious, but its died away because it keeps getting put off, is to have a skateboard park in Exhibition Park,” adds Laidlaw. “Some people are vehemently opposed to it. We’re one of the only cities of our size that doesn’t have a skateboard park.”

Another issue is the placement of an expanded main branch of the library. Last Tuesday, a number of scenarios were presented for appraisal by the public during a library hosted open house. The original building was designed to hold about 40,000 books, a number that it’s since exceeded by a factor of three. Still, there is division about investing in an expanded library, especially after the city lost the preferred location of the old post office on Wyndham.

“There’s still a lot of bad feelings around losing that sale,” says Hofland. “The thing that I find most difficult is that the downtown is everybody’s neighbourhood. That’s why public spaces - libraries, skating rinks - all of those things are important to the health of a city, I really feel strongly about that.”

Of course, the two big elephants in Ward 3 are development related: the Lafarge site and Wal-Mart. As reported here a couple of weeks ago, council voted down the developers’ proposal on Lafarge and now the matter is before the Ontario Municipal Board, where mediation will start in September as all sides try to reach an accord.

Hofland, who refuses to comment on her feeling of the development due to a conflict of interest, says that, “People are not opposed to the development necessarily, but what they’d like to see is a ‘complete community;’ places for people to live, work, shop, public space, as opposed to 400,000 square feet of big box commercial.”

On the other side of the ward is Wal-Mart, and this month a motion will come to council to authorize an expansion of the store and create new shopping space on the surrounding land. After the furious 10 year debate, the fight against Wal-Mart seems oddly stayed as the expansion option has arisen.

“I think people are tired,” said Laidlaw, who was one of council’s staunchest anti-Wal-Mart voices. “One thing I have heard from a couple of people that live on Woodlawn, is that they want a grocery store. And yet there used to be a Zehr’s store where the Staples store is now, so go figure.”

“I don’t think we’ll have input as to what goes into the extension, but I think we’ll have input into the urban design, maybe we’ll be able to suggest a smaller scale but I don’t know if that’ll be the case,” added a hopeful Hofland.

As reflected in their comments, Laidlaw and Hofland share more than a ward in common, but a set of values, as Hofland says; a strong commitment to protecting Guelph’s environment and heritage, while promoting the communication and accountability of city hall. Clearly the people of Ward 3 like what their about as they both won their seats with over 3,000 votes a piece.

“People in my ward want the same things that I want, that’s why they elected me,” observed Laidlaw. “I’m not doing anything I didn’t say in my [campaign] brochure, I’m doing all the things that people expect of me, and I’ve had the same platform for eight years, people know me.”

Hofland agreed, adding, “I still hope that I’m here because I reflect other people’s values and that we mirror each others values.”

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