Thursday, December 25, 2008

Year in Review - 2008

As the wicked pre-New Year weather endures, I find it oddly fitting as a way to describe Guelph politics of this year’s past: it doesn’t rain but it pours. There was no shortage of stories to fill a year end recap, but here, presented, is my humble opinion of the Top 5.

5) Development Wars Continue

On the east end, there was still no movement on a much requested grocery store. Councillors Farrelly and Bell told me last month that it’s because the two grocery companies that own land there are reconsidering the size of their proposed projects. In the north end, Wal-Mart saw its expansion plans defeated in July only to have them approved in September. The big elephant in the room though continued to be the Lafarge Site. A council meeting back in February called to determine the fate of the site was standing room only, but in the months to follow, things got quiet as affected parties went into mediation.

4) Hydro Merger Nixed

Swallowed up by the hoopla over the By-Election (see below), a lot of people missed the debate over a possible merger between Horizon Utilities and our own Guelph Hydro. Those that opposed the deal saw this merger with Horizon, which already covers Hamilton and St. Catherines, as a backdoor to privatization meaning concerns about rate increases, a loss of regulatory authority. On September 28, the merger was defeated in council by a vote of 8 to 5.

3) (Still) Under Construction

Guns N’ Roses was able to release Chinese Democracy this year, but the brand new city hall isn’t done yet. After already numerous delays, the construction company, Urbacon, missed the planned fall opening of the new civic administration building. Exacerbating the problem was the fact that the lease was coming due on city offices all over downtown. So while the new city hall was sitting there waiting to be completed, a number of city workers found themselves working out of boxes, that is if they still had an office. Urbacon was canned and a new company, Alberici, was contracted. Still no word on an end date.

2) Transit Upgrades

At the start of the year, Transit users had to suffer through 40 minute turnarounds. But with the approval of extra city money, and a quarter more per trip from riders, the bus schedule was upgraded to a 20-minute rotation – from first light to the dinner hour every weekday. Meanwhile, GO Transit committed to bring its trains back to Guelph by 2011. Further, council recently endorsed the VIA train station as its preferred site for the GO stop. Though the final decision lies with GO, it’s the hope of some members of city council to create a transit hub where out-of-town buses, trains and Guelph Transit converge downtown. In the meantime, GO’s already increased the frequency of buses on the weekend service of the Acton-Georgetown-Brampton line.

1) The Never Ending By-Election

Brenda Chamberlain had arranged to resign as of April 1, and as the date drew nearer, pressure for an immediate by-election increased. Jack Layton and Stephen Harper showed up in town within a week of each other, several days before Chamberlain’s retirement. In the subsequent months Stéphane Dion and Elizabeth May popped in, and on July 25, the race was on. A veritable cavalcade of special guests came through town, from Tony Clement to Bob Rae to Naomi Klein and Olivia Chow. But the summer by-election fun was cut short one day before the finish line when a full-on national election was called.

In round two, Guelph had to spread the wealth in terms of attention, while the attention of the electorate itself was divided amongst a total of 10 candidates including nominees from the Marijuana, Libertarian and Communist Parties. On Election Day, it took a while to get results, but when the smoke cleared Liberal Frank Valeriote won with about a third of the popular vote and bucking the Blue trend of the region. But Conservative Gloria Kovach stood her ground only three percentage points behind Valeriote, while the Green’s Mike Nagy more than doubled his 2006 take with 21 per cent of the vote.

So that was 2008 in a nutshell, and we eager few that cover the Guelph Beat can’t wait to see what the Royal City will throw at us in 2009.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Word on Lafarge is Still, “Shhhhhh.”

A small, but highly informed group of local advocates gathered at the Guelph Bible Chapel last Thursday for a meeting of the Howitt Park Neighbourhood Residents' Association. The purpose of the meeting was to let the group’s membership know that they’re still in mediation with the City, Armel and Silvercreek Development, and that they still can’t tell them anything substantive about the fate of the triangular patch of brownfield bordered between the Hanlon, Paisley Road and Waterloo Street. Still with an Ontario Municipal Board Hearing slated for early January, the executive felt they had to say something to the membership, said HPNGA exec member Ron Foley.

To recap, here’s how we got to this point. For years now, there’s been a question about what can be done with the track of land known affectionately as “the Lafarge site” for the cement factory that once stood on that spot. The factory was closed in the mid-90s and subsequently torn down, since that time the land’s been used for biking, jogging, dog-walking and numerous other functions by neighbourhood residents. Recently Armel and 6&7 Developments, the peeps behind the Wal-Mart on Woodlawn, wanted to build a 400,000 square foot retail park on the land. There was some disagreement on that point.

On June 3rd at a city council meeting, the city unanimously denied the application to rezone the area, which would have paved (pun intended) the way for the beginning of construction on shopping centre. With council’s disproval, it seemed to be full-steam ahead to the OMB, a process that’s always costly and would be nearly repetitive after the Residents for Sustainability’s decade long fight against Wal-Mart. But in the days following, Silvercreek Developments, the City and HPNRA hammered out a “wish list,” a detailed account of what each group would like to see. The next step was mediation, a process that’s moved forward in good faith since late-September and continued through to last Friday, December 12.

While mediation is taking place, a media blackout’s been in affect, so news as to how the talks have been progressing, whether that news is good or bad, has been unavailable. Foley says that members should know by this week what the outcome of the last two months of negotiations have been and more importantly, whether its onward and upward to the OMB hearing on January 12. In the meantime, HPNRA felt they owed their members something, and despite the difficulty in getting people out to a community meeting in the midst of the Christmas rush, they decided to bring the update, such as it was, to the group.

On the books for HPNRA now is the recruitment of new members and fundraising. The current roster of 107 was joined by some new inductees at the meeting, but the neighbourhood group is reaching out to include members from the entire city to join them in the fight against the proposed development. As for fundraising, the costs the group is currently incurring is the retaining of a lawyer from the firm Smith/Valeriote and a couple of urban planners from the Davidson Group. If the mediation fails and the OMB hearing proceeds, both these costs will increase because, according to Foley, the OMB will take you more seriously with the infrastructure backing you up. Only one thing is for certain though, and it has to do with the most controversial part of the development: the underpass connecting the south and north sides of Silvercreek Parkway. The money for the underpass is listed D.C., or “Development Charge” in November’s draft of the 2009 budget. Going along with this is pre-existing concerns in the area over traffic and the desire for calming measures to be implemented.

Undoubtedly, there will have been developments since the time I wrote this piece and when this issue of Echo was published. For any updates that may have broke, head over to the old blog at for all the details.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Winegard Walks, Lafarge Talks & City Haggles

Winegard speaks out on Harper

By the time you read this, either Stéphane Dion has seized power in a bloodless coup that undermines our democracy or Stephen Harper did the right, Canadian thing and ask the Governor General to put Parliament on hold till cooler heads prevail. Hopefully, whatever’s going down it’s not another election, but I can tell you one thing: Mr. Harper hasn’t made any friends after current events with at least one high profile Guelph Conservative. In an article for the Guelph Mercury, former Guelph Conservative MP (1984 – 1993) Bill Winegard told the paper that a coalition government is “a slap on the wrist” for Prime Minister Stephen Harper “and in my opinion one he deserves.”

Winegard, who’s still active in the local wing of the party, went on to say that the situation stems from people’s belief that Harper was going to put aside partisan politics for the good of the nation, out response to the global economic crisis. This did not happen though when Jim Flaherty gave his financial update to the House two weeks ago. “I think it's a most unfortunate situation, but regretfully Mr. Harper brought it on himself,” Winegard said. “People wanted assurances they would be protected financially … and what they got was a rather fighting document, which didn't address any of those things and instead addressed only party politics.”

Lafarge talks remain secret

Things might be moving forward on the Lafarge front, although to what extent we have no idea because there’s at present a media blackout on the top level negotiations between a number of players. Apparently talks resumed between the city, 6&7 Developments, Armel Corp., the Howitt Park Neighbourhood Group and the Lafarge developer last week in an attempt to resolve the development stand still through mediation. The hope is to have a deal in place before the Ontario Municipal Board hearing on January 12; if mediation fails, the OMB is the next hope to resolve the matter.

In case you can’t remember, the debate is as to whether or not a 400,000 square foot retail part will be built on the land at Silvercreek Parkway South. The city and the HPNG are against the current plan, but the debate is fairly open as to what sort of things could possibly be built there instead. The media blackout will continue through the mediation, although the HPNG will be holding a meeting tonight at Guelph Bible Chapel, 216 Silvercreek South, to discuss the outcome of mediation talks. Everyone is invited to come.

Council haggles over budget

After last Monday’s council meeting, the budget, as presented in its current form, calls for a 5.3 per cent tax increase for the 2009 fiscal year, but that might not be the end of it. The 5.3 per cent increase translates to about an extra $12 per month for the average taxpayer, but that might not be the end of it. Ward 2 Councillor Ian Findlay put forward a motion to direct city staff at seeing if that increased tax burden could be reduced to 3.75 per cent, in order to respond to his constituents’ concerns. The motion was passed unanimously, and options will be presented at the December 15 council meeting where the budget will hopefully be voted upon. Chief administrative officer Hans Loewig, while promising to look at options, stressed that given the turbulent economic waters, it’s important for council to pass a budget before the end of the year.

Amongst the items already modified from previous budget discussions is the deferment of the purchase of land for the new library and Baker Street redevelopment project until 2010 and the air quality monitoring project from the Hanlon will be spread over nine years rather than two. Basically, new and future services projects will be targeted for money saving initiatives. The city’s also looking at increased user fess, delaying capital projects and using reserve funds in order to make ends meet. The Guelph City Council - 2009 Operating & Capital Budgets Deliberation & Approval meeting takes place on Monday, December 15 at 7 pm in the main council chamber in City Hall.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Ward 1: The Centre of it All

After an unpredictably lengthy hiatus, it’s time to return to my award-eligible series (hint), “Better Know a Ward.” For the third part of this six part series, we go to St. Patrick’s; Ward 1 – the Fightin’ First. The borders of Ward 1 extend from downtown to the south-eastern border of Guelph; everything east of Victoria Road, and south of Eramosa and Eastview Roads. The two people charged with representing this diverse area are first-term Councillor’s Kathleen Farrelly and Bob Bell. I sat down with Farrelly and Bell last week, in the parlour of Farrelly’s home, to talk about issues in the Ward.

Bell and Farrelly make no qualms, they both consider Downtown Guelph to be the most important part of the city and there are some big changes coming in the next couple of years. The next step comes in January, when council will vote on whether or not to make the downtown train station the official Go Train terminal in Guelph. Bell calls it “the single biggest thing that will happen to downtown Guelph this decade,” and is part of an overall plan to revolutionize transit in, and out of, town.

The target date right now is to bring the GO Train back to Guelph by 2011, but before that, Bell and Farrelly have their eyes set on 2010, the date to create a new transit hub along Carden Street, bringing together out of town buses, trains and Guelph Transit into a single strip in the downtown. “That would enable someone to get from downtown Toronto to the University [of Guelph], on public transit, in about 70 minutes,” explains Bell. “That’s when you can really get people hauled out of their cars, if you can provide a faster service.” Adds Farrelly, “And to be as convenient as possible, which it would.”

This plan has not come without some controversy however. “Some people are very much against the relocation of the transit hub and some people seem to love it,” says Farrelly. “What was explained to us is that while the hub is being moved, the buses will still go through downtown, we’re not losing that bus stop downtown.” What might be lost though is the number of buses going through downtown. In order to create more efficiency, and to expedite travel from points A to B, Bell particularly wants to see Guelph Transit move to a grid system with express and cross-town routes that don’t have to stop downtown.

In the meantime, there are concerns in the Ward beyond transit, but are nonetheless of practical importance: the grocery store and retail deficit in the East End. “What the East Enders want is fair city investment, and the provision of services there to be at a par with other areas of the city,” says Bell. “There’s no dispute right now that they’re being treated unfairly.” Farrelly adds that the delay is not the fault of the city, but the fact that the corporations that own the land, Loblaws and Metro, have yet to capitalize. “What they’re saying is that they’re rethinking the size of the store, with the view of not having the huge stores they presented.”

And that’s not likely to change given current economic conditions and in a new age of fiscal restraint given the global recession. Like all city employees and representatives, Bell and Farrelly say they’re looking for ways to keep costs down and are re-evaluating certain purchases. Bell says he took a suggestion that the city could put off the purchase of replacement computers, which has a price tag of $1 million. “You have to be very conscious of where your discretionary funding goes,” he says. Buying new computers won’t necessarily help Guelph because they’re manufactured overseas.

All-in-all, and given the seemingly enormous nature of some of the issues facing the ward, Farrelly and Bell say that the job has been more or less what they expected. But Farrelly knew advanced what her duties might entail; her son was on the council from 1993 to 2003. And if there’s one thing these two Ward 1 representatives have in common, it’s a dislike for the trappings of government. “I’m very impatient with red tap and bureaucracy,” says Farrelly, who adds that she’s learning patience. But if she and Bell are proud of one thing, it’s maintaining a campaign promise to keep council functional and communicative. “Even though we disagree on issues, we still maintain our civility and friendliness, we don’t harbour ill-will,” she adds, “We’ve made a point of that.”