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.”

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