Thursday, March 26, 2009

Taxis and Other Developments

No more Taxi Stand for you!

Say goodbye to the taxi stands downtown, late-night party revellers! That is if you haven’t already. After the Guelph Polices Services Board decided to withdraw its support, the city decided to withdraw the signs that were set up at a few locations across the downtown in order to cut down on the noise in surrounding neighbourhoods between the hours of 1 am to 4 am. Now before you blame the police, the police say that you should first look in the mirror to find the guilty party. It seems that taxi drivers were avoiding the taxi stands whenever possible because of the unruly behaviour of those waiting.

“When there is a huge crowd at the stands, people jump into the street and charge towards the approaching cabs and fight with others to get into the cabs,” said the letter to city council. “As a result, neither the cab drivers nor the customers want to go into the taxicab stands as they feel they are not safe.”

The taxi stand project had begun as a one-year pilot in October 2007. Council made the choice to extend the test last July. City staff talked about installing security cameras at the stands to help mitigate bad behaviour, but with just over a month left to go in the project, the city decided to cancel it outright. So what to do? Well, police suggested an expansion of the late night bus service saying that the current late night bus that services the university and south end works well at moving large groups out of downtown. But if you live in one of the other three quadrants of Guelph, you are wholly dependent on cabs, unless you’re sober enough to use your own two feet that is.

“Even with every taxi they have on the road, it takes a couple of hours for the downtown to clear,” the letter continued. “People are forced to hang around waiting on the next available cab, which leads to the disturbances, property damage, garbage strewn about, fouling on public property, a lot of upset store owners in the central business area, and frustrated police officers who have to deal with these same issues every weekend.”

Guelph Transit will examine the case for expanding its late-night bus service as part of 2010 city budget deliberations, a staff report said.

Ask the Experts

The Guelph Civic League is weighing in on the debate surrounding the Hanlon Creek Business Park by hosting a forum asking “What's At Stake?” at Norfolk United Church tonight at 7 pm. A panel made up of citizens groups, city staff, councillors and stakeholders will discuss the issues surrounding the development of the site in the city’s south end. Amongst the scheduled speakers are Judy Martin (Sierra Club Canada and Guelph Urban Forest Friends), James Gordon (Wellington Water Watchers), Matt Soltys (Land Is More Important Than Sprawl), Councillor Lise Burcher (Chair of Community Design and Environmental Services Committee, City of Guelph), Peter Cartwright (General Manager of Economic Development and Tourism, City of Guelph), and Lloyd Longfield (Guelph Chamber of Commerce).

Service Interruptus

The city advises patients over the next couple of weeks as departments and services move from the present locations and into the new Civic Administration Building. The move began on March 17 and will wrap on April 3 when the Mayor and Chief Administrative Officer’s offices are transferred to their new digs. For a complete schedule of the move and what departments are affected when, see the City of Guelph website at

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Environment and Travel News


It appears that the actions of the environmental activist group Land Is More Important Than Sprawl (LIMITS) quest to bring attention to save the greenspace scheduled to be the future home of the Hanlon Creek Business Park is bearing fruit. Two posts made on the Ward 2 blog maintained by city councillors Ian Findlay and Vicki Beard articulated their concerns with the development project.

“I hear the argument that this development has been so long in the planning that we have to just ‘get on with it,’” says a letter writer identified as JG. “I don’t think we can threaten our futures just because we want to ‘get on’ with something, and I think that there will be a wide reaching negative reaction towards our current city government if we do not offer a public forum at a council meeting to revisit these concerns before it is too late.”

“The proposed irresponsible destruction of the natural heritage on this site is unforgivable,” adds another writer called BK. “I beg you to reconsider the future of the Hanlon Creek Business Park lands. In a better world this property should be known as the Hanlon Creek Natural Heritage Park and it would be a much more farsighted use of this land to be developed as such. The citizens of Guelph now and in the future would be much happier to live in a better world.”

Green Fighting Gets Dirty

Guelph got dragged into Green Party infighting last week when Mark Taylor, an Alberta Green who left the party’s national council after a conflict with leader Elizabeth May, wrote a fairly incendiary comment on his blog. "Money was funnelled into the riding to open two campaign offices," he wrote. "Staff was hired to run these offices. I know, from a personal contact, that requests were made of the Guelph team to turn their focus from (get out the vote) efforts in Guelph to (get out the vote) efforts in Central Nova." May has come under fire over her inability to win even one riding, including her own, in the last election. But on money matters, Elections Canada records show that May’s campaign spent significantly less than allowed under federal election rules in her riding, and May herself said that there was a "lack of focus" on winning Central Nova.

Settlement Ratified

Guelph City Council ratified the negotiated settlement between the City of Guelph and Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Locals 241 and 973 at the City Council meeting on March 9. The Guelph Public Library Board ratified the same agreement with CUPE Local 1946 at its board meeting the same night. With the 550 CUPE employees also ratifying the deal, it means that the matter is settled for these city employees. The deal contained wage and salary increases of 2.5 per cent in 2009, 2.6 per cent in 2010 and 2.75 per cent in 2011. The three year contract also contains modest benefits changes to more closely align CUPE benefits with other employee groups at the City of Guelph.

City wants to send Mitch away

The City officially sanctioned Mitch Moffit’s quest to secure the Best Job in the World last week by posting a link on their website. The contest is being sponsored by Queensland Tourism, to find someone to fill the position of caretaker of the Great Barrier Reef and be paid a handsome, six-figure salary to do it. Moffit is one of the Top 50 contests now in serious contention for the job thanks to his 60-second video, a Broadway style musical shot in Downtown Guelph last month. To throw your vote to Mitch got to

Save the Date

This is just a reminder that starting on April 7, you’ll be able to access city services from offices in the new Civic Administration Building. The City’s tax payment system, and the building permits and inspection systems were moved over the March 6-9 weekend, and the moving process of other offices will take place all month long.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Vandals, Evictions and Pollinators

Updates and Evictions

Despite grassroots support – and a cover story in last week’s Echo – it appears that Ray Mitchell’s fight to save the space he’s operated his Family Thrift Store from for 16 years, is over. After I interviewed Mitchell for last week’s cover story, he was handed a 30-day notice by his landlord Milan Lesic. Mitchell and Lesic were unable to reach an agreement on terms of a new lease; Lesic wanted six months, Mitchell wanted three-to-five years. Mitchell may be able to move his business into the building formally occupied by Wyndham Arts, but it would only be a temporary salvation. “We’re out of here at the end of the month, and I think we’re going out with a seven day music festival,” Mitchell told me last Thursday. “Rather than be negative, we’ll be positive because that makes city hall feel even worse.” The seven day festival is tentatively to be called “Thrift-stock” adds Mitchell.

Quarterly Vandalism spree hits core

Several proprietors and employees of 20 different downtown sites were greeted with delightful messages of "kill police and their families," "fight the pigs," "kill police," "we are winning," and "No 2010 Olympics on stolen native land," last weekend. The River Run Centre, Old Quebec Street mall, Knox Presbyterian Church and the law office of Hungerford, Guthrie and Berry were amongst the venues not sparred from the spree. Strong anti-police sentiments are a regular in graffiti incidents in town; several squad cars were spray-painted in April 2007. As for the anti-Olympic lobby, this follows an occurrence back in November where the McDonalds on Wellington and Gordon was vandalized to the tune of $5,000. There’s currently no evidence of a connection between the incidents, but police are still investigating.

It’s a (tentative) deal!

With three days to spare before a strike deadline, the City of Guelph reached a tentative deal with the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) locals 241, 973 and 1946, who represent approximately 550 outside, inside and library employees. Details of the settlement will be available when all parties have had an opportunity to present the settlement to their respective principals for ratification. The CUPE locals have been working with out a contract since January 31 and a strike deadline of Friday, March 6 at 12:01 am was set.

Valeriote talks cars

Our local MP demonstrated again last week that he’s a man of parliamentary action, as Frank Valeriote was appointed to a committee studying the crisis in the auto industry. Five Members of Parliament will sit on the sub-committee which begins its work immediately and will report its findings and recommendations to the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology by March 24, 2009. “The auto industry has been a driving force in Canada’s economy and has contributed to the vitality and prosperity of communities right across this country. Canadian families depend on the good jobs that have traditionally been associated with the auto sector,” said Valeriote in a press release. “This study is a welcome opportunity to study the industry, share information with Canadians about the industry, and draw conclusions as to the appropriate federal response to address this crisis.”

Pollinator Postponed

Last week, council formally approved a plan to turn part of the old Eastview landfill into a pollinator park, but cost issues in some aspects of the conversion may slow the process. The first phase of creating a community park on the old landfill site – which will include the creation of lit football fields (both kinds) – will cost about $1.74 million, an amount that’s already been budgeted. The remaining costs, totalling about $6.8 million, may have to be spread over five or six years. But at least the pollinator function of the park should proceed in a timely manner; the city’s planning chief, Jim Riddell, says that the non-profit group called Pollinator Guelph will handle fundraising responsibilities to install pollinator-friendly plantings without any direct cost to the city. The pollinator park project is part of a sustainability effort to combat the decline of pollinators like bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and moths

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Last Stand of a Family Thrift Store

Along the aisles of this store is a veritable haberdashery of knick-knacks and articles. A certain Echo columnist once completed his set of McDonalds collectable Batman Returns cups here.

But on this Thursday, you can walk past tiki heads, Buddha statues, convenience store candy racks, old sports jerseys, and stacks of VHS tapes and books. There’s no shortage to the treasures and oddities you’ll find at the Family Thrift Store on Wyndham; be it a valued record or some random guy’s head x-ray.

And that’s to say nothing of all the hundreds of people of limited means that have been assisted by the store since Ray Mitchell took it over 16 years ago. But now it seems increasingly likely that future generations will not have this resource to draw upon.

A council meeting on February 17th seems to have sealed Mitchell’s fate, and that of his store. The city approved the concept calling for the construction of a new 90,000 square-foot building face, the centrepiece of which is the new main branch of the Guelph Public Library. Open space, new parking and a re-development of Baker Street to include new commercial and residential space is also part of the plan.

“This concept for the Baker St. site offers upwards of 20,000 square feet of commercial space, mixed residential development a minimum of 400 public parking spaces,” said Peter Cartwright, Guelph’s General Manager of Economic Development and Tourism Services in a press release. “More details about the types of housing and the distribution of parking spaces will become clearer as we develop our project plan.”

Another aspect that isn’t clear is the timetable. For development to move forward, the four buildings currently sitting on the block – from the Cowboy Bar to the Old Post Office – will have to be torn down. But when? “Somebody should have been here Wednesday morning to give me a time frame, even if the time frame is ‘we don’t know for sure,’” says Mitchell. “At least I’d know, do I have a month? Do I have a year? There’s no common courtesy at all.”

What bothers Mitchell is not so much the city’s slow reaction to giving him firm deadlines to move out, but that they’ve know it’s been coming for a while now. “They spent a million dollars on a search process when they already knew where it was going to be,” says Mitchell. “They pretended that they were going through the process. […] Two years ago, they put a chill on this whole block and that’s why all the buildings are empty.”

Mitchell does have support on council though, despite the overwhelming vote of 10 to 2 for approval of the plan. The two were Ward 6 Councillor Christine Billings and Ward 4 Councillor Gloria Kovach. Amongst their concerns is the loss of commercial space and affordable housing units, as well as taking on the huge cost for construction in the midst of the global economic recession.

“Finance has not conveyed how we are going to pay for it,” explains Billings, who adds that she also has questions about the full extent of the downtown’s parking needs. “The downtown has on numerous occasions requested more parking than they have in the Baker St lot. This current proposal, with the number of residential units identified would not achieve this. When I asked staff at Council if there was enough parking, the response was that they didn’t know.”

“I fully support branch libraries and feel the main branch could use some upgrades, however we don't need to spend $55 million, which will be over $70 million by the time their done for this project,” adds Kovach. “Council needs to be realistic when it comes to spending and realize what is happening economically and to our City.”

Economics are foremost on Mitchell’s mind, both the economics of losing the store that provides his livelihood, and the optics of the city’s desire to remould downtown into something more appealing to a certain type of resident. “What you’re going to get is a downtown full of rich people and the first thing they’re going to do is complain about the noise at night, and then there’s no more night life,” he explains.

“They want it to be ‘family-friendly,’ but my store’s the Family Thrift Store. How much more family-friendly can you get?”

Further, Mitchell accuses city staff of playing a shell game with the announcement of this important vote. “They weren’t even going to let us know about the meeting. They sent out the notice the Friday before the long weekend and we had about three hours to respond on Tuesday morning; we should have had at least two week. They’re really trying to keep opposition to a minimum.”

And the opposition is quite substantial. Mitchell not only donates furniture and other items to local charities, but he donates cheap studio space to local artists and musicians. Even the store itself has become an impromptu musical venue.

Right now, five University of Guelph arts students are using Mitchell’s space, and he considers it a worthy investment because every successful artist needs helping starting out. A fact that the bands Magic and the D’Urbervilles know all too well having owed a degree of their success to Mitchell’s graces.

“I’m only one person, so I won’t be the big loser in the whole thing,” says Mitchell. “It’s going to be my thousands of customers and the kids that come to the concerts and the artists that paint next door. They’re going to be missing me more than I’m missing them.”

Mitchell’s sanguine about his fate. On an above average busy day at the Thrift store the one thing on many of the customers’ minds is “What’s next?” The Guelph Downtown Business Association has said that they will assist businesses and tenants in finding a new location and moving costs, but looking out at the expanse of curios and furniture that stretch across two floors, one’s forced to wonder where such a space downtown can be found. The truth is, and Mitchell agrees, that it probably won’t.

Wyndham Arts Supplies used to be sandwiched between the Cowboy Bar and Family Thrift Store, but it moved across the road and down the street last Fall. Other store fronts on the block have been empty for over a year, with no new renters because of the perception that any store wouldn’t be operating on that site for very long.

Mitchell, and the other tenants that have stayed, now feel the pinch especially. “If I had a lease, they’d by me out of the lease,” explains Mitchell. “But because the fix was in two years ago, my landlord hasn’t given me a lease in two years and now he wants to put my rent up because if it goes to expropriation he gets more money.”

Despite his steady business, and a grassroots effort for a reprieve, Mitchell sees the writing on the wall. “I’m completely screwed,” he says flatly, adding that the only compensation he could get is in the seemingly unlikely event he could find a new location for his store. In the meantime though, “My sales go down, my rent goes up and if I leave then he gets rent relief from the city because he lost his tenant. So at the end of the day he can end up with no tenants and more money.”

But what happens to the vast array of items in the actual store? “It goes to the dump or maybe a big free sale,” says Mitchell. “Or maybe we’ll get a chain gang together and take it all down to city hall and dump it out front. I’m not really sure.”