Chet Greason, firstname.lastname@example.org
With 28 candidates running for Council, organizers at the Stratford and District Chamber of Commerce had to keep a tight lid on proceedings to ensure each candidate had their say at the all candidates forum at the Rotary Complex on Oct. 7.
Therefore, the 27 candidates (Dale Walters was a no-show) were split into four groups according to their alphabetized last names. Each group was asked a specific question, and each group member was given an opportunity to answer it before discussion was opened to any other candidates who wished to weigh in.
Question one: The priority of Market Square
Incumbent Brad Beatty pointed out that the development of Market Square is the city's number one unfunded project, but noted parking was an issue. Roger Black said downtown parking was the priority, and that it trumped any plans for redevelopment. Pat Bolton agreed.
"We cannot lose a single space," she said, adding people are abandoning the downtown core due to parking issues.
Incumbent George Brown observed that there are currently plans for a parking garage that will be financed via the parking meter fund. He added he liked local architect Robert Ritz' idea for a Market Square development along the sides and front of city hall, rather than out back.
Graham Bunting stressed that more consultancy isn't needed.
"We're a smart city. We can solve it ourselves," he said.
Lorraine Butson called it a high priority, but stressed the need to do it right and to consult with stakeholders. Incumbent Tom Clifford called it an asset to Stratford, and suggested development could be done in stages, via federal sesquicentennial funding, rather than all at once.
Cody Sebben stated that most merchants want the buses removed, while incumbent Frank Mark said it's paramount to move forward while funding is available.
"Parking is not an excuse," he said. "Let's get off our butts and do it."
Stephen Landers said downtown merchants cannot afford the loss of parking and buses, and Larry LaBelle said that a redevelopment would be nice, but in reality the city cannot afford it.
Scott Mitchell wants to open the development up to other designs and take advantage of the $1 million promised by Walmart, while incumbent Kerry McManus said the Cooper site development was the bigger priority; however, she suggested blocking roads around city hall as a trial to see if a pedestrian square would feasibly work before investing money into it.
Lastly, Jeffrey Walsh said anything done there would be a huge advantage to the city, as evidenced by the success of the Slow Food Market.
Question two: The Cooper site conundrum
Incumbent Keith Culliton said to get the issue out of the courts, ask citizens, dig in, and get going. Dave Gaffney said that he understands the desire to preserve aspects of the building, but added taxpayers should not be made to pay for whatever's done to the site.
Marianne Hawley noted that she attended a public consultation with University of Waterloo students redesigning the site as a class project.
"None of them wanted to tear the site down," she said.
Incumbent Bonnie Henderson said she's waiting on the report by Riversedge Developments due in December, but reminded those in attendance of new railway rules brought about by the Lac-Mégantic disaster last year that stipulate new developments would have to be as much as two football fields away from train tracks. She also mentioned the Jenny Trout Centre, which was also once considered an eyesore, but is now "beautiful."
John Hotson counted himself amongst those who wanted to see the site bulldozed, but now says that if a developer comes in with a strong vision, he'd support it. He wondered why Riversedge is taking so long with their report.
Danielle Ingram called the Cooper site one of the city's top three priorities. She said she'd like to see the ownership issue resolved so the site can start generating property taxes. She also pointed out that the site is not only failing to generate revenue at this time, but if it's granted to the University it will likewise not produce needed tax money.
"And we need that income," she said.
Dan Kane said the building has been an eyesore for so long, it's tough to see it as anything else. He added that, whatever's done with it, he'd like to see it opened up so residents of St. David Street are able to see through it instead of having to look at a white wall.
Incumbent Martin Ritsma wants to use it as a heritage area, and noted the students at the University of Waterloo have some amazing ideas, although he said the whole building will not likely be used in the end.
Brown said he doesn't have a problem with a part of the building remaining as a taxable building, but he'd certainly vote against spending any more tax money on it.
"Enough's enough," he added.
Bunting observed that there are currently two camps debating the issue on his Facebook page: One that wants to leave it up and the other that wants it torn down, but everyone's tired of looking at it the way it is. As a personal note, he said he'd like to see the structure maintained as it has "wonderful bones."
Black noted Mayor Dan Mathieson's comments from the mayoral debate earlier in the evening when he said the expropriation was completed, adding, if the mayor said it's not an issue, "We need to know where it is… Why not move ahead?"
Kathy Vassilakos thought, out of Stratford's remaining brown field developments, the Cooper site is the "biggest and baddest." She called for adaptive reuse, and thought framework ought to be drawn up for future brown field developments so the city doesn't have to repeat this exercise again.
Incumbent Karen Smythe said she's pleased with what she's seen from Riversedge, and agreed that taxpayers should not pay for development.
Butson said reports from consultants were near endless, and that it was difficult to justify redaptive reuse as the city cannot afford it. She suggested some pieces could be kept for commemoration.
Question three: Rising police and fire costs.
LaBelle noted both services were crucial, but skyrocketing costs were a byproduct of how the Ontario government has chosen to administer increases. He said a salary cap is needed.
Landers countered by saying he would love a cap, but that when such a move is attempted in Toronto, there's threat of a strike and the arbitrator gives the union what it wants.
"Toronto can afford it. I don't know what we can do," he said, adding perhaps the city should look at combining the departments like some municipalities have done in the States.
Mark was more optimistic, saying the city had a number of options to find "a fine balance of safety and cost." He hopes the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) will reassess the arbitration system so it's more feasible. He also suggested a fire department that's a combination of professional and volunteer firefighters could be a cost-saving measure worth looking into.
McManus said there could be other options for cost savings, and used the examples of cameras installed at the crosswalk at Huntington Street or collaborations with other emergency services.
Mitchell said the city should be merging its dispatch, calling separate police, fire, and EMS dispatch "parallel services."
Ed Montgomery also advocated for a cap, noting that police and fire constituted for 1/3 of the annual budget. He added that he doesn't see the city's fire trucks changing very often, but he's always seeing new kinds of police cars.
Martin Nolan said that, since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the issue of emergency services has been very reactive, and that, while he can respect the office, he cannot agree with a local firefighter with a larger annual salary than one based in Manhattan (with pensions on top.)
Clifford noted that he's been very outspoken on this issue in the past, and urged all municipalities to go after the provincial government.
"Toronto and Ottawa can afford this. Small towns can't," he said, adding, if things continue, "instead of potholes and libraries, it'll all be police and fire. Everyone needs to be involved."
Hotson said he's good friends with a number of police officers and firefighters. He wondered why the city couldn't negotiate in good faith with the departments. He was also a fan of dispatch amalgamation, asking why Stratford EMS calls went to London while police and fire stayed in Stratford.
Brown said the city's been trying to fix dispatch for 10 years, estimating it costs the city $1 million every year. "Waterloo's doing dispatch… Why not get out of the dispatch business?"
He also noted his motion to amalgamate the offices of the police and fire chiefs didn't pass.
Sebben thought there was little need for Stratford to have high-ranking investigating officers attend crime scenes where the robbers are already long gone, while Bunting, a former police officer, said the expectations are much higher for police these days. However, he also cited the need to solve contract disputes without arbitration.
Question four: Stratford's transportation issues
Sheri Patterson said we're a car-based people; that Stratford has major issues in regards to accessibility; and that the city's transport woes are impossible to solve with the current level of funding. She decried the lack of access Stratford has to Toronto, but said that issue could be resolved should the GO Transit system be convinced to provide a link to the area.
Ritsma called the city's transit system "wonderful" and said he would like to extend service hours into Sunday. He didn't think it was likely Stratford would see a GO train to Toronto, "but a bus to Woodstock or K/W would help."
Sebben noted most cities don't have a main transit hub, and that Stratford doesn't need full buses outside of the peak tourism season. He said smaller, 23-seat buses could make Sunday service more affordable.
Smythe suggested it was a numbers game, and the huge cost of the transit system just didn't add up when compared to what the city makes off of ridership. She noted a new bus can cost $500,000, while switching to an electric system could see a price tag of $1 million per vehicle.
Vassilakos called for advocation to VIA Rail. She noted GO typically starts with bus services, and only upgrades to trains when there's demonstrated ridership.
"People who want transit need to use it," she said.
Walsh promoted green alternatives like walking lanes and bike paths. He also suggested the city could work with the local hospitality and manufacturing industries to organize committed bus lines specifically for tourism and employees.
McManus said there is definite room for more efficiency. She promoted the idea of a call service app via cell phone that links wirelessly with buses, alerting them down streets they normally wouldn't travel to pick up passengers.
Kane agreed, saying the app would also tell passengers the buses' current locations. He thought this, coupled with posted routes and times at bus stops, would boost ridership, supplying the finances needed for extended evening and weekend hours. He also thought a 90-minute pass for grocery shoppers and errand runners would make the bus a more applicable option for residents.
Kane also said road construction has to take the bike and pedestrian master plan into account in the future.
Ingram agreed, adding that routes should not be static and should evolve to coincide with factory shift changes. She repeated Walsh's idea to partner with local employers to provide passes for workers, and also suggested family rates and two-hour transfer passes.
Henderson thought ridership could be increased by improving bus shelters and supplying more accessible bus stops, while Hawley, whose father was a bus driver, would like to see less weaving and more direct routes.