10/20/14

Collingwood in the Top Ten


Top rankingsThere’s a story in today’s Financial Post that is headlined, “Collingwood’s debut in top 10 on ranking of business friendly cities is no accident.”

No accident at all, as anyone on council, in staff or who follows local politics knows. We’ve worked hard to get to this. We deserve it. We told you during the election we were finally open for business and here’s the proof: the rest of the country recognizes us.

Collingwood was ranked tenth out of 81 small-sized communities in the FP’s poll, conducted by the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses:

In its first year to qualify, the revitalized city, in cottage country about an hour north of Toronto, has landed in 7th place in the Top 10 small cities in the annual survey ranking the strongest entrepreneurial activity in Canada conducted by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business for the Financial Post.

We were also the only Ontario municipality to place in the top ten. And in great part, thanks goes to this council’s forward-thinking economic development strategy:

One point of pride is its integrated support system for entrepreneurs. “Our approach is very unique from other municipalities and even larger cities. Typically they are scattered across areas making it more difficult for people to start and grow their own companies,” (Martin Rydlo, director of marketing and business development for the Town of Collingwood) said.
Instead, the offices for the Town of Collingwood, the Business Development Centre and the South Georgian Bay Small Business Enterprise Centre are all under one roof, next door to the Chamber of Commerce and the Business Improvement Association.
“We’re also within 100 metres of the five core banks and town hall,” Mr. Rydlo pointed out. “So getting permits is as close to a one-stop shop experience as it can be. That’s huge for people starting a business. Add to that a strong angel investment, mentorship and consultant network and everything is there to help people with their growth plans.”

Better yet: we ranked NUMBER ONE in the CFIB’s list for entrepreneurial presence” in its “Top Entrepreneurial Cities, 2014.”

Thanks for the vindication of this council’s policies and initiatives.

10/10/14

A Swimmer Comments on the New Pool


Here are some comments from a pool user emailed to me this week, slightly edited. I asked for and received permission to post these.

Apparently some local people who don’t swim or use any of these pools – including our own – have been posting on social media that our facility can’t live up to the standards of other facilities. That bricks-and-mortar is superior.

Seems the swim community – the people who actually use our facility, the people who actually know the standards and features – disagrees.

I have not visited any of the places mentioned, so I cannot confirm the details. However, I can say everything I’ve heard from many users about Collingwood’s new Centennial Aquatic Centre has been positive. It’s nice to have it confirmed:

Did you know that there is not one YMCA competitive pool in Simcoe Muskoka? Competitive swimming is simply not within the Y’s mandate.

Even the new pool in Innisfil touted… as the “Dream” Rec Centre on Twitter is not competition ready. No viewing, not wide enough and no blocks.

The Owen Sound Pool is another … bricks/mortar project failure.

The pool is competition ready, but lacks deck space for teams. They failed to plan for viewing. The upper viewing consists of 16 permanent chairs adjacent to the running track. During meets, one must watch standing on the track in the exercise room above. There is no viewing on the lower level lobby area, because the viewing area overlooks the therapeutic pool. No permanent seating. They bring in chairs for meets and no one can see anything.

They built it once, but certainly not right.

The competitive swim community is thrilled with our new pool facility. Visiting teams have been very impressed as well.

Imagine building a hockey rink, soccer field, or ball diamond too short, without boards, or a net?

It took 28 years to realize the dream and finally have an amazing competitive pool.

Thanks to your Council for making that happen.

Seems only those who don’t use, and have likely never even been inside the facility, are negative and critical. And with approx. 1,000 people a week using it, I think the community response to our pool has been overwhelmingly positive.

Trust the people who know what they’re talking about, and use our pool, not those who judge everything from its outside appearance or by their own negative ideology.

10/2/14

Misconceptions About the Town Debt


Clock TowerYesterday members of council received a letter from our auditors that should clear up any misconceptions floating around about debt and debentures. It is clear and succinct.

I was also forwarded an email from a candidate (sent to his supporters) with misleading statements about how much debt there is. I don’t know if it was deliberately meant to be misleading – I suspect rather that the candidate simply doesn’t understand municipal finance. But it isn’t really a complicated process.

And no candidate should make claims based on misunderstanding or misinformation. It is their responsibility to get and present the facts, not fantasies, nor opinions.

In response to concerns over such inaccurate claims and misunderstandings, we asked for a clarification. Sue Bragg, B.B.A., CPA, CA, and partner in Gaviller and Company, which audits the town’s financial statements every year, wrote the following (emphasis added):

We understand there have been some inquiries regarding the “definition of debt” and how the debt levels have changed during this last term of Council.
Our professional opinion is that debt is external, contractual debt, typically in the form of bank loans, debentures and mortgages. This definition is in keeping with the presentation of debt on the Financial Information Return prepared annually for the Ministry, as well as the Ministry’s calculation of the Annual Repayment Limit.

Okay, here’s the first important point: debt is external. That’s both the professional and the legal definition of municipal debt as defined by the Ministry of Finance.

Debt is what we owe outsiders: money borrowed with interest and bank charges to be paid. It’s what affects your taxes. It’s our debentures.

It is not any internal loans we have. I’ll get to those a bit later and explain how they work. Just keep in mind that they are not debt by any professional or Ministry calculation.

So then what is our actual debt? Ms. Bragg continues (emphasis added):

As per the 2010 audited financial statements: long-term debt was $45,507,356 and there was a bank demand loan in the amount of $664,013 for a total of $46,171,369. As per the 2013 audited financial statements: long-term debt was $36,860,776 and there was no bank demand loan debt.

We are unable to comment on the 2014 balances as we have not audited those transactions to date.

Got that? We started with a total debt of $46.17 million ($45.5 million in debentures) when we took office. As of Jan. 1, 2013, this council and staff had brought it down to $36.86 million. By the end of 2014, we estimate it will be roughly $38 million because we will pay down more this year, but we also need to borrow for two earlier projects).

At the end of our term, this council will have paid down approximately $7.5 million of our debt, as we have been saying for months now. These are the facts verified by the auditor.

Our debt is not the $50,361,230.00 some candidates are suggesting.

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08/25/14

Looking forward to 2015-18


Collingwood Terminals
Looking forward to 2015 and beyond, here are some of the things I would like to see Collingwood Council and the town staff accomplish in the upcoming term. I have laid these out in my campaign website and literature already, but thought I should include something in my blog to complement those sources.

  • Maintain our current fiscal stability and sustainability. This council has been very proactive in keeping taxes and spending low, without compromising on any essential services or infrastructure. We have paid down $11 of the $45 million debt we inherited, and only borrowed minimally for necessary infrastructure projects. The average tax increase this term has been less than the rate of inflation: 0.5%. And we got two stunning new recreational facilities without having to go deeper into debt or raise taxes. Staying this fiscal course for the next term is a must.
  • Complete and implement the waterfront/harbour master plan. We have started the process, held public meetings, but we need to see it to the end. Our harbour is underutilized and offers many benefits, resources and economic opportunities we can take advantage of. We need to make it more attractive, safe and accessible for all users, while drawing visitors and business to the community through aquatic activities and resources.
  • Embrace more green initiatives. Change to LED lighting in municipal buildings, rec facilities and street lights; put solar panels on municipal buildings; and install electric vehicle charging stations in municipal parking lots. Collingwood should be in the forefront of energy conservation and awareness and we must work closely with our utility partner, Collus/Powerstream to accomplish these goals.There are significant savings in energy use to be had.
  • Rebuild the BMX/skateboard park, with input from users for the design and layout. A new skateboard park could draw users from all over Ontario and host competitions and events. Let’s start planning for a revitalized facility next term and get the youth involved in the design process. It’s a prime project for a public-private partnership and sponsorship, too.
  • Aggressively promote and market Collingwood. We have a new economic development/marketing manager in a new office shared with our community business partners. We must harness these dynamic services to attract businesses and industry, and to cement our brand as the most attractive place to visit and to open a business in Ontario.
  • Implement governance changes. Our CAO has recently proposed some sweeping changes to the town’s governance and committee structures, to help make council more efficient and effective, while smoothing out the public input process. These changes will need experienced politicians to help guide them, help communicate them, and make sure they meet the needs of our residents. I have the experience to help make these changes work.
  • Promote a greater mix of housing types for both sale and rent; encourage affordable and attainable development including more rental properties, providing opportunities for workers and young families. This is a challenge because the town is limited by legislation what it can offer as incentives to developers. A roundtable discussion with planners and developers will help set priorities and strategies.
  • Integrate event planning & culture with economic development; Culture and events are economic drivers that can benefit the entire community. We must look for new signature events and activities to draw visitors, and keep people coming back. Look for new, innovative ways to increase traffic and activities downtown and engage both residents and visitors in them.
  • A regional local food strategy: I would like to see one developed with our neighbouring municipalities, which would look at promoting local agriculture, food tourism and related events. I would also like the town and BIA to look at updated and enhanced models for the farmers’ market with an eye to developing a year-round, indoor market that could attract visitors and merchants.

These are my main priorities and my vision for the upcoming term. If elected, I will bring them to council and help implement in the next four years. Some of these – the electric vehicle charging stations, for example – I have already raised this term, but because of timing, other pressing issues, budget restraints or staff changes, they have not had the opportunity for a full discussion at the council table. I have the experience, the vision and the passion to continue as your representative on Collingwood Council and work as diligently on your behalf as I have for the past three terms.

You can read more about my election platform here.

06/5/14

Twenty years of strategic planning


Town of CollingwoodTwenty years ago – May, 1994 – the Town of Collingwood started a community-based strategic plan. That report was released in October, 1995. Then in October, 2000, Vision 2020 released its Blueprint Collingwood. These two documents are generally forgotten by the general public today, but they have been the basis of planning, of policy and strategic targets by councils and staff ever since.

No particular council or mayor can take credit for the accomplishments; they’ve been achieved over more than two decades of effort and resolve. This post is simply to point out that these visionary documents were neither ignored nor buried on shelves, but rather have been incorporated into planning and policy.

True, not every recommendation was accepted or adopted. Some were impractical – cost or complexity were too great, others involved different jurisdictions beyond the town’s control (i.e. upgrades to Highway 26 or waste management). But many have been used successfully.

Both reports built on an earlier document and process, Focus 2000, dated from (I believe) 1990. Both later documents had similar processes and approaches: task forces, community involvement, focus groups, interviews and workshops. Although they have areas of similarity, they also have differences.

The Strategic Plan identified six key features that residents valued and wanted to retain:

  • Small town atmosphere;
  • Natural beauty and the environment;
  • Recreation and leisure activities;
  • A clean, safe, friendly community;
  • Community activities and special events.

One item – “small town atmosphere” is difficult to manage. One cannot legislate a friendly, welcoming, positive attitude or to post optimistic comments in social or other media. We cannot pass bylaws that require people to say hello, please and thank you, to hold a door open, or to let someone back out of a parking space on the main street. But councils have tried to retain some of the look and feel that encourage at least the aesthetic feel of Collingwood – including keeping green/wild spaces and trees. Otherwise, these features have all been key in the town’s planning and policy development.

On the key issues facing the town, as reported in the study, here’s how we fared. My comments are in blue:

  • Lack of opportunities, especially for youth;
    We have a youth centre, skateboard park and many recreational opportunities, but we don’t have a lot of employment opportunities outside the service and hospitality sectors. We are not alone in this: most Ontario municipalities have struggled with plant and industry closures the past two decades. However, we do have some manufacturing such as Goodall, Sensortech, Pilkington Glass, Canadian Mist, Agnora Glass and others. Two microbreweries are scheduled to open here this year. So we’re better off than many communities our size – these companies employ residents and several are adding new jobs every year.
  • Waterfront development;
    The residential waterfront development started, but collapsed along with the economy in 2008. It’s been on hold ever since while banks and real estate companies attempt to sell off the remaining parcels to a new developer. The town has upgraded the waterfront area in the harbour, and recently added docks to encourage more boat traffic. Falling water levels have been a problem for a few years, but that may be a cyclic pattern. The grain terminals has been up for sale for a few years, but so far no serious buyer has come forward. Meanwhile there have been enhancements to both Sunset Point and Harbourview parks.
  • Lack of cultural activities and facilities;
    The town now has a culture coordinator who helps promote and encourage cultural events and activities. There is no municipal arts centre, but both the new municipal (library) building and the privately-owned Tremont have gallery space. The former newspaper office was turned into a private theatre/gallery/workshop space. Our council chambers now showcase local artists. The Elvis Festival is about to enter its 20th anniversary, and remains the town’s largest summer event. Other events have been promoted, such as the Jazz at the Station weekly show. We have more street art, too.
  • Preservation of the natural environment;
    Ongoing and raised frequently (as recently as the June 2 council meeting). The NVCA has helped preserve wetlands and wild areas from development. It is sometimes tough to balance this with the need for growth. We also instigated and had completed a natural heritage study, done by the NVCA.
  • The economy and taxes.
    Ongoing. It’s always a balancing act between providing services and facilities people want, and maintaining/upgrading infrastructure, and keeping taxes low. The local economy is doing fairly well, but like any small town, we have to watch our money. This term taxes have been kept remarkably low (an average of about 0.5% over four years), while the debt has been paid down significantly without over-burdening the taxpayers ($11 million paid from an inherited $45 million debt). The national and world economies took a beating in 2008, which affected local growth and development, but we have been recovering slowly.

On the opportunities and goals:

  • Attract light industry and high-tech business;
    We face some competition, but we have been successful in attracting Agnora Glass, two new microbreweries, and celebrating an expansion of the Goodall rubber plant. The former ethanol plant is available for re-use for such purposes as fertilizer manufacturing. We have been fortunate to retain some of our industrial base. Our new Marketing and Economic Development manager will help us in the task of promoting Collingwood.
  • Increase tourism – promote Collingwood as a  4-season tourism resort;
    This is ongoing and has been the priority of groups like the Georgian Triangle Tourism Association.
  • Improve and develop the waterfront and make it accessible;
    Pedestrian and public access was built into the new development, although not fully completed when the development stalled, in 2008.
  • Promote arts activities and special events; build a theatre;
    We have two private theatres and private gallery spaces, plus the municipal space in the library.
  • Improve the downtown and heritage buildings;
    Done and ongoing. We now have a heritage district with strict building controls and bylaws.
  • Promote seminars, conferences and retreats.
    While we currently lack sufficient public facilities for such events, the current revitalization of the Eddie Bush Arena will provide an opportunity to host such events in the near future.

Most councils since the Strategic Plan was released have actively incorporated many of the ideas and suggestions into their operation and policies.

Everything, of course, comes with a challenge. The growth plan that will see Collingwood grow to about 31,000 in a few years may reduce some of the “small town atmosphere” that we treasure. That growth will see higher demand on services and facilities, which may mean greater costs. But I don’t think the overall well-being will be adversely affected because of the solid base that has been built over the last 20 years..

The waterfront Shipyards property has gone through its ups and downs, with development started – with great optimism then halted by the 2008 Recession. There are still approved plans for future residential and commercial development there, but no developer has taken the reins. Like with the Admiral Collingwood site, the fluctuating economy and slow recovery has curtailed its completion. Development is always at the mercy of the economy.

All councils wrestle with retaining as much of the natural environment as possible, although it sometimes conflicts with other strategic goals, like growth and development. We try to balance community interest with the rights of the developer.

And as for taxes and the economy: this council has a record of an average 0.5% tax increase over the past four years, paying down the town’s $45 million debt by $11 million AND building new recreational facilities, a new fire hall, purchased Fisher Field, a new Public Works building with 30 acres of property.

This term’s exemplary fiscal management should be a model for future councils.

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