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.

10/9/14

The Real Facility Costs


Ribbon cuttingAnother misleading statement was made during one of the all-candidates’ meetings last week: that our new recreational facilities – the Central Park Arena and the Centennial Aquatic Centre – cost $20 million and that the pool was 30% over budget.

Neither is correct.

According to our treasurer, Marjory Leonard, who replied to my emails this week, here are the actual numbers:

The original quote for the building alone: $3,425,000.
Council later approved an increase of $1,300,441. This included the therapeutic pool approved October 15, 2012 in Staff Report PRC 2012-22 – $550,000. It included the pool tank enhancements approved February 11, 2013 – $583,000, and the unanticipated construction costs of $88,000 for asbestos, pipe rerouting and soil removal.
The total budgeted amount was thus $4,725,441.
As of Dec. 31, 2013, the total cost was $4,917,739. This was $192,298 over budget. However, subtracting the donation from the Clippers Swim Club of $158,000 for pool enhancements, the total amount over budget was $34,298, or approximately 0.7% over budget. Most of this was because of unexpected problems with the site.
Note that the building costs did not go over budget: increases in costs were due either to unanticipated site works costs or council’s addition of features (i.e. the therapeutic pool).

As for the Central Park arena and rink, the figures are similar:

The original quote was $8,292,000 – Staff Report EMC 2012-01 (August 27, 2012)
This budget was $7,476,000 for the building alone, $316,000 for accessories and $500,000 for site servicing.
The 2013 Budget increased this amount by $57,050 for a total of $8,349,050.
However, council later changed the Hamilton Street entrance, an unanticipated project in response to local residents’ concerns about traffic and at an extra cost.
The actual cost as of December 31, 2013 was $8,571,479.
Again, the overrun was due to unanticipated site works: $222,429, not the building costs. That represents about 2.7% of the amount as approved by council in 2013.
Not included in the figures is the value of the additional audience seating, increased from 250 to 390, donated by Sprung at no cost to the town.

The total budgeted for both facilities (and approved by council) was $13,074,491 (which was paid for from the proceeds of the sale of a portion of Collus to Powerstream, not paid for from going into debt or raising taxes). The total cost was $13,331,218.

Centennial Aquatic centreThe two projects, combined were $256,727 – or about 2%  – over budget.

That’s $7 million less than the amount claimed by the candidate and at 2% a helluva lot less than the 30% inaccurately reported by this candidate at the ACM.

Costs above and beyond the building costs were either due to unforeseen site conditions (which any construction would be subject to) or council-mandated upgrades such as the therapeutic pool (roughly 1,000 user are in the aquatic centre every week – vindication that the addition of the therapeutic pool was a good idea).

Compare the cost of our new facilities to the proposed $35 million multi-use facility: even with the upgrades to the Eddie Bush Memorial Arena added in, it is still less than half the proposed “Taj Mahal” facility. The same candidate said that the figure of $35 million was “spun” by others in the election, but again that’s not true: the figure comes straight from the report by the steering committee itself – the same committee the candidate himself sat on. See my earlier post on that proposal for the actual page.

Candidates have a responsibility to the public to present accurate and truthful information. If they cannot or will not, they should step out of the race.

I eagerly await the correction and apology from this candidate for presenting this misleading information to the public.

10/8/14

Clarifying Municipal Taxes


CartoonSome candidates seem confused about municipal taxes this election. I thought I’d clear up a few facts about property taxes for your (and their) benefit.

Property taxes are made up of three components: the municipal portion (roughly 60%), the county portion (24%) and the education portion (16%). The rate (also called the mill rate) for each portion is set independently by its own body (the province sets the education levy).

The total rate is called the blended rate. The town’s portion is the town-own rate. Usually the blended rate is used because that reflects best what homeowners see. The rate depends on the type of property you own: residential, commercial, industrial all have different rates. Single-family and multi-residential are also different.

Let’s look at how taxes were calculated in 2014 for a single-family house valued at $200,000:

Total taxes payable will be $2,526.31, broken down as follows:

  • Education levy $406.00
  • County levy $608.00
  • Town levy $1,512.32

The value of your home – of every home in Ontario – is set by MPAC, the Municipal Property Assessment Corp. This is an independent provincial agency headquartered in Pickering. It sets the value of your home through a computer model that looks at the value of properties around you and at real estate sales in your neighbourhood.

This model means your home value can increase whether you do anything to it or not.

Continue reading

08/31/14

Green initiatives for next term


LED lightsCollingwood should be in the forefront for green initiatives in Ontario, not lagging behind. There’s no reason we should not be leaders in exploring new ways to reduce greenhouse gases, reduce our carbon footprint, promote sustainable and environmentally-friendly strategies, and reduce our energy costs.

These will be some of my top goals for the 2014-18 council, if I’m re-elected.

In the energy world, we have a great partner with Powerstream, which has already explored many of these areas and taken steps in other municipalities. We should embrace and encourage similar projects here, and use the experience and expertise Powerstream has already developed to fast-track them. I have already spoken to their representatives and know they are willing and eager to help.

I recently asked at the council table for a report in installing electric vehicle charging stations in our municipal parking lots. Powerstream has already erected similar facilities – solar-powered stations as well as the standard charging stations – in Barrie and its headquarters. The Tesla company is donating stations to municipalities. Why don’t we have them here?

It’s time we did.

Charging stations do several things. First, they encourage local people to buy electric vehicles, thus reducing the GHG emissions. Second, they encourage visitors in such cars who might otherwise be reluctant to come here because they don’t know if they can make a return trip from the GTA on a single charge. “Charge anxiety” is thus reduced, tourism is increased.

Having municipal charging stations might get local car vendors to push more electric vehicle sales in their own lots, and could encourage others to open outlets to sell them. Which means the town could potentially move to electric vehicles in the future when replacing existing, older cars and trucks – meaning we would further reduce the municipality’s GHG emissions.

I expect the report on this proposal to come to council this fall and, if it is accepted, we might even see the first station erected in spring, 2015.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading