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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