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.

Vision 2020* identified eight similar but distinct “core values.” Again, my comments are in blue:

Collingwood

  1. As a community tucked into the centre of a region brimming with natural amenities, Collingwood is a stable, diversified and yearround (sic) community that strikes a balance between industry, commerce and recreation, allowing it to function as the service and economic hub for the greater area.
    No arguments there.
  2. All initiatives, policies, decisions and directions of the town are for the benefit of the residents and other visitors alike and further, they are always considered in conjunction with the regional context and other affected agencies or bodies.
    We have and continue to work cooperative with agencies, stakeholders, and other local municipalities towards common goals. See the South Georgian Bay Regional Economic Development Strategic Plan of June 2011, and Completing The Picture for two examples of regional thinking and cooperation.
  3. Collingwood understands that a shared community vision is best realized when communication with residents, visitors and the world beyond is regular, consistent, meaningful and participatory.
    We have improved communications this term, with the hiring of a communication officer and the release of several newsletters mailed directly to residents.
  4. Collingwood continually seeks to de-emphasize a strong dependence on vehicles and moves toward being a more pedestrian friendly, walkable town with a human scale.
    We commissioned and approved an active transportation study this term, and incorporated many of its principles in our planning and recreational services. Same with our urban design standards document.
  5. Collingwood respects, maintains, strengthens and promotes its cherished and unique heritage.
    The heritage district was established and bylaws put in place to protect it.
  6. The waterfront is the soul of the community and is its single most important asset. It is visible, accessible, and clean and all development on or near to it respects the Town of Collingwood’s core values and its vision.
    See recommendations, below. We installed new docks last year to help encourage more visitors. We have public access to the water, now, and more public space there than when the report was written.
  7. Collingwood is a good steward of its natural assets and continually improves its reputation as an environmentally sustainable and responsible community.
    See recommendations, below. A long battle over the Silver Creek wetlands has secured a significant portion of that property from future development, as environmentally-protected land.
  8. Growth and change are consistently monitored, evaluated and understood with new and creative solutions continually being sought and applied in a fiscally responsible manner that capitalizes on opportunities and manages challenges.
    Ongoing. We are designated as a growth area by the province and incorporated as such into the county’s official plan. We have brought our Official plan and Comprehensive Zoning bylaw up to date with goals and rules for future growth.
    As for fiscal responsibility, this term we have seen an average 0.5% tax increase, with significant debt reduction. See above.

There are too many recommendations in the V2020 Blueprint to deal with here, but I’ll comment on several of them so you can see how much progress this town has made since its release:

  • Send quarterly newsletters to every household (including tenanted units) with easy-to-read municipal updates via mail or Internet with readily accessible means for response.
    Although not quarterly, we have done several mailings to residents about the municipality and council this term, as per this recommendation.
  • Ensure that a range of tools is used to efficiently market Collingwood.
    We are currently rebuilding the structure of economic development office to work closely with our strategic partners. We are hiring an Marketing and Economic Development manager to promote and develop the town and coordinate those multi-agency initiatives.
  • Ensure that keeping the new Town website up to date is a priority. Ensure that the Internet and other emerging technologies are used as effective means to communicate both to, and with citizens.
    Ongoing. We hired a communications officer this term to manage the website and keep it up-to-date, along with her usage of social media for information sharing. We are currently interviewing for someone to help update old material on the recently-revised website on a short-term contract.
  • Hold informal, participatory and open “Town Hall” meetings for the public 3-4 times per year to discuss issues and promote shared values and visions between civic leaders and residents.
    We have open “coffee with council” meetings at town hall. Everyone is welcome.
  • Implement current, state-of-the-art technology into the Town Hall systems, including an intranet, on-line financial transactions (service, parking ticket payments, etc.) and applications (downloadable forms).
    Ongoing. The town’s excellent IT department works with other departments to keep hardware and software current and on the cutting edge where possible and affordable.
  • In co-operation with the Chamber of Commerce and other community organizations, make the “Station” a central box office for all area events and attractions.
    Done, but the Chamber moved out a few years ago. Currently the town is working with the Georgian Triangle Tourism Association to provide that service.
  • Investigate the widening of First Street — but investigate alternatives to the creation of a uniform 5-lane road.
    Done, but the Ministry of Transportation – which paid 90% of the widening cost – put the kibosh on more elegant designs (such as a landscaped median strip) and required it to be a five-lane road. The town provided landscaping and trees to improve the appearance.
  • Investigate the increased and possibly the eventual complete subsidization of public transit, along with greater promotion and publication of public transport (bus) routes.
    Done. Three bus routes serve the town now. Plus we offer free bus service for some special events or occasions, such as New year’s eve.
  • To complement increased usage of bicycle transportation, investigate the possibility of fitting in-town and regional busses (sic) with bikeracks (sic).
    Done. 
  • Develop a regional bus route with shared responsibility between Collingwood and neighbouring communities. Ensure that developing a link with the Village at Blue Mountain is a priority for this.
    Done. This term we launched a bus route to Wasaga Beach and another to Blue Mountain.
  • Actively promote bike lanes and bicycle transportation by ensuring additional bike lock posts around the Town.
    Done downtown. Bike racks are required in new commercial development now. The Active Transportation Study was accepted in 2012. A new bicycle lane is being added at Sunset Point this year.
  • Complete the system of proposed trails and ensure that adequate links between public and private trails, bike lanes and other routes are developed, as well as connecting links to all new developments and to other communities.
    Ongoing as new developments are built.
  • Establish a deadline for the Airport to become a) regionally supported and b) self-sufficient; failing which, the airport should be sold/privatized and the (approximately $100,000.00) subsidization costs of the airport be re-directed into other transportation initiatives.
    Done. The airport board has members from Clearview and Wasaga Beach. To date, Blue Mountain has refused to participate despite numerous invitations.
  • Formally recognize the Downtown Core as being more than the current four-block designated area. Coordinate Downtown zoning / Downtown Collingwood/BIA areas to include the North side of First Street, as well as the southerly points bounded by Fifth Street/Hume Street. Consider extending C2 zoning to these streets.
    BIA boundaries include some of the proposed waterfront development and parts of Hume Street.
  • Ensure that the relationship (roles and responsibilities) between the Town and the Downtown Collingwood/BIA be formalized to ensure efficiency in matters of planning, capital expenditures and maintenance as they relate to shared initiatives.
    The town has always works closely with the BIA board for such projects and initiatives, with shared costs and responsibilities in many areas.
  • Investigate the issues around the establishment of summer-time downtown market(s) (farmers market, book market, art market, or a schedule of different markets in the same venue). Ensure that issues surrounding competition with existing retail/cultural events are considered during the planning of this market.
    Farmers’ market has been established for many years now and is held throughout the summer and into the fall.
  • Only if user numbers warrant it, support plans for an expanded library, including an expanded book collection and electronic information network. Support the renovation of the library only as need and numbers demonstrate.
    Library expansion was approved in 2006, the new building finished last term, and the library continues to grown in use and popularity today. Numbers clearly demonstrated the need for an expanded/new library facility.
  • Support the need for a second-ice-surface and/or look at the cost of better upkeep for the already existent (outdoor) ice surfaces.
    Second ice surface was constructed last year at Central Park, and the outdoor ice surface upgraded and improved in conjunction with the Curling Club upgrades.
  • Develop a plan to revitalize and beautify the First Street corridor and convert it to a “Grand Avenue.”
    Done and completed. See above.
  • Develop pedestrian, bike-lane and trail (carless) links between the Downtown core and the Western node.
    Done: trails development is always ongoing. A three-metre-wide sidewalk along First Street allows cyclists and pedestrians to safely use that corridor.
  • Recognize the demand for “heritage” values and associated aesthetic elements.
    Heritage district created, heritage committee established, bylaws in place.
  • Animate the downtown!Encourage the development of a “downtown fun” plan which could include:
    • and street musicians
    • sidewalk and public art
    • sculptures (but no Elvis statues please!)
    • planned flowers
    • creative use of colour

    Ongoing. Street art and small events (i.e. Local Lunch) established, busking allowed and encouraged. Downtown flower beds installed, plus hanging baskets. Banners on the lampposts provide awareness of cultural events and showcase local artists. Art chairs downtown during the summer.

  • Investigate the possibility of utilizing alleyways behind Hurontario (Pine/Ste. Marie) for either additional retail space and/or additional housing possibilities.
    Done. BIA currently engaged in developing and beautifying laneways. A presentation to council and public information session was held last month. Plans available from the BIA office.
  • Allow more outdoor cafe-style seating on the sidewalks. Encourage restaurants to offer outdoor service and create incentives/by-law amendments to allow for outdoor patios.
    Done: patios allowed downtown, freedom of location assured by this council, and they have proven successful.
  • Continue to enhance the Town’s green-spaces, including parks – engage in a program of qualitative and quantitative improvement.
    Ongoing. This council approved upgrades of several public spaces and parks, including new surface for tennis courts, additional leash-free areas for dogs and a labyrinth in Harbourview Park. Plus we purchased Fisher Field for our soccer club users.
  • Wherever possible, promote visual and physical access to the waterfront. Consider access issues as they relate to a potential pedestrianized area at the waterfront.
    Waterfront access in Shipyards is provided through a pedestrian walkway around the shoreline, and the berm/amphitheatre provides additional public space for activities and performances.
  • Consider a commercial component in the Parks Master Plan so as to allow for waterfront restaurants.
    Approved in Shipyards development, but not constructed (yet). We have dedicated $100,000 to upgrade the canteen at Sunset Point this year, including a new patio.
  • Develop a program to extend the Downtown retail/commercial element to the waterfront.
    Done.
  • More signature events are a good thing! Develop signature events that are inclusive of all age groups. Draw tourists from different demographic communities and, thus, provide opportunities for Collingwood’s different demographic communities. Elvis festival, Electronic Music Festival, Busking Festival.
    Ongoing – working with various private sector agencies and individuals to create and host events. We also have a special events coordinator in the PRC department.
  • Invest in heritage-style street signs for the Downtown streets and possibly for other designated areas.
    Done and installed.
  • Ensure that there is sufficient signage to direct people to the municipal parking lots.
    Done and installed.
  • Ensure that making a decision about the future function of the Terminals is a priority.
    Done. Terminals are designated a heritage building, and were advertised in an MLS real estate listing for sale. Some interest but no committed buyer yet.
  • Reserve land for an outdoor bandshell. As with the previous recommendations, establish strategic partnerships so that this facility gets built.
    No bandshell, but an amphitheatre was built at the north end of the berm, on the waterfront. Also the greenspace north of the Terminals has been developed for events and activities including concerts (used by Wakestock recently).
  • Support the existing master-plan for a public marina with public boating access including amenities for gas, pumping facilities, etc.)
    Done: new docks added last year and a plan for additional docks was presented in 2014 (not approved for budgetary reasons, but still planned). The rest is ongoing.
  • Ensure that a portion of the waterfront area is allowed to regenerate to a natural state, and that it remain off-limits to all but the most sensitive form of human encroachment.
    Done: the berm is a “natural” site and there are natural locations for wildlife built in the harbour. Plus there are protected natural areas in Harbourview Park, White’s Bay and near Eden Oak.
  • Support measures to improve the Sewage Treatment plant facilities to reduce odour.
    Done and ongoing. More remedial construction is planned for 2014.
  • Ensure the enforcement of the current userpay system for garbage removal.
    Waste management is now done by the county, not the town. A one-bag-per-week system is in place, with a green bin system and extended recycling opportunities. The county offers a user-pay system for additional bags.
  • Actively promote cost-savings associated with energy efficiency and retrofitting.
    Energy savings from the new LEEDS-standard municipal building (library) and the two new Sprung structures (Centennial Pool and the Central Park arena) have been publicized, including in our newsletters. We have also raised the issue of installing solar panels on municipal facilities (ongoing).
  • Support a program to encourage the phase out of residential pesticide usage.
    Done, but a provincial law superseded the (stronger) municipal bylaw.
  • Support an anti-idling policy and promote this policy along-side improved public education on the effects of automotive emissions.
    Done: we have an anti-idling bylaw.
  • Ensure that green-space, wildlife corridors and linkages to existing and future trails and pathways are requirements of all new housing developments. Do not allow these requirements to be “traded” for other concessions. Ensure that they remain non-negotiable.
    Ongoing, and raised as recently as the June 2 council meeting.
  • Investigate the improvement of public transit (e.g. via subsidization, marketing, etc.) and consider the possibility of a “tourist” transit system. Ensure that such a system is resident/youth friendly.
    Done: three buses serve the community along with two regional buses and accessible transportation vehicles.
  • Create a regional transportation initiative (e.g. a bus) that links Collingwood with key Georgian Triangle towns on a frequent and consistent basis.
    Done, see above.
  • Promote and encourage the development of housing for seniors that provides for a continuum of needs from independent living to full care.
    Ongoing in cooperation with the private sector and the county. Approvals for a four-storey seniors’ residence downtown were granted in late 2006, although the development was never completed.
  • Aggressively promote and encourage residential intensification including additions and/or conversions to provide for accessory units, granny flats/garden suites and duplexes which also acknowledge the need for strict bylaws pertaining to property standards.
    Done and incorporated into the Official Plan and zoning bylaws.
  • Establish a housing registry that matches landlords and tenants, identifies opportunities for intensification, works with industry and other regional municipalities in setting affordable resident housing targets, monitors outcomes and provides consulting, perhaps as in above.
    Done by a local NGO which works with and is partially funded by the town.
  • Investigate options re: Admiral school to be used as a “lodge” for transitional/seasonal worker housing or, affordable year round housing.
    Impractical: the property is privately owned (it was never the town’s) and a combined commercial-residential development is approved for the site. The former building was problematic for continued or residential use because of its asbestos and construction. However, the town did build affordable, rent-geared-to-income apartments on High Street, in cooperation with the county.
  • Ensure that there are height-restrictions in place for all new multiplex dwellings that are in-keeping with the Town’s vision for development on a human scale.
    Done. We also have a new Urban Standards Guideline to help developers create more human-scale structures.
  • Regional transportation link – Georgian Triangle bus route, core-to-core and linking “capital” towns. This should be a high priority, with key emphasis on negotiating a link with the new Village at the earliest possible time.
    Done: see above.
  • Ensure levels of service re: Police, Fire, ambulance are maintained and/or improved during upcoming growth.
    Ongoing. New fire hall built this term to accommodate expanded and enhanced service; police building upgraded and enhanced to permit improved service requirements. Ambulance service is now maintained by the county.
  • Continue to publicize how tax dollars are spent – i.e. by using a published, user friendly format that clearly shows the breakdown of each tax dollar, and also provides comparative information for previous years’ tax structure. Provide this information on the Town’s web-site as well.
    Ongoing. Newsletters were sent this term to all residents to inform and advise them on programs, budget and new facilities. Plus we hired a communications officer this term.
  • Prepare a program to better educate citizens on the cost of government and its various initiatives (i.e. the cost to maintain roads, widen them, infrastructure and so on…).
    Ongoing during improved budget presentations and discussions. Also, information on recent initiatives was provided in the newsletters sent this term.
  • Support, in principle, the notion of user-pay programs for municipal services. Review plans for user-fees for municipal services (garbage, ice-rink, etc.).
    Ongoing. Garbage is a county issue. All municipal facilities have their user fee structures presented and approved during the budget.

There are more, but this should be sufficient to show that these plans and their recommendations do not go unheeded or are forgotten.

These, of course, are not the only strategic plans the town has had. A Sustainable Community Plan was unveiled in 2009 and adopted by council, the Urban Design Standards manual was unveiled and adopted in 2011. We have an Official Plan that is regularly updated. Plus there have been many ancillary reports such as the Active Transportation Study that shape policies and planning in an ongoing manner.

And, of course, there are strategic planning sessions, which may not result in a similar document, but help identify council’s common priorities for staff. This council has actually had two such sessions this term.

As I said earlier in this post: these reports don’t simply gather dust on shelves. Even long after they have been presented and the public has forgotten them, they still influence planning and policy. Numerous terms of council, along with staff, have helped promote and implement these suggestions and ideals.
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* While I was not part of the original V2020 group, I was appointed by council to its second term and served from 2000 to 2003. My main area of interest on the committee was in implementing the environmental issues raised in the Blueprint.