Against a panoramic backdrop of the city’s rich railway heritage, 15 of 19 candidates vying for the opportunity to shape the future of St. Thomas fielded a bevy of questions Wednesday (Sept. 26) at a sparsely attended town hall forum.
As was the case a week ago at a mayoral candidates forum, the event was hosted by three multi-media journalists and the guiding hand behind the city’s newest media outlet.
STEAM Education Centre board member Andrew Gunn served as moderator at the Elgin County Railway Museum while a trio of 16-year-old high school students – Jenn Klassen, Maddie King and Alex Popen – peppered the councillor hopefuls with questions covering a broad spectrum, from economic development to arts and culture and social issues.As is always the case with events such as this, many of the candidates responded with imaginative and insightful answers, while others skirted around issues or clearly deviated from the topic at hand.
The format for the evening featured a series of questions, each one directed at a group of five individuals.
Lori Baldwin-Sands, who served as an alderman from 2006 through 2014, feels moving forward economically, the city needs to invest in travel and tourism. Additionally, St. Thomas needs to “develop smart things,” that is assist in the development of small businesses through smart technology like fibre optic networks.
As for the city’s transit system, Baldwin-Sands stresses the question that needs to be asked is why are the vast majority of residents not taking advantage of the transit system?
Her dream projects for the city would include a new recreational facility, more affordable housing and the expansion of Valleyview Home.
Leslie Buchanan, manager of St. Thomas Cemetery Company, praised members of the current council for their decision to install the railway sculpture at the Gateway Roundabout in the city’s west end. As to attracting new industry to St. Thomas, she suggests turning to young people for their input as to the nature of new business endeavours the city should be pursuing.
Buchanan added the city needs to review the bus routes in St. Thomas, noting the provision of transit services is “a loss leader.”
Her dream project would the re-paving of all city roads.
First-time candidate Greg Graham suggests the city will benefit from the proposed high-speed rail line linking London to Toronto, and St. Thomas should be keying in on attracting any business to the area that it can.
While Fanshawe has developed a strong presence in the city, Graham wonders what sort of relationship can St. Thomas develop with Western University.
His dream project would be further development of a business incubator.
Rose Gibson, who has unsuccessfully campaigned in four previous municipal votes, says the city needs to further promote its railway heritage, calling it a diamond in the rough.
Turning to St. Thomas Transit, Gibson referred to it as “a thorn in my side for 30 years.” She stresses the need to review the bus routes with an eye to a flexible structure, depending on the time of day.
Her dream project would focus on transit and affordable housing.
Timothy Hedden suggests more effort has to be put into marketing tourism. Going a step further, he is proposing the pairing of economic development with tourism.
(Editor’s note: By way of clarification, Tim sent the following info to us via email: “In my rush to to summarize complex views in under sixty seconds one of my points came out a little muddled. The position I was advocating for would be a joint tourism and EDC staff member. Our Railway City Tourism office is doing great but one worker isn’t sufficient. My understanding is RCT is currently an EDC project to begin with.)
Noting he is a resident millennial, how about pursing the establishment of temporary working spaces to encourage the development of new small businesses, which would benefit from operating with short-term leases on office space.
He confirms he has used the transit system, “but I immediately went out and bought a used car afterward.”
A review of transit routes and hours of operation are a necessity, asserts Hedden, with an emphasis on an industrial route running on a schedule geared to shift workers. Also, explore the possibility of a bus route linking the Fanshawe campuses in St. Thomas and London
He notes the need for a hotel/conference centre in the city and his dream project would be a 400-seat performing arts centre.
Jim Herbert, long associated with St. Thomas-Elgin General Hospital, acknowledges the alarming number of discarded needles around the city “is a real problem for police.” He says the establishment of a safe injection site in St. Thomas “has to be approved by council.”
He applauds the work of the current council in redeveloping the west end of Talbot Street, adding the city needs to put teeth into the minimum property standards bylaw.
His dream project would be the addition of an MRI at St. Thomas-Elgin General Hospital.
“I don’t think there is a more serious social issue. We can’t do this alone. We will need lots of help.” – Coun. Mark Tinlin, on dealing with drug problems in the city.
Petrusia Hontar says the city needs more drop boxes for discarded needles, and the cost of introducing a safe injection site in the city needs to be looked at.
She would like to see more festivals held in the city’s downtown core and her dream project would involve more affordable housing in conjunction with a housing strategy.
Sitting councillor Jeff Kohler says the city needs to investigate the cost of additional needle drop-off locations, however he did not comment on the need for a safe injection site in St. Thomas.
He is in favour of an expanded Horton Market with increased promotion of the popular Saturday morning destination.
He promotes the establishment of a brown field strategy for the city, acknowledging this would require the involvement of upper tier government.
His dream project would see the development of industrial parks, in conjunction with Central Elgin and Southwold.
John Laverty, former board chairman and acting CEO at Ascent/St. Thomas Energy, notes the drug problem in St. Thomas is “large and complex.” Any strategy dealing with drug use “has to be long term.”
As to food entrepreneurship in the city, Laverty points out “we are surrounded by the most productive farm land in Canada,” noting “agribusiness and tourism go hand in hand.”
For revitalization of the city’s core area, Laverty stresses the need to encourage people to live downtown and the necessity for more affordable housing in the core.
Install free wi-fi in all city parks, adds Laverty, whose dream projects would focus on job creation, housing, the elimination of poverty, new infrastructure and a new performing arts centre.
Serge Lavoie, the driving force behind the St. Thomas Elevated Park, refers to the city’s drug problems as “a human tragedy,” which is largely “a mental health issue.” He adds “a safe injection site is necessary.”
He describes the Horton Market as a “business incubator,” but it has to operate on an expanded schedule.
The city needs to attract more businesses to the downtown core and, to do so, the minimum property standards bylaw has to be enforced.
Lavoie would like to see a downtown green space at the Elgin County Railway Museum, calling such a facility “the mother of all parks.” He would also like to see food trucks or pop-up shops on the city’s network of walking trails.
His dream project would see the “complete re-think of Talbot Street.”
Dave Mathers, former owner of St. Thomas Dragway in Sparta and Motion Lincoln Mercury in London, points out the St. Thomas Elgin Public Arts Centre is “a hidden gem” and city council should further support the facility.
Associated with Inn Out of the Cold, Mathers sees many users of the facility housed in Central United Church as “the walking poor,” a significant number who are dealing with mental health issues.
His dream project would see a hotel and convention centre locate in St. Thomas.
Former city mayor and Elgin-Middlesex-London MPP Steve Peters is calling for a better partnership with Central Elgin and Southwold.
He sees the city’s drug issues as “one of the most pressing problems” faced in St. Thomas.
He too is in favour of developing brown field sites in the city, and says it is time to look at developing the Fingal hill area, which Peters notes has been part of St. Thomas since 1991.
His dream projects would be a hospice for the city and a better relationship with Elgin county.
Coun. Joan Rymal stresses council needs to take a close look at funding for arts and culture in the city, with the understanding of how do you rationalize providing funds for one group over another.
Attention has to also be directed toward homelessness, stressing the need for affordable housing.
Her dream project is development of the Elgin County Railway Museum, which she refers to as “a treasure.” She adds, “It could become a world-class education centre.”
Coun. Linda Stevenson points out arts and culture in the city is not a frill, it’s essential. She adds council needs to take funding for these ventures out of the annual grant process. “Arts and culture is an investment well made,” she asserts.
How to deal with mental health issues is “a question that keeps me up at night,” confides Stevenson. “We need a funding partnership with higher levels of government.”
Her dream project would involve initiatives to keep young people in St. Thomas.
And Coun. Mark Tinlin insists the city does have a policy for doling out grant funds and it needs to be based on priorities. “I’m hearing about meat and potatoes issues like infrastructure.”
Looking at mental health problems in the city, Tinlin observes “I don’t think there is a more serious social issue. We can’t do this alone. We will need lots of help.”
His dream project is to develop St. Thomas as a “world-class destination,” and that can begin with the Elgin County Railway Museum.
A reminder that another mayoral candidates forum will be held 7 p.m. Oct. 5 at the Knights of Columbus Hall on Wellington Street. It is hosted by the Downtown Development Board and Rogers.
IT’S NOT ENOUGH TO JUST MANAGE HOMELESSNESS
Members of council Monday (Oct. 1) will be in receipt of the first-ever St. Thomas and Elgin county homeless enumeration, what is being referred to as “an important first step in ensuring that the goal to shift from managing homelessness to ending it gains valuable momentum and a renewed sense of urgency.”
The enumeration, mandated by the province, was conducted in April of this year with the city retaining the services of OrgCode Consulting, which works with non-profits, government, private companies and non-governmental organizations in an effort to achieve positive social change, according to their website.
The enumeration was, in fact, an actual survey conducted with individual homeless persons.
Its key finding determined there are 159 homeless persons in St. Thomas and Elgin, 33 of whom are children within homeless families completing the survey and 17 were individuals being sheltered by Violence Against Women Services Elgin County and who did not participate in the survey.
OrgCode stresses this is a minimum number “and almost certainly misses some of those homeless at the time of the enumeration,” according to Ralph West, the city’s housing services administrator.
In summarizing the survey results, West notes “Only 38% of those surveyed were “chronically homeless”, that is, they fit the conventional profile of what homelessness looks like.
“The remaining 62% were those who were homeless at the time of the survey, but may not have been had the survey taken place two months earlier or two months later.”
West added, the results show that homeless respondents include a high percentage of persons with mental health issues (52%) and substance use issues (30%).
He points out, “it is notable that equally high numbers of homeless persons have chronic health conditions (45%) and physical disabilities (30%).”
“Housing Services staff also believe that the homeless enumeration was an important shared exercise . . . in bringing the issue of homelessness and the composition of the homeless population to the attention of the community overall.”
An alarming finding is the percentage of those reporting aboriginal ancestry (20%) is approximately 10 times the percentage of aboriginal persons within the general population of St. Thomas and Elgin.
Another key finding indicated 25 of the 109 survey respondents were youth (under the age of 25), and of those, eight were between the ages of 16 and 18.
And the percentage of homeless women is virtually identical to that of homeless men.
Shifting the focus to recommendations, West notes the need for “development of a ‘no wrong door’ system of access to services for the homeless which ensures that each homeless person’s particular needs are identified and that they are then connected to the most appropriate sources of supports in meeting those needs.
“OrgCode also notes that the existing absence of a sufficient stock of safe affordable housing into which homeless persons can be ‘diverted’ from shelter use necessitates continued investment in temporary shelter solutions to provide at least minimum levels of assistance.”
Of particular note, OrgCode recommends the city’s Community Homeless Prevention Initiative funding be reallocated away from being used for homelessness prevention – which OrgCode deemed to be relatively ineffective – toward other uses better serving the homeless population.
In his summary to council, West observes “Housing Services staff also believe that the homeless enumeration was an important shared exercise which served not just to establish more accurately the extent and nature of the problem of homelessness within St.Thomas and Elgin county for the benefit of better informing collaborative practices addressing this problem, but also in bringing the issue of homelessness and the composition of the homeless population to the attention of the community overall.”
SO WHERE DOES THE MONEY GO?
The St. Thomas Police Service revealed this week it had recently executed the largest crystal meth bust in the city and the largest fentanyl seizure in the region.
The months-long investigation resulted in the seizure of a variety of drugs with a street value of over $466,000.
Also confiscated was almost $25,000 in cash and reader Tina Firth asked on Facebook, “what do they do with all the cash they seize during operations like this?”
Well Tina, we can assure you it doesn’t go toward a lavish staff Christmas party or new furnishings at police HQ.
Tanya Calvert, media relations officer with the St. Thomas Police Service, advised, “We do what is called a return to the justice system. It’s the magistrate that determines what happens to all that money. It’s all (considered) proceeds of crime.”
Dave Warden, Police Services Board chairman, added “It automatically goes to the magistrate. When the individuals appear in court and they are found guilty, the Crown then hands the money over to the province.
“In some cases, police services across Ontario can apply for grants and it’s called a proceeds from crime grant.”
Questions and comments may be emailed to: City Scope
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