On the lunch menu with St. Thomas Mayor Joe Preston: housing, transit and smart growth

city_scope_logo-cmykIt was a particularly effervescent Joe Preston who took to the podium this past Wednesday for the area mayor’s luncheon at St. Anne’s Centre.

Sharing the spotlight with Southwold Mayor Grant Jones and Central Elgin Mayor Sally Martyn, Preston was not only bubbling over with enthusiasm, but he also came in three minutes under the allotted 10-minute time slot.
And, made a promise of better city transit by the end of this year, guaranteed.
Preston opened with, “St. Thomas, what a great place to be the mayor.”
He continued, “I have been mayor for little over a year and it’s been an extra-special time.”
After thanking the city councillors, he observed, “Boy, do we employ some pretty good people . . . I’m here to tell you’re in pretty good shape.
“We’re in good shape at being able to run this community in an efficient way with smart people doing it.”

Preston then outlined the three priorities for council, both last year and continuing forward.
Topping the list is housing.
“And we really went after it. Council has really tried to look at being much, much stronger on creating housing here in St. Thomas.”
That includes the recent opening of the new social services hub at 230 Talbot Street, with city-owned housing above the main floor offices.
Joe Preston jpg“But this council said this is not enough,” continued Preston.
“Within the last two or three weeks, we’ve had a special meeting on how we can move forward with more housing.
“I don’t think you can wipe the smile off the faces of our homebuilders. They’re building as fast as they possibly can . . . and we need that.”
Preston stressed the need for market-rent apartments and he speculated, “There is a shortage of over 1,500 market-rent apartments in our community right now.”
He reminded the gathering of community leaders present, “We can’t serve the people of St. Thomas if they can’t find a place to live.”
The launch of a year-round shelter in St. Thomas illustrates the dire need for more affordable housing in the city.
In spite of that Preston, ever the cheerleader for St. Thomas, noted: “We’re very proud that a community our size fondly can say we have what it takes to be a modern, larger city and we’re doing it.”
After housing on the priority list is transit, advised Preston, and that includes a regional bus system.
Linking Aylmer and Port Stanley to St. Thomas and ultimately the return of a transit link to London.
“If we can get the regional transportation in place, that will start to happen. And whether it’s health services in London, or the university or Fanshawe, or just plain going to visit people, the freedom will be back again by living in St. Thomas and being able to share with our neighbours around us.”

“St. Thomas is growing at better than a thousand people a year. We will reach 50,000 (in population) sometime in this decade. We can’t do that just by watching the sign change at the highway.”

As for the city’s transit system, Preston put it bluntly.
“It leaves way too much to be desired. Our transit system doesn’t run on Sundays and it doesn’t run past 6:30 at night.”
Preston reminded those in attendance the city has approval from the provincial government to help institute a full seven-day service operating over longer hours.
“We’re waiting for the federal government to finish their part of that plan. But we will be moving the people of St. Thomas around St. Thomas and to the region way better by the end of the year. You have my word.”
The third priority, stressed Preston, is smart growth.
“St. Thomas is growing at better than a thousand people a year. We will reach 50,000 (in population) sometime in this decade.
“We can’t do that just by watching the sign change at the highway.”
The needed services have to be built to be able to house that growing population and provide jobs and recreational facilities like parks and hiking trails.
“We can’t grow if we don’t grow all of those things. And, we continue to call it smart growth. We need to grow everything at once.”
That growth will be outward to the west approaching Talbotville.
“It will be a major endeavour for this city to run sewer and water to it, but it will give us a lot more housing lots for the homebuilders in our community for St. Thomas to continue to grow.”
Preston concluded his remarks by noting, “I’m proud to be a member of a council that is able to accomplish as much as we have this year. We’ve got a couple of more years to go so watch how we do.”

Listen to Mayor Joe Preston’s full presentation here.


Twice last spring, Coun. Lori Baldwin-Sands attempted to get her fellow council members to declare a climate emergency in St. Thomas.
In both instances, the majority of council did not take the bait. But, at no time did any member deny the growing impact of climate change on the planet.
The eight other members of council – including Coun. Steve Peters – stressed the need for some sort of long-term strategic plan at city hall to deal with climate change.
Mayor Joe Preston advised at the time, “We are taking huge steps forward, but I don’t think we have to declare an emergency.”
City manager Wendell Graves reminded council a component of the 2019 budget was a review of the municipality’s strategic plan.
With a focus on energy conservation, renewable energy and ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
“We have moved ahead on some of these,” advised Graves.
And, that includes transit, where the recently completed Transit Strategic Plan urges the city to explore electric bus technology.
Well, that’s not enough for area climate activists who will appear before council next month.
In an email sent this week to council members from Julie Berry entitled ‘How’s that Climate Action Plan coming? See you February 10,’ she refers to those motions put forward on two occasions by Baldwin-Sands.
Berry writes, “Since September 20, 2019 citizens of St. Thomas and Elgin county have met in front of city hall every single Friday in an effort to keep this matter current.”

GLOBAL CLIMATE STRIKE GROUPFor the sake of accuracy, it is worth noting some of those were poorly attended.
Berry continues, “Letters I have sent have gone unanswered for the most part. My thanks to Mayor Joe Preston for his response. We are looking forward to the February 10 city council meeting next month and I hope to hear your answers to these questions.
“What is stopping you, Mr. Preston, Mr. Kohler, Mr. Peters, Mr. Herbert, Mr. Tinlin, Mr. Clarke, Ms. Rymal, and Ms. Stevenson from supporting the declaration of a climate emergency in St. Thomas?

“Declare a climate emergency and create a dedicated team of people to begin the formulation of a strong, meaningful action plan for St. Thomas.”

“What do you know that the municipalities of Central Elgin, Chatham-Kent, London, Peterborough, Windsor, etc. etc, do not know?
“Is it the reality of climate change you don’t accept? Is the price too high? Is the word emergency too alarming?”
The tone of those queries should prompt debate that evening.
Berry goes on to urge members of council “to be the political leaders we need at this time.”
Berry adds, “Action, insight and strong leadership are crucial in the world that we live in at this time. You cannot go on ignoring what is going on all over the world.
“You don’t have to take my word for it, just open your eyes, your minds, and your hearts. Declare a climate emergency and create a dedicated team of people to begin the formulation of a strong, meaningful action plan for St. Thomas.”
She concludes, “I am pretty sure you know there is federal money in the form of grants available to municipalities who are taking on programs that will help achieve goals to mitigate carbon emissions and tackle other environmental initiatives for our city.
“If you did not know this, just google “Municipalities for Climate Innovation Program” along with FCM (Federation of Canadian Municipalities).
“As the website says, you will be assisted in helping to ‘build sustainable and reliable services in your community while you tackle climate change and its effects.’ They will provide funding, resources and training.”
You have to look further, Julie, toward the new home of the St. Thomas Police Service and the recently opened social services and housing campus at 230 Talbot Street to see city administrators are already well down that road.

Related post:



The disruption on Elm Street will continue this year, only further east this time.
The stretch of road to be rebuilt extends from Peach Tree Boulevard to Centennial Avenue, with construction scheduled to begin mid-April.

Elm Street reconstructedjpg

The reconstruction of the east end of Elm Street will mirror the cross-section of the recently completed west end rebuild.

In his report to council Monday, the city’s senior technologist Terry Koning outlines the scope of the project.
“The existing roadway is a rural cross-section that consists of gravel shoulders, ditches, and no sidewalk for pedestrians.
“Harvest Run subdivision is currently under construction and requires a left-turn lane addition for the new Renaissance Drive intersection.
“The timing of the project was ideal to continue the ongoing development in the area and provide an updated roadway to current urbanized standards.”
According to Koning, the work will include, “catchbasin installations, widening the roadway to allow for two driving lanes, a dual left-turn lane, two bike lanes, new curb and gutter and sidewalk promenade on both sides of the roadway.”
In addition, a flashing pedestrian crossing will be installed at the intersection of Elm Street and the north leg of the Angus McKenzie Trail.
The winning tender bid was from J-AAR Excavating in the amount of $1.3 million, excluding HST. The final cost, including contingency, will be in the $1.5 million range.
An amount of $1.6 million was included in this year’s city budget.
Koning notes the city will receive $100,000 from Central Elgin as the sidewalk on the north side of Elm Street will be of benefit to residents of that municipality.
Once work begins, the contractor will have 40 working days to complete the undertaking. Meaning a completion date toward the end of June.


Our item last week on the former home of Alma College on Moore Street prompted the following posting to the City Scope blog site from Lara Leitch, former vice-principal at the school for girls and a member of the Alma Advocacy Association.

“It is disheartening to see the current city council dismiss the decisions of the city council of 2008-2010 – namely repealing the existing bylaw designating 96 Moore Street as a building of historic and architectural value and endorsing the heritage easement agreement between the city and Patriot Properties, developers of the three-tower residential undertaking there.
“If the property is to be gated and private, the minor items of commemoration will not even be seen except the ugly squat chunk of metal symbolizing Alma. That was not Alma!
“Alma was a huge monument of stone and brick symbolizing St. Thomas ‘gothic’ architecture from the late 1800s. The towers and spires could be seen from afar. Surely, at least one such tower with spire could be built and perhaps used as the entrance to one of the proposed buildings.”

The item outlining a request from The Railworks Coalition request municipal property tax relief was the basis for this email from John Kanakos, a restoration and acquisitions volunteer at the Elgin County Railway Museum.

“If St. Thomas is going to call itself the Railway City, then support needs to be given to those organizations which promote this image.
“Many millions of dollars are brought into St. Thomas as a result of this branding. Hotels, motels, restaurants, gas stations, and all kinds of businesses benefit from tourists visiting the city.
“Extra taxes are collected which benefit the citizens of St. Thomas directly. It is very short-sighted to financially burden these attractions and possibly force them to close.
“May I also add that it is impossible to run these organizations with well-meaning, part-time volunteers as someone needs to do all the planning, etc., required to keep them viable. And someone needs to be responsible financially.”


Income tax season is just around the corner and MP Karen Vecchio sends along word the Community Volunteer Income Tax Program is looking for volunteers to assist with free tax clinics for low-income members in Elgin-Middlesex-London riding.
Her office is working with Canada Revenue Agency to recruit community-oriented individuals to help area residents file their tax returns and maintain eligibility for various federal credits and benefits.
Training is provided and interested volunteers are asked to call Cathy in MP Vecchio’s office at 519-637-2255.

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