‘A lot of pride in the things I’ve had a small fingerprint on’ – outgoing St. Thomas city manager Wendell Graves


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It all started with a high school geography course so many years ago.
As city manager Wendell Graves reflected back on his years of public service on Feb. 25, his final day at city hall, his attention turned to a particular field trip that would be “the ignition point” for what would become a four-decade career path.
“Don Cann was the teacher and he brought us on an afternoon field trip to city hall and specifically to the planning department. And that was my initial ignition point. I had never been in city hall before.
“My roots are in the city. I graduated eons ago from Locke’s Public School and then Arthur Voaden and the influence those institutions had on my career path has been tremendous.
“I give a shout out to all those kids who sit behind those desks or in front of a screen. There is so much opportunity here in the city for them to grow their careers and that is really important.
“And a fulfilling career as well.”

After graduating, Graves enrolled in the urban design program at Fanshawe College which led to co-op placement in the planning department at city hall.
He ultimately earned his master’s in public administration at Western.Wendell Graves

Additionally, he holds professional designations from the Association of Municipal Clerks and Treasurers of Ontario, the Ontario Association of Certified Engineering Technicians and Technologists (Civil) and the National Trust Mainstreet Institute in Washington D.C.
After serving for 10 years as CAO at the Town of Aylmer, Graves moved to St. Thomas to become city clerk in 2004. He was promoted to CAO/clerk in April of 2011.
And then to city manager, through a reorganization at city hall based on a recommendation of the Dobbie Report of 2014.
Looking back on those 18 years, Graves says it is difficult at times to recognize the city.
“You lose sight of all the really cool things our team has been able to advance on over time. I think about the transformation of the L&PS corridor for example.”
It is now a walking trail linking the southern end of the city with downtown.
“I was looking at some photos of the physical condition of the CASO building when I first arrived. Just to see all of those assets rejuvenated, like the courthouse project.”
The initial work on what was to become the consolidated courthouse – a $250 million undertaking – began in February of 2011.
“Those are pretty significant pieces in this city,” reminded Graves, “and it is really neat to see the transformations.”
Also significant are Graves’ contributions to social housing in St. Thomas.

“I think what’s really important about those two projects is it’s not only about housing, it’s about having a system in place that provides some supports to the vulnerable folks who will make those addresses their home.”

That includes the community and social services hub at 230 Talbot Street and Phase 2 now underway on Queen Street along with the Railway City Lofts at the downtown transit building.
“That certainly has been a priority for the city in the last couple of years,” noted Graves. “It has been really good to foster some relationships and there are a few projects underway to continue that.
“It’s a bit tough to observe the economy when we see the cost of even trying to get into the real estate market just climbing and climbing and making housing so unaffordable for so many.
“It’s been great to be part of the team to help bring additional housing.
“I think what’s really important about those two projects is it’s not only about housing, it’s about having a system in place that provides some supports to the vulnerable folks who will make those addresses their home.”
Factor in commercial growth and you get a real sense of transformation in St. Thomas.
“We see the redevelopment of the Timken site and that’s been a major corner in the city and to see that unfolding and so many other projects.

“One of the most critical building pieces for me when I look back is to recognize and latch on to mentors. Positive mentors who can guide you and help you along your pathway. I think that is so critical.”

“There’s the advancements at the airport to attract additional business.”
Along with the rebirth of the Elgin Centre, particularly now with the construction of the Holiday Inn underway.
Another detour down memory lane is appropriate on Graves’ part.
“When the Elgin Mall was first going up that was my very first job working as a high school student at the K-Mart store in the camera department. I spent a few years behind that counter.”
As he closes the book on this chapter of his life, Graves offers a piece of advice for any high school student today contemplating a career in municipal governance.
“One of the most critical building pieces for me when I look back is to recognize and latch on to mentors. Positive mentors who can guide you and help you along your pathway. I think that is so critical.
“So many youths miss out on opportunities, perhaps, because they don’t have those positive mentors to help guide them.”

“I’m really excited about the future for the city. I know there are a lot of exciting things on the horizon that I’m going to look forward to seeing come to fruition.”

Graves had some good ones in Howard Gibson, former director of planning at the city and Pat Keenen who still inhabits the planning office.
And then there was that teacher at Arthur Voaden who went on to also fashion a career for himself at city hall.
“Cliff Barwick and I still talk about that,” admitted Graves.
And then Graves stops to ponder.
“One of the things as I came to work every day that I continue to keep in front of me is not only is the city an entity that provides a broad suite of municipal services, but we’re also an employer.
“With our 450-plus employees, there is a lot to manage on that side of the equation as well.”
Plenty of responsibility. Will he leave the office for the final time with any regrets?
“I have no regrets. I am just humbled to be part of all that we have been able to advance. I’ve had amazing mayors and councils to work with and amazing management team partners and staff.
“I have no regrets, I just can’t believe that amount of time has flown by.”
Graves put that into a different context.
With the time spent in a similar capacity in the Town of Aylmer, Graves figures he has attended a minimum of 850 council meetings in his career.
“That’s a lot of Monday nights,” he chuckled.
“I am going to miss it but I’m ready for a change. I don’t really like the word retirement, I’m going to reinvent myself a little bit and do some fun things.
“I’m really excited about the future for the city. I know there are a lot of exciting things on the horizon that I’m going to look forward to seeing come to fruition.”
In the coming months and years, as the former city manager traverses the downtown core, what will run through his mind?
“A lot of pride in the things I’ve had a small fingerprint on. And, a lot of pride in seeing this team continue to move forward on the initiatives that will unfold.”

“You spend your whole career working and ultimately planning for this day and so today feels really natural for me that things are in a good place and I’m ready to move on. So I feel really good.”

One of those about to unfold is one of his pet projects, Wellington Street Public School.
“Council has authorized a lease for that building, a good chunk of it,” advised Graves.
“It’s been in the works for a number of months. In the next few weeks, there is going to be some activity there, some interior renovations and then the tenant moves in.”
With Sandra Datars Bere now at the helm, what advice did he pass along?
“I’m so pleased council selected here as the candidate. She is so highly qualified and she doesn’t need a lot of advice. She knows it is a team effort.”
As to the future, Graves can’t wait to start the reinvention process.
“Next week I will be tapping maple trees. I am looking forward to not having to end my workday at 4:30 and then boil sap until 2 in the morning. I will be able to do all that in daylight hours.”
He is also a pretty fair artist as his mural “Amusements” will attest.
But, that’s a whole new chapter I’m sure we’ll tap into down the road.
The last word is yours, Wendell.
“You spend your whole career working and ultimately planning for this day and so today feels really natural for me that things are in a good place and I’m ready to move on. So I feel really good.”
SALARY DISCLOSURES

With the teasing of spring-like weather, this weekend we know March is upon us and the time change is just around the corner.
It also heralds the annual report from the city’s HR department with the public sector salary disclosure, in this case for 2021.
This is the listing of the municipal employees who earned $100,000 or more the previous year as per the Public Sector Salary Disclosure Act of 1996.
Sandra Schulz, director of human resources, advises 132 employees earned more than $100,000 last year, which is down from 138 in 2020.
She explains, “The difference in the total number of employees is primarily due to midyear retirements and resignations of an incumbent in a position.”
The list includes 54 from the police service (the same number as in 2020), 46 from the fire department (49 in 2020) and 32 from other city departments (35 in 2020).
Topping the list again is St. Thomas Police Chief Chris Herridge at $208,752 ($202,472 in 2020).
Other notable salaries with the 2020 figure in brackets:
Wendell Graves, city manager, $203,584 ($200,592)
Justin Lawrence, director of environmental services, $159,114 ($156,785)
Bob Davidson, departed fire chief, $157,030 ($151,582)
Dan Sheridan, director of city finances and city treasurer, $149,890 ($139,746)
Sean Dyke, CEO Economic Development Corp., $139,387 ($137,348)
Maria Konefal, city clerk, $139,387 ($135,611)
Michael Carroll, Valleyview administrator, $137,049 ($135,041)
Luigi Pompilii, director of planning and building services, $136,856 (new)
Heather Robinson, CEO St. Thomas Public Library, $132,467($130,521)
Sandra Schulz, director of human resources, $130,147 (new)
FOR THE CALENDAR

As Russian forces continue their deadly assault on Ukraine, efforts are underway in St. Thomas to raise funds and support Ukrainians.March for Ukraine fundraiser 2 (1)

Petrusia Hontar, project manager at St. Thomas-Elgin Local Immigration Partnership, advises a fundraiser is scheduled for March 22 at the CASO station in St. Thomas.
She says, “Because I do have Ukrainian heritage, I was trying to figure out things I can do to support the cause.
“So, we’re looking at doing a fundraiser on March 22 and I’m trying to help local businesses that want to participate in some way but not necessarily with a specific event.
“So I’m supporting them and trying to find which charity and where to donate.”
The fundraiser will be held at the CASO station from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. and will be an opportunity to learn more about the country and its residents.
“We’ll have some food, we’re going to try and bring in elements of Ukrainian culture.
“We want to use this as an opportunity to help the St. Thomas community understand a little bit more about who the Ukrainian people are.
“And, I’m trying to get some Ukrainian performers to come as well.”
To find out more or to participate in the fundraiser, email phontar@gmail.com.
THE ECHO CHAMBER

Our feature on MP Karen Vecchio last week generated several responses, including this from Susan Gerry.

“I agree with Karen who has always demonstrated class. My question to her is this: What do you do about the people who adamantly refuse to get vaccinated, refuse to isolate when ill and refuse to follow guidelines to keep everyone else from becoming ill?”

Leo Anthony has this observation.

“I had heard that Karen made an inspiring speech in the House, but I had not had an opportunity to replay it. Thanks for summarizing it. It was every bit as inspiring, or more so than I had heard.”

And Dennis Kalichuk forwarded his thoughts.

“Nice to see Karen being recognized for her respectful approach in the house.
“We all know there is currently an upsetting amount of disrespect and discord all across our land. I think it’s very difficult being a politician in these times – they can’t catch a break no matter what they think, say or do.
“I think many forget just how terrifying it was when the virus first showed up in China, Italy and Europe, killing people by the thousands.
“And then, when it first showed up here, and most Canadians and people around the globe hoped and prayed for some kind of cure or vaccine to be developed as quickly as possible.
“Imagine the fallout on our politicians if people felt like they didn’t do anything, or enough, to protect us?
“They’re virtually in a no-win situation and I think that generally they have, and are, doing the best they can and using what they feel is the best approach.
“Our governments have enlisted the very best experts available in the pertinent fields to advise them and listen to their advice. “If you haven’t yet, check out Ontario’s Science Table of advisors. The collective wisdom, expertise and experience in that group is wildly impressive and absolutely astounding.”

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And a reminder, I can be heard weekday afternoons as news anchor and reporter on 94.1 myFM in St. Thomas. As always, your comments and input are appreciated.

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