After a much-enjoyed two-week Christmas hiatus, City Scope returns eager to document what transpires in the new year and what got us to this point over the past 365 days.
When looking back at 2022 – the fourth and final year for the previous municipal council – St. Thomas Mayor Joe Preston lists housing as the top story. And Preston is quick to add growth in the city is not going to stop any time soon.
“We’re excited with what we’ve been able to accomplish on housing and have left bookmarks as to how we can move forward.
“Yes, it’s probably the Number 1 story across Ontario and we feel very comfortable with St. Thomas at all ranges, from the homeless side to the single-family homes side, have made incredible progress.”
Preston goes on to note the work undertaken in the past four years paves the way for what needs to be accomplished on the housing front by the recently elected council.
In reflecting on other accomplishments of city council in the past year, Preston turns to the acquisition of 800 acres of farmland east of Highbury Avenue.
An undertaking he calls “good future thinking.”
“Our land acquisition project came with great thought that our city has to grow and you can’t leave out jobs or you become a bedroom community for someone else.
“As a community of 45,000 people, what we have to plan for are jobs, roads, housing, amenities and the commercial side of that.”
Preston firmly believes the land acquisition “is going to turn into a huge benefit for the city.”
With the opening early in 2023 of the Amazon facility in Southwold and the Maple Leaf Foods processing plant in south London, Preston advises the need for regional transit will have to be addressed.
“We’ve been trying to work with those industries so we know what the timing would be. The opening dates and how fast you will be hiring employees.
“And, working with London on this also, both former mayor Ed Holder and I were on a transportation committee with Minister (Caroline) Mulroney from the province and one of the purposes of the committee was to talk about regional transit.
“The one that’s missing the most is the connection between London and St. Thomas. Even to the point whether that can be a GO Bus connection.
“The municipalities can’t end up paying for it, the province has to help us with that in order to not hit the taxpayers in the communities on either side.
“I expect 2023 can be the year that it happens.”
Not to be overlooked, reminds Preston, is the importance of having an airport serving the city and surrounding region.
“We’ve committed a very large piece of our capital funding this year to fixing Runway Number 2 at the airport.
“Even towns of our size, and certainly with the industrial base, you have to have a viable airport to be able to handle just-in-time deliveries.
“So, the airport is being kept up to speed as best we can. And we’ve made some additions over the last couple of years, whether it’s hangar expansions or apron expansions.
“There are, I think, 80 employees who go to work every day at the St. Thomas airport and some of the businesses that are out there.
“There are some great new things that happened in our community. The use of Pinafore Park for festivals is now our mainstay and we’ll move forward with that.”
“This is not a small factor to a community our size. If we can continue to add to the viability of our airport, it becomes more regional to all of the communities around us and certainly to St. Thomas.
“We recognize the land the airport is on can also have a little bit more industrial (use).
“We can’t allow it to fall into disrepair, we have to keep it as a top-notch small airport that can serve the industry around St. Thomas.”
While the focus in 2022 for city council was housing and jobs, Preston is quick to add there was a fun element as well.
A component of life in St. Thomas that had been severely impacted by the pandemic.
“We wanted to add more festivals this summer as we came out of COVID. We said let’s have more fun.
“There are some great new things that happened in our community. The use of Pinafore Park for festivals is now our mainstay and we’ll move forward with that.
“Nostalgia Nights downtown was as big as it’s ever been.”
Looking ahead to the summer months, Preston admits it is his hope the city can enjoy the addition of another major festival in Pinafore Park and “perhaps a very improved Canada Day celebration.”
Hear the full interview with Preston below.
BUDGET APPROVAL EXPECTED MONDAY
Members of city council will be asked at Monday’s (Jan. 9) meeting to approve the capital and operating budgets for 2023 with a 2.37 per cent increase to the municipal property tax levy.
If you remember, the draft budget called for a 2.87 per cent increase with Coun. Gary Clarke urging members to hold the line to the 2022 increase of 2.37 per cent.
To accomplish that Dan Sheridan, director of finance, in his report to council indicated changes were made to three areas.
“Firstly, the city received the final growth report with an estimate of 1.92%, up from 1.78% in the proposed budget.
“Secondly, some 2022 revenue in the police services budget has been accrued to 2023 which reduced
“Thirdly, revenue was added to the 2023 supplemental taxes line.”
In other words, the city drew down from reserves.
The overall tax levy this year is $64.7 million, up almost $2.7 million from 2022.
The capital budget is $24.3 million and $142.8 million in operating costs.
CAPITAL BUDGET: GREEN-LIGHTED THIS YEAR
Delving into the capital budget, the big ticket item this year is $10 million – originally pegged at 11 million – for the ongoing Complete Streets program.
This involves the following work:
William Street – Stanley to Centre
St. Anne’s – Stanley to Queen
Forest Avenue – Elm to Aldborough
The upgrade to Kains from Mondamin to Alma has been pushed back a year.
Coming in at $7.5 million is Phase 3 of the Talbot Street upgrade from Mary Street to Ross Street.
A total of $1.2 million is to be spent on vehicle and equipment replacement for the Environmental Services Department
And $1 million for annual road rehabilitation. The work will be undertaken on Sparta Street, Applewood Cres. and Butler Drive.
At the airport, $960,000 will go toward the rehabilitation of Runway 03-21.
For the fire service, $700,000 has been allocated to replace an aging pumper truck.
And after decades of debate, it looks like work will get underway this year on the Barwick Bridge. A sum of $300,000 has been set aside for design and preliminary work.
It’s always interesting to note the capital projects that didn’t make the cut in any given year.
This included several projects at the airport involving work on the runways.
The ball hockey rink that was earmarked for the Joe Thornton Community Centre was a casualty at a saving of $200,000.
Parking lot and landscape improvements at Jaycee Pool were nixed. The price tag on that was $350,000.
And replacement of the south shelter at Pinafore Park for $225,000 is a no-go for this year.
It should be noted this has been a request since 2019, with ongoing concerns about the rotting pillars.
FREEDOM RALLY INVESTIGATION COMES TO FRUITION
It is hard to believe the event in question took place in St. Thomas more than two years ago and, despite the divisiveness of the gathering, no doubt it has slipped from the memory of many city residents.
Of course, we are referencing the Freedom Rally held on Nov. 14, 2020, in the parking lot of Memorial Arena.
The third such rally held in the area in less than a month.
Aware of the disruption caused by a similar rally in Aylmer, many downtown merchants closed shop for the afternoon to be on the safe side.
One of the organizers of the St. Thomas rally was Toronto resident Lamont Daigle, pictured at left.
Sometime after the rally, he was charged under the Reopening Ontario Act which, at the time, limited outdoor gatherings to 25 people.
The protest at Memorial Arena drew an estimated 250 individuals.
At the time, St. Thomas Police Chief Chris Herridge stressed, “Rest assured that just because the rally is over, the investigation is not.
“The St. Thomas Police is committed to this investigation and will be presenting evidence to the Crown prosecutors for review.”
And the police service did follow through.
Daigle’s case was heard on Dec. 1 of last year and Thursday (Jan. 5) he was fined $20,000 plus a victim surcharge of $5,000.
A second local organizer still faces charges.
To add insult to injury, the rally participants then marched to Veterans Memorial Garden to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph.
Their method of paying respect included standing on some of the elements in the garden and sporting at least one upside-down Canadian flag.
Prompting Tony Bendel of Lord Elgin Branch 41 of the Royal Canadian Legion to observe, “to combine the poppy symbol and coming to our Cenotaph to lay a wreath is not acceptable in our eyes because the remembrance and the poppy and our veterans have nothing to do with an anti-mask rally, protest, march or walk, whatever you want to call it.”
St. Thomas Police did an admirable job throughout the rally ensuring the demonstrators remained peaceful and there was minimal disruption that afternoon.
Herridge summed it up by stressing, “Cooler heads have to prevail and we have to see the bigger picture. The fallout dealing with charges we will deal with after.”
He continued, “But no doubt, there is a heightened sense of anxiety out there. And, there is a bit of fearmongering going on. But, I’m confident at the end of the day . . . we’re going to be just fine as a community.”
At the rally itself, Salim Mansur, a retired Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Western University and a candidate for the People’s Party of Canada in the 2019 federal election, said the freedom movement is a wave washing across Canada.
You only have to look back at last year’s Freedom Convoy for evidence of Mansur’s prediction.
And no rally railing on COVID-19 restrictions would be complete without the presence of Church of God Pastor Henry Hildebrandt, who implored the gathering to resist any government infringements on individual freedoms.
How distant that rally seems and yet how engrained today those actions are in our daily lives.
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