It seemed only a matter of hours after the announcement Volkswagen was to locate its EV battery plant in St. Thomas that crews were on site felling thousands of trees in five wood lots across the 1,500-acre property.
The company involved is CLC Tree Service out of London.
A check of their website and it seems they are more of an operation focussed on tree trimming and removal of diseased or damaged trees in urban areas and not large commercial land clearing.
With heavily wooded areas across the county, is there not a local firm that could have been hired for a project of this size?
What was the tendering process involved and how many firms bid on the job?
A call to Mayor Joe Preston garnered a response of I don’t know, I wasn’t involved.
Why don’t you ask Sean Dyke over at St. Thomas Economic Development Corp?
A call to that office – and remember they played a critical role in assembling the land – prompted a similar I don’t know.
Why don’t you ask Justin Lawrence over in engineering?
However, that call was never returned.
Next stop, city manager Sandra Datars Bere.
The first question she asked me was, “You talked to the mayor today, right?”
With the pleasantries aside, I asked if there were a lot of companies who tendered on the tree clearing.
“Well, I think I would suggest to you there is lots of work being done on the site and I think it’s fair to say there are activities out there that happened in advance of the announcement.
“So a lot of those things we are still working through. And I know there are people in the community interested in finding out that information as well.”
Exactly, Sandra, I am one of them and that is the nature of my call to you.
Next angle, what would the value of that tender come in at?
“Don’t have that information for you, Ian . . . that I can share with you at this time.”
I know procedurally, work over a certain dollar value has to go out for tender and I have a suspicion the value of the woodlot clearing is more than a million dollars.
“Yes, the work needs to be done and it’s moving forward and that’s about all I can say at this point in time.”
Now about two years ago the city’s fire department required a new aerial truck at a cost of just over a million dollars.
A full report came to council with a bevy of details and analysis of the bid or bids received.
In other words full disclosure prior to the purchase.
A project of similar value and we now have a bus hurtling full speed down the road with no one behind the wheel.
So, let’s try again.
I understand there is a limited timeline at play for clearing the lot, with the end of this month being quoted by both the city manager and mayor.
So, Sandra, most big projects come to council during the tendering process.
“Yes, the work needs to be done and it’s moving forward and that’s about all I can say at this point in time.”
Why the lack of transparency?
Things are now out in the open, yes a major player is coming to St. Thomas and that player is Volkswagen.
Yes, the lot needs to be cleared, why the secrecy on something as routine as woodlot clearing?
So, let’s keep trying.
Sandra, is that tendering information going to be made available at some point so ratepayers have knowledge of a major corporation expense, who is paying for it and how many firms bid on the job?
“Fair enough, yes your questions are fair. And I think it is probably fair to say at this point, we’re really excited that they’re out there and clearing trees and, from our perspective, we’re focussed on moving forward.”
To which she responded, “And, for what purpose, Ian?”
I don’t know, perhaps fiscal accountability to begin with.
Wouldn’t a job of this magnitude have attracted eager bidders from far and wide?
“No doubt,” conceded Datars Bere, “but given the nature of what needs to be done . . . it would take a large company with lots of access to services and availability to move those trees as quickly as they could and I think pretty pleased with the people who are out there doing it now and we hope to move that forward as quickly as we can.”
We’re not questioning the job CLC is doing, but were they the lowest bidder.
Are ratepayers getting good value on this job?
Which prompts a whole other line of questioning as to who exactly is paying for the work.
Will the city be reimbursed by the province?
But since little headway is being made with questions on the tendering process, it is unlikely answers will be coming on who is picking up the tab.
The following item will deal with some of the other services that will have to be provided.
So Sandra, given the magnitude of this job, is CLC “a large company with lots of access to services . . .?”
She responded, “Fair enough, yes your questions are fair. And I think it is probably fair to say at this point, we’re really excited that they’re out there and clearing trees and, from our perspective, we’re focussed on moving forward.”
At any cost, apparently and will the bill get passed along the line to a higher tier of government?
A final thought, London Economic Development Corporation has been involved in the Volkswagen deal, was it their recommendation to hire CLC, as the City of London has close contact with the firm in previous dealings?
PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE
With the transfer by the province of hundreds of acres of land formerly in Central Elgin to St. Thomas, the city will have to supply services to this new area.
This includes the provision of fire and police services, water, sewage and electrical hookups.
Perhaps the most impacted will be the city’s fire department which, no doubt, will have to acquire specialized equipment to deal with the chemical nature of the work to be undertaken at the EV battery plant and any ancillary operations undertaken on the site.
Will it require a new substation on the property or will the city’s fire service partner with Central Elgin for use of the Yarmouth Centre fire hall?
How many additional firefighters will need to be hired to provide coverage?
The city is also assuming responsibility for a couple of stretches of roadway, formerly the responsibility of Central Elgin and the County of Elgin.
“When we actually completely understand where the plant will go and the means of egress . . . we’ll have a sense about that. And those are things, I think is probably fair to say, the city really needs to plan for.”
In our conversation with Datars Bere, she explains what happened after the province passed Bill 63, the St. Thomas-Central Boundary Adjustment Act and what portions of roads are involved.
“Ron McNeil Line from Highbury to Yarmouth, Yarmouth down to the rail line, which is the new boundary to the city.”
So the city takes on responsibility for winter maintenance and upkeep of these roadways.
Datars Bere continues, “We take on responsibility of fire service through partnership, a process we are working through.
“Police services have taken that on and we have also taken on the roads and waste collection.”
Those residents living in those areas have already been advised and Datars Bere assures, “At this point in time we are able to manage that in our existing budget.”
With Yarmouth Centre Road forming the eastern boundary of the property, will that secondary road eventually be widened to accommodate a possible increase in traffic, especially trucks?
“When we actually completely understand where the plant will go and the means of egress . . . we’ll have a sense about that.
“And those are things, I think is probably fair to say, the city really needs to plan for.”
When asked about the possible impact on the municipal tax rate after assuming these services, Datars Bere advises, “I think in course, those are discussions to be had with many different levels of government throughout this process.”
In a discussion with Elgin-Middlesex-London MPP Rob Flack following this week’s budget delivery, he indicates financial assistance will be made available but did not have specifics at this time.
On Oct. 28 of 2021, then MPP Jeff Yurek called it a game-changer for the community as he announced the province has approved funding for a long-awaited MRI for St. Thomas Elgin General Hospital.
And this week, the hospital announced Yurek is the chair of the Transforming Tomorrow fundraising campaign to support the MRI and enhancements to the diagnostic imaging department and other services.
Joanne Beaton with the hospital foundation says it was exciting to have him accept the post.
“We had done a feasibility study before we even got too far down the road for a campaign, and the folks we spoke to in the community, they were all hopeful he (Yurek) would be that lead person.
“So when he accepted, it was very exciting for us. And, he’ll do a great job.”
The goal for the campaign, which will launch shortly, is $8 million.
By broadening the range of services available at the hospital, it will reduce the need for patients and families to travel elsewhere.
Beaton explains the phases involved in service enhancement.
“Phase 1, obviously MRI. Phase 2 is going to be the waiting room renovations.
“Phase 3 is going to be the relocation of ultrasound.
“Phase 4 is going to be nuclear medicine and Phase 5 is going to be cardiac diagnostics.”
Karen Davies, hospital president and CEO adds the MRI and the service enhancements “will help us to continue to attract and retain highly skilled medical professionals, keeping STEGH a leading provider of health care services.”
It’s an exciting time for the community, notes Yurek. This campaign will ensure more transformational care available right in St. Thomas, he adds.
“I think this is the final step we’re going to take in having it (the MRI) in place.
“The hospital has already put together a great team of doctors and radiologists to make the MRI as effective as possible and with other improvements they’re doing to digital imagery at the hospital, it’s going to be fantastic for southwestern Ontario.”
Beaton tells myFM she believes the MRI will arrive at the hospital later this summer.
Once in operation, the unit – costing approximately $2.5 million – will ensure residents of St. Thomas and Elgin will no longer have to travel to hospitals in London or Woodstock for diagnostic imaging.
HE LED WITH CURIOSITY
Calling him larger than life, Elgin County Warden Ed Ketchabaw says with the death of Deputy Warden Duncan McPhail earlier this month, “we have lost a true advocate.”
McPhail sat on county council for 17 years, served as Warden on three occasions and was a driving force behind the International Plowing Match held just east of St. Thomas in 2010.
“He was larger than life,” observed Ketchabaw. “Not just a colleague for me, a mentor as well, a friend. I really will miss Dunc.”
Ketchabaw added McPhail’s service to the community will remain an inspiration for years to come.
He is remembered as a pillar of the community, a trailblazer, and best known for his wit and vision.
West Elgin CAO Magda Badura embraced McPhail as a great leader and his death is a tragic loss for the municipality.
“The entire community is in shock. He was a wonderful leader, a wonderful friend and colleague.
“There are no words to describe what the entire community is feeling right now.”
You can get a sense of the community’s love for the man this week as West Lorne – in the Final 4 of the Kraft Hockeyville competition – declares they are out to win it all for Duncan with the hashtag #doitforduncan.
In addition to his lengthy political career, McPhail was a long-time board member of Elgin St. Thomas Public Health which became Southwestern Public Health.
Cynthia St. John, health unit CEO was impacted by his honesty and sincerity.
“I’ve worked on and off with Duncan since 2000 because he was on the board that hired me.
“And then he stepped out of politics for a bit and then re-entered in 2018 and it certainly wasn’t a shock to me that he was acclaimed in 2022.
“Having a little humour and a little bit of fun . . . sometimes you just need that to break the ice.”
“I just think, for me, he was one of the most genuine, honest individuals I have ever had the pleasure of working with. So genuine.
“I think what I liked most about him was he didn’t have any airs about him. He was honest, he was straightforward, he was sincere. He didn’t care what someone’s position was or what they did for a living or anything like that.
“He was very much about community. What I came to really admire about him and I leaned on a lot was he led with curiosity and that I love about people.
“He would have ideas but he was open to hearing other ideas.
“I looked up to him, he provided me with great advice and guidance throughout the years and I just know at the end of the day he was a really hard worker, a community-minded individual and loved his wife, children and grandchildren at the end of the day.”
He provided me with great advice and guidance throughout the years, added St. John.
She vividly remembers the KFC tribute several years ago when McPhail attended his last health unit board meeting at that time. You can listen to that here.
Former member of city council Dave Warden was struck by McPhail’s professionalism.
“In my dealings with him, you can sum it up with he was a good man, plain and simple.
“He was honest and as professional as you’re going to find. He was a nice man and a professional, that’s the best way to sum him up.”
Bill Walters, Central Elgin’s first mayor in 1998, recalls how easy it was to deal with McPhail on county business.
“Duncan and I, back in the 1990s we sat at county council together. Back in 2001 or 2002, when Dunc became the warden, him and I had a nice sit-down visit to decide which one of us was maybe going to take on that role and Dunc said he wanted to and we shook hands and I said good, go ahead and do it.
“We spent seven years together on land division and then we hooked up again and he became the chairman and I became the vice-chairman of our International Plowing Match when it happened here in 2010 and we spent four years working extremely close together.”
For Walters and McPhail, there was no harm in having a little fun, especially when difficult decisions were on the table.
“We learned that from the people we came on council from. Having a little humour and a little bit of fun . . . sometimes you just need that to break the ice.”
We’ll miss you Dunc, and be careful up there in any dealings with the Three Little Pigs consulting company.
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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.