He’s the longest-serving mayor/alderman/councillor currently in St. Thomas and earlier this month, Jeff Kohler declared his intention to seek another four-year term on city council. Kohler has served in that capacity since 2010, but his introduction to municipal politics is a story unto itself. He first threw his hat into the ring in 1997 and finished as third runner-up in that year’s municipal vote. Referencing Eric Bunnell’s People column from April of 2000, Ald. Helen Cole had announced her resignation and council met behind closed doors to unanimously agree Kohler should fill the vacant seat. The top vote-getter in 1997, Terry Shackelton had already moved on to council and the next hopeful in line, former alderman Hugh Shields, declined the appointment to council.
The first Elgin-Middlesex-London candidate forum for the June 2 provincial election was held this past Tuesday at the St. Thomas Public Library.
Hosted by the Elgin-St. Thomas Coalition to End Poverty, the two-hour session featured 10 questions from coalition members relating to poverty, homelessness, a living wage and mental health issues.
The three hopefuls present were PC candidate Rob Flack, Liberal candidate Heather Jackson and NDP candidate Andy Kroeker.
Moderated by the myFM news team featuring Kennedy Freeman and myself, the event kicked off what will be a hectic 28-day runup to the election itself.
Not present for the forum but who have now declared their candidacy are Matt Millar from the New Blue Party of Ontario, Brigitte Belton of the Ontario Party and Amanda Stark of the Green Party of Ontario.
With two area employers seeking more than 3,500 workers, at first glance, it would appear to be a rosy picture for job seekers in St. Thomas, Elgin county and neighbouring municipalities.
More so in light of two years of economic fallout related to the pandemic.
But there are other factors at play when you consider employers here and across the province are coping with a labour shortage.
We talked this week with Sean Dyke, CEO of St. Thomas Economic Development Corporation to ascertain the impact this will have on smaller firms already hunting for employees.
How easy will it be to find 2,000 or so employees for the Amazon fulfillment centre north of Talbotville plus 1,500 workers for the Maple Leaf Foods plant in south London, both opening next year?
“I do think they will be able to draw from a wide range of areas in the surrounding region,” suggested Dyke.
He’s lived in the downtown core for 29 years and Steve Peters recounts over that time, “either sitting in my front window and watching the traffic on the street or sitting on my deck and hearing the traffic, things have changed.”
Boy, have they ever and Coun. Peters begins to open up on the challenges people face in finding a place to live in the heart of St. Thomas.
How much of that is due to what is referred to as the gentrification of downtown neighbourhoods?
“In the core area, the number of retrofits I have seen and continue to see,” suggested Peters.
“I am aware of a family that has had to move out of their place because the building has been sold and the new owner is coming in and is going to spend a lot of money to upgrade the place.
“I can look at a house beside me that is a fourplex and changed hands about four years ago and the new owner I bet spent over $200,000 or more and where this fourplex was probably renting for $600 is now renting for $1,200 plus utilities.”
Thanks to a critical partnership forged at the beginning of the year, the affordable housing inventory in St. Thomas will increase by more than 100 units in the next four years.
Teaming up with Indwell, the city can develop local solutions to homelessness.
That was the observation of Indwell CEO Jeff Neven Wednesday afternoon at the official groundbreaking of Phase 2 of the social services and housing hub evolving in the city’s west end.
Initially, it was hoped this building fronting Queen Street would begin to take shape in 2019, however, the numbers presented a soft business case and the project had to be put on hold, forcing the relocation of a childcare centre that was to be housed on-site.
As announced Wednesday, the four-storey structure expected to open in the spring of 2023 will contain 45 one-bedroom apartments and eventually a third fire hall.
A total of 88 critically needed childcare spaces in the city have just evaporated into thin air. Along with the spaces, $2.6 million in provincial funding – in hand – now has to be returned as the city has been unable to not only complete the project, it hasn’t even put a shovel in the ground. And ultimately, you have to double back to the comment from city developer Peter Ostojic, why is the city involved in building affordable housing units themselves? Peter and his brother Joe have completed several affordable housing developments in St. Thomas and Aylmer. “If the joint goal of our community is to provide as much affordable housing for people (as possible), it is important that the private sector be the primary delivery agent,” advised Peter more than a year ago.” So, what have childcare spaces to do with affordable housing? Let’s join the dots. Phase 2 of the social services hub at 230 Talbot Street was to include additional affordable housing plus a childcare facility. Back in July of 2019, city manager Wendell Graves admitted the cost of construction per residential unit was projected to be “fairly high” at $290,515 per unit.
As city residents transitioned from Christmas celebrations to life under a minimum 28-day province-wide shutdown, we chatted with Mayor Joe Preston on how this will impact the administration’s game plan for 2021.
Considering council and administration accomplished much in a year we would otherwise like to forget.
That includes a new transit system that will begin to take shape this month, the impressive number of building permits issued in 2020, construction projects underway like the residential development on the Alma College site, new industries like Element5 springing up, affordable housing projects and a new civic park project to be developed on the site of the former police headquarters.
Always upbeat, Preston began by pointing out city hall will remain open during this time while other municipalities have chosen to keep their administrative offices closed.
The magnificent edifice at the corner of Talbot and Mary Streets, formally known as the Mickleborough building, has had a bit of an uncertain future over the past three years.
It was the former home of Ontario Works before the city purchased it from London developer Shmuel Farhi in March of 2017.
It dates back to the early 1900s and was designed by St. Thomas architect Neil Darrach. Its appraised value at the time of the sale was $4 million.
Under the deal, Farhi Holdings was to donate $2.3 million in exchange for a tax receipt and the city would pay the remaining $1.7 million.
The intent at the time was to partner with the Central Community Health Centre in hopes of consolidating their operations into the structure that once housed the British mainstay Marks and Spencer in the 1970s and Huston’s Fine Furniture into the 1990s.
Added to its functions this year was transforming a portion of the stately building to serve as a day shelter for the homeless.
A far cry from the home of fine furniture.
As expected, city council on Monday (Aug. 10) unanimously approved a municipal bylaw which supports the letter of instruction issued at the end of last month by Southwestern Public Health requiring the use of face coverings by individuals inside buildings where there is access to the public. The bylaw will be in effect until Jan. 15 of next year at which time the need to extend it will be evaluated But, is it little more than window dressing? City manager Wendell Graves says the intent now is to train enforcement staff to ensure they understand how the bylaw is to be applied. Read into that it is unlikely to ever be enforced. Instead, it will be servers, cashiers and front-line staff who will face the wrath of belligerent customers who stubbornly refuse to wear a mask because it is their right to do so.