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Niagara Falls
Thursday, April 18, 2024
‘Spirit’ of town questioned at candidates’ meeting

In what group members describe as an attempt to level the playing field for new candidates against the advantage of incumbents, FocusNOTL held its third full-house meeting with Town council candidates Allan Bisback, Erwin Wiens, Andrew Niven, Wendy Cheropita and Anne Kurtz-Just, who dealt with issues such as urban boundary expansion, an accommodation tax for hotels and whether the spirit of Niagara-on-the-Lake is dying.

Bisback opened the Oct. 3 meeting at the Royal Canadian Legion hall, saying he was raised near Stratford, grew up on a dairy farm, and is retired from Canada Post, where he introduced the postal franchise system and 135 outlets across the country. Before that he was vice-president of sales for Sobeys. He and his wife moved to Niagara-on-the-Lake 10 years ago to open a B&B and recently sold it, leaving him time to pursue other interests. His 30 years of business were focused on customer service, he said, “and I want to use those same skills to serve you.”

He believes balancing quality-of-life issues with growth in tourism is essential, and wants to help change how the Town makes decisions, to thoroughly understand issues to make informed decisions, and to be transparent and accountable, he said. He is concerned about how the previous council managed growth and change in the community, he added, and an updated development plan is critical. He would support a community planning permit system, to eliminate “the ill-conceived developments we see in our villages which are symptoms of having no plan.”

He would also push for additional routing for traffic into and out of Niagara-on-the-Lake, more parking, possibly off-site, and examine tax increases, especially at the Region, to ensure taxes are in line with services received. Town staff, he said, need to be focused on serving residents and should have performance indicators “to make sure they're doing their job and have the competency to lead the town into the future. “

He promised to listen, and to act. His track record shows “I take ownership of issues. I make decisions based on facts,” he said, and transparency, integrity and communication are critical. “That's the way I live.”

He called this election a “watershed moment. We need to choose wisely. We need a council who focuses on the future and no longer keeps talking about the past. Remember, doing the same things the same old way gets the same old results. It all starts with a vote. Your vote.”

Wiens is a local grape grower with 160 acres of vineyards, owns a small winery with a family member, and has purchased Harvest Barn, the market on Niagara Stone Road. He's also been a police officer in Hamilton for 29 years, and is “transitioning” to retirement. 

During his years as a police officer, he's worked on bicycle safety, traffic safety, crisis management and crisis intervention. It's where he learned teamwork, he says, and where he learned to learned to listen.

When someone moves to NOTL, he said, “it's for a reason. It's for our quality of life . . .we're here for a reason.” But now, he said, “we have a situation,” what Bisback also referred to as a “watershed moment,” in town. “It can be what we want it to be or what we let it become.”

“People have been here before us, and will be here long after us,” and NOTL will still be the prettiest town, he said.

The Official Plan is important, but “really,” he said, “it's all about quality of life.”

He spoke of people in town who have made a difference — John Graves Simcoe in 1791 who moved to abolish slavery for the first time in the world, Laura Secord who made her trek from Queenston to warn British soldiers, Donald Ziraldo, Debi Pratt and Karl Kaiser who planted vinifera grapes when the rest of the world was laughing at them, and Margherita Howe who started Operation Clean and took on chemical plants polluting the Niagara River, even though some folks in town didn't agree with her, he said.

“So what's the good fight For NOTL?” Wiens said, in his experience, it's collaboration, listening, finding the facts and moving forward. “It's not a quick fix.”

He pledged to be informed, get the right answers and work with the right people. “Be the best. It's doable.”

Be unified, have one voice, and move forward, he added.

He spoke of growers using best agricultural practices, residents in Queenston protecting their village from development, and people passionate about heritage working together to protect it “the right way.” A lot of that, he says, comes from good leadership, working with people who are on a mission, who have passion, and who work with one voice. “We don't have to become anything. We're already there. We just have to maintain it,” he said. “We already are the best, the prettiest town. All we have to do is massage it.”

Niven grew up here, lives here, works here and is raising his family here, he said. He lives in St. Davids, and is director of marketing for Konzelmann Estate Winery. His wife's family, owners of Niagara Trailers, taught him some of the challenges of running a small business, taught him to never take anything for granted, and the true meaning of giving back to the community, while his parents taught him honesty, being true to his word and the importance of facing personal challenges. They pushed him to “always always do my best and never settle.” 

At Konzelmann, he said, visitor engagement and strategic planning are two key elements of his job, which showed him first-hand how vital agriculture and farming are to the town. The preservation of farmland and vineyards and greenspace in sensitive areas are vital to NOTL.

The two-year hold the Town has placed on cannabis protection is a good start in protecting agricultual property, he said, but he would also push for better odour control techniques to reduce the impact on neighbours and businesses such as wineries. 

He has worked in the hotel industry and would not support a hotel tax, which he has seen provide short-term gains for long-term losses, driving away long-term customers.

Niven said he would prefer to work toward attracting quality tourists who stay in town, rather than marketing to the masses. As a member of the NOTL Chamber of Commerce board, he has chaired committees for both the Ice Wine Festival, a world-class event, and the Candlelight Stroll, one of the town's most popular events and a fundraiser for children in need. “To me, this is who we are, a NOTL that is united, compassionate and proud.”

Protecting natural and built heritage and careful consideration of the Official Plan are priorities, he said, and he would support the community planning permit system to ensure NOTL is no longer impacted by unwanted or out-of-place development.

Short-term rentals are presenting challenges that many describe as “hollowing out” neighbourhoods, and the Town needs to be stronger with bylaw enforcement and disciplining those who break the rules — unwanted noise, loud partying and overnight parking are just a few issues that are “not acceptable,” he said.

Taxes are high, mainly because of the percentage that goes to the region, said Niven. The Town need to advocate for a taxation per capita system rather than by assessment, and to look at other revenue sources, by calling on residents and “engaging some of the brightest minds in Canada” in the process. Increasing parking rates is one possibility, he suggested.

“I realize this is a critical moment in our town's journey,” he said, “and I'm ready and willing to put in the work going forward.” Niven said he knows there are challenges facing the town, but he is willing to work with residents towards a vision for the future.

Cheropita was born in St. Catharines, surrounded by vineyards and fruit trees. She spent a lot of time in NOTL as a teenager, and can remember when Inniskillin was just a dream for Donald Ziraldo, who was making wine in his mother's garage on the Niagara River Parkway.  “Much has changed since that time,” she said, with more three million tourists visiting a year, a wine industry that contributes $4.4 billion in economic value to the province each year, $2.2 billion just from NOTL wineries. 

“We should be capitalizing on that clout with the province,” she said — the wineries do that already, and the Town should as well.

As for development, change is inevitable, “but I'm not happy with the homogenization of our neighbourhoods, It's an unsightly look.” The Town is lacking in tools to control unwanted development, said Cheropita, which is out of control. “It's time we regain control of our future.”

Cheropita said she has three core pillars of her vision for NOTL — honour the past, respect the present and imagine the future. 

Honouring the past means means protecting heritage, culture, architectural charm and the unique characters of each community, with an updated Official Plan, strict building codes and architectural standards, adequate greenspace, trees and parking, and a permit system that should attract complimentary smaller developments.

Respecting the present means taking a more fact-based approach on solving complex issues, listening to residents, and finding solutions to pressing issues such as inadequate roads, traffic, infrastructure and parking. 

“We need to create a four-year strategy,” she said, “with goals, priorities and timelines.”

She suggested taking advantage of the “incredible talent” of professional people — former CEOs, architects, city planners and engineers, mostly retired, who are looking to get involved in the community. She suggested we use their relevant skills to help address local issues, such as development, long-term transportation, working with the Regional partners to address traffic problems and parking issues, adding bicycle lanes to all well-travelled roads — and to find the best and brightest CAO and Town staff with the right skill sets to “accomplish the challenges we have ahead of us.”

In imagining the future, she said, we need to start with a plan and find a roadmap to get there, with a more efficient and effective council.

As a small-business strategic planner with a background in the wine industry, Cheropita said she has worked with “really smart” international teams, and learned a lot of best practices. She is accustomed to putting customers at the heart of every decision, gathering vast amounts of information, and setting goals, key priorities and master plans — skills that would serve her well on council, as part of a team that is willing to work together to accomplish results. “I will listen, I will work in collaboration with others, and I will get things done.”

Kurtz-Just has a family history of farming that goes back 77 years, she said, when her grandparents arrived from Poland. They established the family business, where Kurtz-Just learned as a youngster how to turn fruit into perogies, and make jam to sell at a roadside market to sell to people from all over the world. The beginning of agri-food, or what is now referred to as farm-to-table dining, she said, “started in my grandmother's kitchen. I just thought it was good food. It was my way of life.”

Today, the concept of value-added farming has led to a jam-processing operation in Virgil and a retail store on Queen Street as part of the family business. Local growers, including her family, fought for an agricultural market definition in the Official Plan, and the right to sell more than just fruit at the roadside, she said. “I largely wrote it. I've lived our Official Plan, and the challenges it has wrought throughout the generations of my family. It's not just a document. It's been a challenge to the sustainability of our family business and the farm,” said Kurtz-Just.

“We've all talked about the Official Plan but my particular expertise is the part of the document that will pertain to the rural community, to agriculture and most of our greenspace. That's what I would like to bring to the table specifically on the topic of the Official Plan.”

She fought for the right at the provincial level for farm intensification, she said, and will continue to advocate for all agricultural businesses, everything from a greenhouse to an orchard.

She is also concerned about Town revenue and expenses. She looked at the 2017 budget, she said, “and my small-business sensibilities kicked in.” She promised to pay the same attention to the Town budget as she does to the family business. “Every line matters,” she said, and has to be justified and make common sense. “The taxpayers of NOTL have spoken to me on my trails, and said it matters. I won't spend money on needless consulting fees, I will encourage and expect council to do the job they were elected to do and Town staff to do the jobs they are certainly well-compensated to do. Common sense and hard work are my middle names, and know that my heart has always been in NOTL. I've never left, and I don't expect to.” 

The question period began with an issue that has popped up in previous meetings and seems to be a concern with the outgoing council — would candidates have reason to declare a conflict of issue and refrain from important votes.

Leading up to the campaign period, Bisback said, he sat through several committee of the whole and council meetings, and became disenchanted, not by the abilities or character of people on council but by the “inability to move the process forward on issues.”

The level and degree of declared conflicts, he said, “is just crazy.”

To learn more about the issue, he purchased a book which explains municipal conflict of interests. “I don't know if any of the incumbents have read it,” he said.

He has no reason to think he would have to declare a conflict, unless there was something happening around his home. “You won't get any conflict from me.”

Weins, retiring from the police department, said he has always prided himself on being involved in town and giving back to the community, including the church, committees in town, the Lion's Club and farming communities. That involvment might lead to a limited need to declare a conflict. However, if voters elect eight solid councillors and a strong mayor with a unified voice, if someone isn't there for a vote “due to illness or conflict or some other reason, the rest of the council will know where it's going. Don't worry about conflicts so much as having the best people to lead. That's the way I'm looking at it and trust me, it will work.”

Working for a winery, Niven said, might disqualify him from participating in an issue specific to the winery such as a site plan issue. This term, he's seen a lot of councillors declare a conflict and leave the room, which says they're not interested. “You can still have an opinion, lend your voice, lend your experience,” he said. “I am interested.”

Cheropita said as a consultant in the wine, tourism and hospitality industry, she will not take on any NOTL clients, thus removing the possibility of conflicts of interest, unless it's because of an issue on her own street or development.

“I'm a business owner,” said Kurtz-Just, and with that come the challenges of doing business in NOTL. “That could include conflicts at council, but they will also be an example of being part of a living community with challenges.” Compassion for the community is one of the reasons she's running, she said, and she has changed her business portfolio to make more room to be a part of council without requiring declarations of conflict.

When asked about preserving heritage properties and expanding urban boundaries in NOTL, Wiens said the Greenbelt will keep agricultural land viable, with support from the province and farmers. He would not support any expansion of urban areas, and any intensification should occur on the south side of Glendale, which will provide affordable and student housing to take pressure off Niagara-on-the-Green residents.

“I live and die by agriculture, second generation,” he said, and is running to protect it.

Niven said using the Official Plan and the pillars of wineries, agriculture and heritage will allow development around those pillars and keep the town on the right track. It's a “no brainer” to not expand urban boundaries, leave the Greenbelt alone and keep agriculture where it is, he said.

“I'm completely against ever expanding the urban boundaries,” said Cheropita. “I think it is so critical that we protect our greenspace, our grape and wine industry and our tender fruit.”

It's also important not to allow cannabis facilities on any fertile land — with strict controls in the OP. Production of cannabis should be moved to the escarpment, to land that is not suitable for other crops, “to protect greenspace and our food source.” 

“We have some of the smallest farm parcels in the province,” said Kurtz-Just. “That's why we're special. I see no opportunity for urban boundaries to expand, as Doug Ford realized very quickly, because among others, farmers said 'no way.' I'm here as a farmer's daughter and a farmer, to say I respect urban boundaries and I do not expect them to change.”

Heritage conservation, preserving estate lots and protecting special lands and the Greenbelt are critical, said Bisback. Urban boundaries need to stay where they are. “If by 2025 the population is at 25,000, that's okay. We don't need to have 40,000 people.” He agreed that cannabis should not be grown on agricultural land. It would be “crazy,” he said, “to take rich, fertile land and put a cement pad on it to grow cannabis, when it can be grown somewhere else.”

The next question of the evening, which went to Niven first, was one he called all-encompassing — what is special about NOTL and what would each candidate do to protect it.

His job at the winery, he said, is to market NOTL, “everything we are and what we do.”

He feels the town could do a better job of promotion, with a specific marketing program, a budget, and a goal that focuses on something other than a “production line, getting people in and getting people out,” and not giving visitors an opportunity to truly experience the town. He thinks instead of focuing on the masses, concentration should be on the core customer. “That would be one of my goals.”

Cheropita says from a marketing standpoint, it's really important to attract “high-value tourists. Tourism in NOTL affects all of our lives and it's not always a positive experience,” she said, describing the large number of people who come by bus, walk down Queen Street, maybe buy an ice cream cone or some maple syrup and get back on the bus to go to Niagara Falls to spend their money. The town should be marketing to attract world-class tourists, she said, people who will come to town, stay in B&Bs and hotels, visit wineries, stay longer and eat at restaurants. “That's what will keep what matters to us and what's special to us the way we want it to be.”

Kurtz-Just recalled serving on a long-ago committee called TEMCO which had a goal of attracting people to town who would make a difference to the economy. “I believe we've been doing that in recent years,” she said. The town, she added, is now known as a destination for family celebrations, which bring visitors who come for more than one day and support the economy. “That vision of long ago is finally succeeding, and we're encouraging people to give value to our community.” It behooves local businesses, including retailers on Queen Street, she said, to give visitors a valuable experience from May to October, and rather than encouraging more visitors the rest of the year, she would prefer to give residents a better quality of experience when they're on downtown streets in the off-season.

When people come to live in NOTL, said Bisback, they're no longer trying to get somewhere — they feel like they've arrived. He pledged to continue to be “a concierge” for NOTL, as he was when he ran a B&B, telling people they won't have a better experience anywhere than in NOTL. “The weather, the people, the wineries, the theatre — where else do you go to get this?”

The town needs the right infrastructure to manage tourism, he said. He wouldn't support saying no to tourism, but would rather support having the right infrastructure in place to make sure the tourism experience “continues to be fantastic.”

What's special about NOTL, said Wiens, is the reason 17,000 people live, work, farm or retire in town — for quality of life. “Everything else, whether it's licensing Airbnbs or a tree bylaw, will all fall into place, once we recognize quality of life for residents. That's the starting point.”

Cheropita, asked if she would support a $4-dollar nightly accommodation tax to cover costs of tourism, said no. “I don't think that is the way to do it.”

She would instead seek out effeciencies in the Town budget, including looking at staff at town hall, and whether the right people are in the right jobs, being “efficient and effective.” She would also consider other revenue streams, such as increasing fees for bus parking. Hotel prices are already high, she said, as are property taxes, which need to be well-managed. When she moved from Toronto to NOTL, she found her property taxes were higher here. “That doesn't make sense.”

Kurzt-Just said the accommodation tax issue was fueled by a discussion of how the Town could pay for things such as a new swimmig pool. Rather than raising taxes through taxing tourists, she'd look at other options for revenue generation. She suggested a Town innovation committee could be formed to encourage people to “think outside the box” to raise money, generate more ideas and get better results with creative solutions. 

Bisback said he couldn't believe that after the accommodation tax was turned down once, it was brought back to council. “We have a bigger hills to climb” with a $30 million budget than chasing hotels for taxes with no consultation with the industry, he said. The bigger issue is looking at ways to reduce the budget, by going through it line by line. If there are opportunities for a tourism tax, it shouldn't be just for hotels, but for all sectors of the hospitality industry that would benefit from tourism, including B&Bs, wineries, cottages and restaurants. That, he said, might be something to consider in the future, “but not right now.”

Municipalities have been taking money from a provincial program intended for promoting tourism, said Wiens, and using it for other purposes, against the intent of the law. His police background has taught him to do what's right, not what's easy. Municipalities should have to follow the same rules as developers, which means respecting the intent of the legislation and not putting the provincial money into Town coffers. “At this point in time, tourism is doing fine.” There is also an issue of fairness, he said, in that it wouldn't be fair to tax visitors to hotels in the Glendale area, such as hockey teams, who aren't spending any time in the Old Town. “That doesn't seem right. If we act fairly then we'll have the same vision. Always remember the intent, and we'll all do the same thing. We're all in the same boat, and that's doing what best for NOTL.”

Niven worked for a hotel that instituted a five per cent accommodation tax, he said, and saw the money coming in pretty quickly. The hotel was doing well at first, but in three to four years, he saw the core clientele dropping off, the big conferences going elsewhere, some to NOTL hotels. “We lost our competitive edge, and we insulted our visitors.” He wouldn't support an accommodation tax which would bring in short-term money, he said, but would prefer to look at long-term solutions.

Asked whether the “genuine spirit” in NOTL is fading, possibly dying, Kurtz-Just's answer was an emphatic “no. We've always been feisty, we've had different opinions and different solutions to quality of life, but we've always been respectful of each other.  We're always neighbours in the end.”

If there are “pockets” where there is a lack of civility, she said, then “it behooves us to return to civility.” She promised to try to be an example by being honourable and civil in leadership. “If a community is to be all that it was called to be, it starts with leadership.” That has been the example set for her, she said, and is one she'd like to honour.

Spirit is not declining, said Cheropita, but “I do think there is an issue.” As she campaigns, she sees dissatisfaction, sometimes anger, and lots of emotion that has developed in recent years. It's important for voters to look at all candidates, to make sure they are selecting the right people, people with knowledge, skills, experience, and the ability to work together, to tackle “some pretty big challenges.”

The number of candidates running, said Niven, speaks to the sprit of the town, shows that people care and that they're tired of “where we were before.” The emotional connection to the proposed Randwood development has brought the town together, “which is rather ironic,” and has made the town rally to work together more than ever. “To be honest I think the spirit is stronger than ever.”

The spirit in town is “awesome,” said Wiens. Wherever he goes in the community, he said, people show great spirit. Although there may be some issues, and some bumps in the road, he said, people don't get caught up in that.

“We'll always get through it. This is NOTL.”

“I don't think we're losing our spirit,” said Bisback, who had the opportunity for the last word. If anything, he said, that's been reaffirmed in the last six weeks as he's been knocking on doors. “We have the spirit, but also some 'small d' divisiveness, and we need to fix that,” he said. The way to fix that is for voters to choose their mayor and councillors wisely, to choose independent thinkers, who can work together as a team to bring the community back together “and make that 'small d' go away.”

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