At the Niagara-on-the-Lake Chamber of Commerce candidates meeting Thursday, the three people hoping to lead the community during the next term of council were asked just one question, which they were given in advance — what would they do to support business.
“We recognize decisions made by council as they relate to land use, planning, bylaws and so many others all have an impact on business,” Paul MacIntyre, chair of the chamber and moderator of the evening, told a full house at the community centre. Council decisions have an impact on investors' return, investors' confidence, the future of of the town's economy, businesses big and small, the job market for youth and the overall “livability” of NOTL, he said.
Pat Darte, hoping for a second term as head of the council table, said he has two successful businesses in town, one an agri-business, and one in sports tourism. “I get it,” he said. “I'm the only mayoral candidate who can understand first-hand how important business is in this election.”
To correct some misconceptions amongst other candidates, he referred to the oft-repeated statement that the Town does not have an Official Plan. “We do, and it's being updated,” he said, waving the document in the air. The review of it is not quite complete, but it's on schedule to be finished next year.
The other issue he highlighted is the much-discussed tree bylaw. “We don't have a tree bylaw passed yet,” he said, although multiple attempts have been made. “It will be done, but until I see a bylaw that doesn't over-encroach on residents' private property rights, I won't support it.” In addition, the Town needs to look at planting more trees to replace those lost to ash borer disease, he said.
As for business, Darte said he would continue to build on past success. During the last term, he established partnerships with global and Canadian businesses, inviting them to come to town to see the great opportunities it offers. In addition, the Town's economic development committee is about to release a video that will help attract the kind of businesses the town wants, he said — businesses like Henry Schein in Glendale, which brought good jobs to town. “We need more Henry Scheins and I'm going to try to bring them here.”
Darte said the town needs to expand activities during the off-season with more events like the Shaw Festival's Christmas Carol production, Vintage Hotels' skating rink and the first-class Icewine Festival. “I'm going to try to bring them here. The Town, residents, businesses and the Chamber need to work together to make this happen.”
Darte said he runs a unique tourism business, organizing an annual hockey tournament that brings 6,000 new visitors to town. “If business experience is important to you in your Lord Mayor, I'm the only candidate you can choose.”
Four years ago, he said, voters asked him to grow business, protect public assets, bring educational options to town and drive local initiatives for youth and the elderly — and he says he's done all that.
“I always say I'm not a politician,” he said. “I'm not a politician who talks and does nothing. I do what I say and if you give me four more years I can do even better.”
Betty Disero, hoping to win the right to lead the Town, said the next four years is about “finishing unfinished business.”
The community has to stand united, in the rural and urban areas, together as one voice to come up with a vision that includes the town's strengths, such as farming and history, she said.
“As we do that, we look at who we are, where we're going, and what the rules are.”
The Town needs to look at master plans for transportation, recreation, irrigation, culture and economic development, she said. She's watched over the last four years as the economic development committee was set up, “with two people from the public I know and respect a great deal,” who were surrounded by Town staff and politicians. When the project was finished, they had produced a $5,000 video, but had no idea who to target, how to get those industries, or what criteria should be used to ensure the Town would see a return on its investment.
Disero said she would want those two members of the public working with young, successful entrepreneurs and those who have had a successful career, to create a master plan that would select desirable industries, talk about how to entice them to the community and look at ways to help businesses already located in the community succeed and prosper.
She suggested some short-term remedies, such as deferring development charges. The Town already does that for some, she said, “but if we're going to do it then it has to be for everyone, not a select few.”
The Town should also look at its procurement processes, to see if, “all things being equal, we can buy our supplies in NOTL.”
The Town needs to promote local businesses to locals, and streamline red tape at town hall through a fast-track system for simple building permits, as is done in other municipalities, Disero said.
The Town should also be working with daycare providers and looking at expanding daycare facilities, said Disero, to help young working couples who require two jobs to be able to afford to live in NOTL.
“If you are ready to lead, and to lead our future for what you want, I ask for your support Oct. 22.”
Dan Turner, also hoping to be mayor, has an honours economic degree from Brock University, where he has also worked as an economics teacher. He's worked at Statistics Canada as an economic analyst, and at the Niagara Region planning department where he consulted with thousands of businesses across the region, he said. It was his experience at the Region that gave him an understanding of what businesses need from local government to thrive economically, he said. He has three priorities to help business in NOTL — attract more families to town, solve traffic problems and develop more service-based businesses.
One way to attract families, he said, would be to build a world-class aquatic centre. It could serve the 500,000 residents of the region, be operational in five years and would be a major boost for all businesses in NOTL. To those who don't believe the Town can afford an aquatic centre, Turner said, “Henry Ford had this great saying, 'whether you think you can or think you can't, you're right.'”
One of Turner's supporters heading up this project talked to a senior bank executive to review a preliminary business plan for the aquatic centre, and was told it would be a great opportunity for the region and a profitable private business for NOTL, Turner said. The executive, who has also worked for the Federation of Canadian Municipalities which funds such projects, knows how to tap into sources of funding “and has the executive experience to make this happen.” The Town hasn't applied for funding from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities programs, “while other municipalities have been given millions. How many opportunities have been lost in the last four years? We've had absolutely no leadership and it has cost us.”
There are many ways to attract families, Turner said, including organizing more family-oriented events, such as a monster mash at Halloween, a Christmas festival in Simcoe Park, a St. Patricks Day parade or a weekend event to paint the “ugly electric utility boxes” in town, which is done in other municipalities. “They are an eyesore in the prettiest town in Canada. Why has this never been done?”
Turner said he would pursue more service businesses to locate near the airport, focusing on attracting businesses with 100 employees or more, which could be a catalyst to get more schools and more businesses in town.
He'd look outside of town for parking and traffic solutions, at other tourist destinations which have had similar problems and solved them with remedies such as underground or satellite parking, which would take vehicles off busy streets.
He said he would ensure an updated Official Plan would protect heritage and agriculture, and promised, if elected lord mayor, he would return council to being a civil and respectful government that would get results, would put an end to political games that get in the way of economic growth, and would deliver efficiency, accountability and transparency.