By Doug Hallett
Mayor Karen Farbridge, who doesn’t normally speculate about election issues well in advance of campaigns, says city hall investment in downtown redevelopment is shaping up as one of the keys to next fall’s civic elections.
“It can change so much,” Farbridge said when asked about likely election issues during her annual year-end interview with the Tribune.
This reply echoed her past responses to similar questions entering election years. But this time Farbridge, who has occupied the mayor’s chair for more than 10 years in all, didn’t stop there.
Instead, she went on to talk about the issue of city investment in downtown redevelopment, which council will start tackling at a special workshop meeting later this month.
“I think this will still be in play at election time” next fall, she said of a coming debate over how much it’s appropriate for the city to spend to support downtown redevelopment.
The downtown “is our most robust economic pillar at this time,” said Farbridge.
However, it’s “a challenge to communicate the scale of the opportunity and the urgency of the opportunity,” she said.
“If we are not willing to keep the momentum going that we are seeing, it could go to another city,” she said, noting currently there is private-sector “excitement” about Guelph’s downtown that might not still be there in five years.
“We have some big, bold steps to make as a city to maintain the momentum,” she said of a need to treat the downtown as a vital part of the city’s economic development strategy.
Council cleared the way for big changes by approving a new downtown secondary plan in the spring of 2012.
“We are seeing the first wave of easy projects coming through,” Farbridge said, notably an 18-storey mixed-use condo tower being built at the corner of Macdonell and Woolwich streets by Tricar of London, Ont.
The “second wave” of downtown projects, she said, includes a commercial development on Wellington Street next to Royal City Park, a second Tricar condo tower near the first one, and tall residential buildings planned by local developer Fusion Homes for the former W.C. Wood industrial site on the other side of the river. Roadwork related to infrastructure needs of some of these projects is already happening downtown, she noted.
But city hall is looking at other big plans for the downtown, as well. These include scenarios for the redevelopment of the Baker Street Parking Lot area, including a new main library on Wyndham Street backing onto the current parking lot.
This month’s council workshop is to look at a financial framework for the ambitious downtown redevelopment plans being promoted by city officials. One of the financing options to be discussed is the potential for a special property tax levy.
If council approves such a levy, it will be following in the footsteps of Kitchener, which in 2004 created a 10-year special levy on property tax bills to pay for a $110-million economic development investment fund that has helped to revitalize Kitchener’s downtown.
Farbridge told the Trib she expects another big issue for next October’s civic election will probably be about “containing costs” at city hall.
“It comes up every election, and fair enough,” she noted.
However, she’s hoping the debate this time around will involve “a more fulsome and holistic conversation about how we manage a modern city, a modern urban centre.”
Farbridge, who became the city’s first female mayor in 2000, said she’ll make an official announcement during the first quarter of 2014 – most likely this month or in February – about if she’ll seek a fourth term as mayor.
Asked whether a spiffy new photo that showed up on her city hall blog this fall could be interpreted as a bit of image polishing before another election run, Farbridge denied it. “No, four years is a long time to look at the same photo,” she responded with a laugh.
She said she’d “just got a little tired” of the old photo. And, she added, the city’s communications department also wanted a new photo of her. “It was partly to meet their request as well.”
Farbridge also responded in an animated way at another point during the hour-plus interview in her second-floor meeting room overlooking Market Square and Carden Street.
Asked if internal auditor Loretta Alonzo’s highly critical audit of the city’s overtime practices will changes things at city hall, the mayor leaned well back in her chair and opened her eyes wide. “Oh, totally, totally. Yes, completely,” she replied with a chuckle, apparently a bit surprised that the question had to be asked.
Changes began even before the overtime audit was released in November, as managers at city hall responded to feedback they were getting from Alonzo, Farbridge said. And, she said, more changes will happen when city council hears from a task force set up in November by city CAO Ann Pappert, which was given 90 days to come up with an action plan for overtime issues.
Farbridge said one of the most profound changes related to overtime involves centralization of all of the city’s overtime accounts, and the other will involve embracing zero-based budgeting for overtime.
“These are the two things that will totally change culture and practice going forward,” she said.
When the position of internal auditor was created, on Farbridge’s urging, she expected it “would be the most transformative decision” made by the current council, she said.
Lorenzo, who was hired in 2012, has helped decision-makers at city hall even when her audits haven’t found problems, the mayor said. An example is an audit of the city’s procurement process – how it buys goods and services.
Lorenzo’s finding that Guelph city hall has a very strong procurement process and manages it well didn’t attract much public attention, Farbridge said, but it does help city council deal with criticism it sometimes gets about this area of city operations.
“Getting a really solid, clean audit on procurement allows us as a council to put those criticisms into perspective,” Farbridge said.
Asked what she saw as her top accomplishments in 2013, Farbridge pointed first to the way the city’s finance and enterprise services worked so well together under the direction of veteran public administrator Al Horsman.
A city hall reorganization that “married” Guelph’s finance department with the city’s “enterprise” functions – including economic development, downtown renewal and the community energy initiative – led to the recruitment of Horsman in 2012 to fill the newly created post of executive director of finance & enterprise services, as well as becoming the city’s chief financial officer. In 2013, “we saw how his background and expertise can add value to the city,” Farbridge said.
Another big accomplishment in 2013, she said, was the transition from a lot of planning and policy development at city hall in recent years into an execution phase, evidenced by cranes and lots of roadwork in the downtown area.
She also pointed to recent “well-timed” changes at city hall to improve its development-approvals process for companies interested in investing here.
Farbridge also pointed to the Community Wellbeing Initiative that she has championed, which she said seems to have attracted more attention and praise elsewhere than it has in Guelph.
This initiative is concerned with how resources in Guelph can be reorganized to meet demand for services in a cost-effective way. There are “huge opportunities” for transforming the system so that “we can not only cut costs, but also have better outcomes for people,” she said.
Outside of Guelph “they see what we are doing, and we are often asked to speak about it elsewhere,” said Farbridge, who wishes the initiative’s successes were better appreciated in Guelph.
She said the city’s wellbeing initiative is like its community energy initiative, in that they are ways for Guelph to differentiate itself in an area of innovation. There are economic development benefits from “growing the innovation cluster,” she said, and “innovation in wellbeing will be a part of that.”
PRIORITIES FOR 2014
City hall has been working on an ambitious “open government” plan that is moving into its public-engagement phase, said Farbridge, who mentioned this first when asked about her priorities for 2014. (She has defined open government as creating a fully transparent and accountable city, one that leverages technology and empowers the community to generate added value as well as participate in the development of innovative and meaningful solutions.)
This year, she said, could see “incubator” space created within city hall where private-sector tech entrepreneurs could work. They could come in and do such things as developing apps or interfaces that allow members of the public to get information that they want and that city hall has.
Why would the tech entrepreneurs want to do this? “A lot of it is done just because they can,” Farbridge said, “but a lot of it then leads to commercial applications” that can be sold to other municipalities.
A big part of the community energy initiative approved by city council in 2007 is promotion of district energy, where heating and cooling needs of buildings in an area are met by water piped from a central boiler system, rather than by their own individual heating and air conditioning equipment. One such system is now being installed by a subsidiary of Guelph Hydro, with large pipes being laid that are connected to a new boiler system at the city’s downtown arena, the Sleeman Centre.
“I see us moving forward far more visibly” in 2014 with the execution of the community energy initiative, Farbridge said.
Asked for specifics, she just smiled and said, “Stay tuned.”
She said visible progress in advancing the community energy initiative should make it easier for the city to attract companies working in the energy sector.
They might see Guelph “as a beachhead, a place to start from, because of the policy framework we have in place.”
‘REINVENTING’ THE CITY
Farbridge said another of her 2014 priorities is continuing to “reinvent” city hall’s internal systems, partly by embracing technology to a greater degree. An aim is to streamline city hall’s systems to increase efficiency and save money.
“We are in a significant change process internally,” she said. “We are right in the middle of it.”