By Doug Hallett
For Mayor Karen Farbridge, 2012 was the year the private sector finally started building again in Guelph’s downtown.
“We are seeing, for the first time in a couple of decades, significant private-sector interest in investing” in the core, she says.
“I’ve been involved in downtown strategizing since the late 1990s,” Farbridge said in a year-end interview in her office earlier this month. “We’ve finally reached the tipping point where a lot of things are starting to happen.”
The new Gummer building is finally open, ground has been broken for the Market Commons condominium development across from the farmers’ market and an 18-storey condo highrise is going up at the northwest corner of Macdonell and Woolwich, she noted. And, she said, plans are proceeding for redevelopment of the former W.C. Wood factory site across the river.
Once these projects are built and occupied, they will be catalysts for even more downtown development, she said.
Last spring, city council overwhelmingly approved a new downtown secondary plan as an amendment to the city’s Official Plan. One of its effects is paving the way for highrises as tall as 18 storeys in certain spots in the downtown. As of earlier this year, Guelph’s downtown had 96 people and jobs per hectare. The city’s growth plan, which was largely dictated by the province’s Places to Grow legislation, calls for the downtown to have 150 people and jobs per hectare by 2031.
Farbridge brought up the subject of the growth now being seen downtown when asked what she regarded as her biggest accomplishments as mayor in 2012. However, she stressed that it wasn’t just a 2012 accomplishment, but rather resulted from a lot of work done by many people at city hall over the past several years.
Another of the 2012 accomplishments identified by Farbridge – namely, what a big hit the splash pad outside city hall has been – is also what she immediately pointed to when asked what her biggest surprise as mayor was during the year.
City hall began making plans for a civic square with a skating rink and summer water feature shortly after Farbridge regained the mayor’s post in the 2006 civic election. The focus of public fundraising efforts was on the skating rink, though, and “we hadn’t imagined” how well the summertime water feature would work out, she said.
The rink opened last winter. Then with warm weather came the opening of the water feature, complete with water-spraying devices that turned the large, shallow pool into an instantly successful splash pad.
“It was a complete surprise how well used the splash pad was and how quickly it was occupied by kids and moms and dads and grandparents, and it stayed that way all year” until colder weather returned, said Farbridge, whose second-floor office overlooks the new Market Square.
“It’s been interesting to watch,” she said, noting that she could hear the water spraying and the sound of laughing children from her office. “It’s not so loud that it’s disruptive. It’s just a very nice background (noise),” she said with a chuckle.
Another 2012 accomplishment she mentioned – a new five-year strategic plan endorsed by council this year – was an “internal accomplishment” at city hall, rather than one with a lot of public visibility, she said. The new plan is a “significant lift” for the city’s strategic planning, she said, noting the city has had strategic plans evolving since the 1990s.
The city’s new strategic plan should position city hall to better provide services to the community and to help the city grow “in a sustainable and resilient way,” Farbridge said.
DOING BUSINESS DIFFERENTLY
Another accomplishment in 2012 was progress the city made in its relatively new goal of “doing business differently,” she said.
One example, Farbridge said, is how city hall responded this year to the threat of escalating energy prices in coming years, which could siphon money away from providing services to the community.
It has been projected that the annual cost to the city of electricity and natural gas could double to $16 million from the current $8 million over the next 10 years unless things are done to prevent it, she said. Rather than just waiting for this to happen, the city is trying to deal with the issue through conservation and energy-efficiency investments over the next three years that could save the city many millions of dollars in coming years, she said.
‘THEY ARE FAST’
One of the big changes in Guelph in 2012 was this fall’s roll-out of waste carts to replace green, blue and clear bags in one-third of city households, under a three-year phase-in of the bins across the city.
“They are fast,” Farbridge said with a grin as she recalled watching city waste collectors operate mechanical arms, controlled from inside the city’s new waste trucks, which are used to pick up and empty the bins.
“They are way faster” than the old system of having waste collectors handle waste bags manually, she said. And, she added, the new system is also healthier and safer for the city employees who collect the bins, who no longer face the strain of handling and tossing waste bags.
Ward councillors have been telling Farbridge that the carts are “not a big issue” with their constituents, judging by the emails and other feedback they’ve been getting from residents who now use the bins, she said.
“In terms of negative feedback and concerns, this doesn’t rank high . . . compared with other things we have done in the past.”
Some people who have complained just don’t like change, Farbridge said. In other cases, though, there have been “real functional issues” that needed to be addressed, and city staff have worked hard to resolve such problems, she said.
“I think our staff deserve credit for the effort they’ve put into rolling out this program,” the mayor said.
PRIORITIES FOR 2013
Farbridge said there is a “theme” for her priorities for 2013, namely looking for different ways to engage people in conversation about the city.
The provincial Municipal Act says that one of the duties of a mayor is to engage the public in municipal activities, she noted, “and I have always taken that seriously.”
Continuing to pursue the city’s Community Wellbeing Initiative is part of this theme for 2013, she said, and so is another priority to consult with the community about the city’s new initiative aimed at “open government.”
City hall wants to hear what the community wants in terms of open government – an area she said covers a broad area of issues – so that city officials can create an action plan by next fall.
One of the elements of open government that she mentioned is getting municipal government data out into the community so that the community’s “ingenuity” can be harnessed to figure out new uses for the data.
Farbridge said there’s potential for “a lot more real-time interaction” between citizens and city hall as part of an open-government initiative. For example, a system could be put in place that would allow a resident to photograph a problem – such as a pothole – on a cellphone and send the photo to city hall. In such a system, receipt of such a photo could lead to a work order being issued by a city official to fix the problem.
There are lots of things that could be done in terms of open government, but, with limited resources, there’s a need to identify priorities for this city, she said. The coming public consultation will seek to identify “what are the things that really resonate with our community, and what people will really use.”
Another big priority for Farbridge in 2013 will be rolling out some operational audits of various city functions through the city’s internal auditor – a recent hire that Farbridge pushed hard for after the 2010 civic election.
In February, council will look at which operational audits should be done this year.
Depending how these audits are set up, she said, the reviews might study ways in which certain services can be delivered more efficiently, or they might look at whether the city should even continue to offer certain services and at what level of service.
Farbridge said her biggest disappointment as mayor in 2012 came in reading stories in the media from Montreal, Toronto and London, Ont., about “misappropriation of funds, corruption” by top civic officials.
She read these stories “knowing that this just erodes everybody’s trust in local government,” she said.
“It is disappointing that in this day and age these sorts of things are happening.”
TOO MUCH BLAME
Asked what Guelph city council gets undeserved blame for, Farbridge spoke of a lack of understanding of the role of different levels of government.
Council gets blamed for the cost of the city employee pension plan, the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System, even though “we have no control over the cost of pensions, other than advocating” for changes in OMERS, she said.
NOT ENOUGH CREDIT
Finally, asked what city councillors don’t get enough credit for, Farbridge pointed to how seriously they take their duties and how hard they work.
“All of them work extremely hard,” she said.