By Doug Hallett
City hall has come up with a good plan to make Guelph more business-friendly, but there is still plenty of work to be done, says Guelph Chamber of Commerce president Lloyd Longfield.
“Guelph is a bubble of prosperity that not all communities have, and we want to keep that going,” Longfield says, citing Detroit as an extreme example of a city whose economic plans have gone off the rails. City council has approved the new plan following an intensive review of the way city hall deals with planning and development proposals. This review was a response to accusations that Guelph’s prosperity is hampered by a lack of friendliness to business.
“I think the city has listened to the concerns that have been brought forward” and has created “a good plan,” says Longfield, who is a member of an oversight committee for the development of an implementation plan.
“The next step is actually doing the work,” he said in an interview Tuesday.
“There is a financial component that we are still talking about,” he noted.
Implementing 21 changes at city hall, recommended as a result of the intensive review, would cost a total of $720,000 in capital costs and $270,000 in operating costs from 2014 to 2016, including the creation of two new staff positions, says a city staff report.
At a late July meeting, council endorsed the new plan and voted 10-1 to consider the proposed spending on the plan as part of upcoming city budgeting. Coun. Bob Bell voted no, saying he couldn’t support so much spending.
Mayor Karen Farbridge told the meeting that when the matter comes back to council at budget time, she wants to see more detailed information about how the different parts of the city hall apparatus dealing with development are funded.
The new plan calls for various improvements this year, including in the areas of staff resources, development application processes, document management systems and communications. City hall says other things will be done from 2014 to 2016, including the establishment of a business services centre.
“We have to be more responsive to enquiries that come our way,” Longfield said, and these business enquiries “have to be handled through a process that everyone understands.”
The chamber of commerce has been involved in the matter ever since the city, a few years back, commissioned its “Prosperity 2020” study of what Guelph needs to do in order to thrive in the future.
The “Prosperity 2020” study was done by a Markham consulting firm under the guidance of the Mayor’s Task Force on the Economy, established by Mayor Karen Farbridge. Three years ago, the study reported that Guelph is hampered by a lack of friendliness towards business and an overreliance on manufacturing jobs.
“I think Guelph is known as a green community and is known as a food-and-ag community . . . but I think one of our challenges is that not many people know about Guelph. That is also something we are working on,” Longfield said.
“When you are a green community, some people will think that is a community where development is discouraged,” he said.
However, Longfield said, the new plan endorsed by council shows this doesn’t have to be the case. “We are not finished,” he noted. “We have a plan, and now we need successful implementation.”
The oversight committee for the development of the implementation plan includes representatives from the Guelph Wellington Developers’ Association and from the local development consulting and real estate sectors, as well from the chamber of commerce.
Accusations that the city isn’t business-friendly reached a peak when a city hall planning manager leaked a highly critical report in December 2011 as part of his extraordinarily public resignation. Robert Walters quit after just four months on the job, accusing the city’s planning department of being dysfunctional.
After the “Prosperity 2020” study had been adopted by council in 2010, the city hired Oakville consultant Glenn Pothier to interview local groups, businesses and city hall staff to identify issues, particularly related to the city’s planning department. It was Pothier’s draft report that was leaked by Walters in late 2011.
In astonishingly frank language, Pothier’s draft report said Guelph is seen by many developers and potential investors as a relatively difficult place to do business, and it partly blamed city council. Pothier’s firm was told that “there is a segment of council that is perceived as ‘anti-development and anti-business’ and too willing to embrace (and/or rally) like-minded individuals and groups within the city,” his report said.
Moreover, it said, “there is a sense among some that Guelph prides itself on being perceived as the ‘granola capital of the world’ and an ‘unabashedly green community’ – and, though not mutually exclusive, that this works against the impression of being business-friendly.”
Over several months late last year and early this year, more than 60 city hall staff from several departments worked on an “integrated operational review” of the city’s planning, building, engineering and enterprise services, a staff report says.
“We’re interested in responding to the needs of the business sector in a clear, concise and timely fashion,” Sylvia Kirkwood, the city’s manager of development planning, said in a news release about city hall’s new plan.
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By Doug Hallett