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Focus

Posted: March 24, 2017 at 8:56 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

There is only one issue in Prince Edward County. And until we fix it, all others are secondary. This may seem a bit stark. But perhaps a better way to state it is that everything we want the County to be, or aspire to become depends on getting one thing fixed. And we have to move quickly because time is running out.

According to the second census in a row, the County’s population continues to decline. Seven hundred and sixty-one fewer people live in Prince Edward County than did a decade ago. This is a terrible trend—and one that will feed on itself if left unchecked. It is toxic to everything we want to build and maintain in this community—from our schools, to our hospital, to long term care beds, recreation facilities, roads, our town halls, infrastructure. Everything.

The good news is that we can fix it.

First, we need to understand the problem. Many see the increase in weekend residents and vacation rental services such as Airbnb as the culprit—too many homes owned by folks who don’t appear on the census count. It’s an issue—but it’s not the issue.

In fact, it’s a bit of a red herring. We risk wasting time and energy chasing solutions to a worldwide trend rather than focus on fixing the root issue in Prince Edward County.

It turns out our problem is more mundane— it is fundamental economics. Too many folks chasing too few homes. Strong demand and poor supply. It is this imbalance—this broken economics that is driving housing prices beyond the reach of working families in Prince Edward County. Driving them out of the County to more affordable communities.

The fact is that the populations of Belleville, Quinte West, Brighton and Napanee all increased in the last census. At least part of the growth of these communities, arguably, is due to the strong demand to live in Prince Edward County. Some going because of rising house prices. Others settling for a more affordable home.

How do we know demand to live in the County is strong? We see it when the house down the street or across the road sells for $100,000 more than it would have a year ago. But perhaps a better barometer is the Young’s Cove project in Quinte West, immediately across the northwest boundary with the County.

Every bit of the marketing for this residential project levers the County brand—from its name, “Young’s Cove Prince Edward Estates” to the various house models on offer. Here you can choose from the Picton Bay, the Cherry Valley, the Milford, the Wellington and the Bloomfield. All in Quinte West.

Since September the project has sold 104 homes. They expect to sell as many as 600 in this project. At the current rate, it won’t take long. By contrast, the County issued just 128 new home permits in all of the County in 2016. That was a good year.

We need to improve the supply of new homes in the County to address the demand by folks who want to live here. Doing this won’t fix affordability overnight—but it will ease the upward price escalation. But as I said at the outset—we have one problem. Building new homes and settling people in the County who want to live here, will directly address our depopulation issue.

Mayor Robert Quaiff and the County’s chief engineer Robert McAuley get full marks for intervening in a project that will see 350 new homes in Picton. Provincial bureaucracy was threatening to scuttle the subdivision. Both Quaiff and McAuley intervened directly—employing the tried and true good cop/bad cop routine—to get the project back on track.

We need more of this.

According to a report prepared by the County’s Bernard Schalka, there are 1,700 new homes at various stages of municipal approval. There are 700 in Wellington alone, controlled by three developers. But most have been sitting dormant for six years.

Let’s sit down and talk to them. Face to face. Let’s find out what is holding up these projects. Let’s find out how we can help each other.

Another point. Let us understand that we are competing for new homes and new residents with our neighbouring municipalities. That means we must be prepared to compete on service, costs and agility. It doesn’t mean giving away the farm—Prince Edward County can justify a premium— but our fee structure isn’t in the same ballpark as Quinte West and Belleville. “The message the County projects to builders and developers is indifference.”

This indifference is not something we can afford any longer. We are losing this battle. At stake are our schools, our hospital, our museums, arenas and town halls. We are losing diversity. Affordability is gone.

We must fix our supply and demand imbalance. We must remove the hurdles blocking folks from settling here. In doing so we might welcome the 2021 census.

We have four years to fix this. Unlike most other communities facing the same dilemma we have the means to fix it. We are fortunate that way. We have strong demand to live here and we have the potential supply to serve them. What we need now, is the will to act.

rick@wellingtontimes.ca