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Time to act

Posted: February 17, 2017 at 9:03 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

Thurso is an unattractive mill town on the Ottawa River, 50 kilometres east of the nation’s capital. For much of its recent history, the town has been dying—slowly, but most assuredly, along with its chief employer an aging paper mill. Until recently, like its bestknown export, hockey great Guy Lafleur, the town’s best days were fading from memory.

Reinvestment in the mill—from paper production to rayon—stabilized the pace of decline. This bought the town’s leaders some time. Longdiscussed plans to extend Autoroute 50 from the city had become a reality. But it wasn’t enough. There are plenty of small towns orbiting Ottawa- Gatineau—many with expressway access. To compete, the town had to do something more than erecting a sign up on the Autoroute. The town opted to slash building and development fees along with property taxes for new homes, for a set period.

Suddenly Thurso became known as an affordable and attractive alternative to living in the city. This single proactive step changed the way people viewed the town. And they came.

According to census figures released last week, Thurso’s population grew by 14.5 per cent since the previous tally in 2011. The tax and fee relief programs have ended now—but Thurso continues to benefit. Builders, developers, investors and new home buyers now know Thurso as a welcoming community—eager to grow and embrace the challenges that will follow. The town is no longer resigned to decay—no longer dismissive of global economic trends as defining and immutable forces beyond its control.

In this region, according to the same census, Belleville (3.9 per cent), Quinte West (2.1 per cent) and Napanee (3.2 per cent) all saw their populations grow. In Prince Edward County (-2.0 per cent) and Deseronto (-2.7 percent), however, populations shrank.

For the County, this was the second consecutive census to show a decline in population.

There are immediate consequences to a shrinking population. Suddenly the fight to save County schools becomes infinitely harder. So, too, does the plan to replace the Picton hospital. Same with long term-care beds. Pointy heads at Queens Park will use the recent crop of census data to argue that provincial resources be deployed elsewhere—where communities are growing. Each of these struggles has been made more challenging.

There will be earnest attempts to explain and rationalize why the region is attracting people while the County shrinks. Some will blame the vacation rental sector for stealing homes that used to house families who lived in this community. There will be other villains and scoundrels identified, but ultimately these are distractions. Sooner, rather than later our municipal leaders will have to act to stem the decline in population.

According to an exceptional issue paper on housing produced by the County’s official plan architect, Bernard Shalka, there are 1,700 residential units in settlement areas in this community at different stages of municipal approval.

This is the low-hanging fruit. Let us immediately sit down and figure out how to convert these 1,700 units into homes and apartments. How do we do this? It starts with a conversation.

Here is the plan.

The County forms a reconnaissance team comprised say of the mayor, the CAO and the community and economic director. They then set up appointments to visit the developers who control these 1,700 units. They find out why they are sitting on these investments. Find out what is holding them back. Find out what the municipality can do to encourage them to build in 2017.

The way you do this is to ask them. Get in the car, drive over, knock on their door and ask them.

People want to live in Prince Edward County. Shire Hall has done a terrific job of marketing the attractiveness and appeal of living in this community far and beyond. This part of the job is done.

Yet the simple fact is that this place is unaffordable to many. What little housing or rental stock is available is quickly snapped up at amounts unimaginable a few years ago.

Sadly the County has few levers to pull to directly alter this situtation—short of getting into the housing business itself. These limitations are not, however, an excuse to do nothing.

As the folks in Thurso concluded, council can, and must, tackle the issue of residential development head on. It is no longer something to be delegated to a committee for a year or more of study. Action is needed. And soon. The current trend is toxic to the health of this community—to our retail sector, our schools, our hospital and our arenas. Indeed, virtually everything we know as community is threatened by a shrinking population.

New homebuilding won’t make the County affordable overnight—but a steady, predictable stream of new homes will ease the pressure on a hot property market. It will add consumers to a strained and high-cost waterworks system. It will help fund our libraries, museums, parks and roads. Once established in a mature residential building market, developers will be more amenable to a mix of housing types, sizes, and options.

The time has passed when our municipal leaders can afford to sit passively and watch development stagnate. It must become its top priority. We need a strategy to attract more folks to settle in Prince Edward County— to convert 1,700 units into new families and growing population. But first, we need some answers. Let’s ask the questions.

rick@wellingtontimes.ca