Sunday, June 22, 2014

Setting a Target for Growth

This week, the media was full of stories that mayor said that we have a goal to increase the population of the city to 50,000 by 2025 - an increase of about 30% over the next ten years.  He has since amended his terminology to say that it's a target, not a goal, which is probably wise, considering that in the thirty some years that I've lived here, the population has only increased by about 5,000.  It also doesn't fit with what we've been told by various experts - that Prince Albert is unlikely to have a huge growth spurt, unlike Saskatoon.  The city is likely to remain just a small city for the foreseeable future.  And that's not a bad thing - there are lots of benefits to living in a city where rush hour is only five minutes.  So let's not get caught up in the idea that growth for the sake of growth is what we want.

The intention behind the target/goal is that with a larger tax base, the tax burden has more people to share in it.  Unfortunately, costs rise though - as an example, more people means more streets, and more cars on those streets, so maintenance costs rise.  A larger industrial base is actually a greater help in reducing the tax burden, as long as we don't turn around and give tax breaks to industry in hopes of luring them here, as has already been done with Paper Excellence, although the mill opening date just seems to keep moving further and further away.

The idea of being prepared, though, is a good one, rather than playing catch-up after the people are here.  But we have to remember that we're playing catch-up right now, just to bring things up to where they should be, in a city this size.  Remember, we still have unpaved streets, and I'd like to see a plan for getting streets paved, and old water pipes replaced, before we start worrying about building new roads for potential new subdivisions.

Now that the target is out there, I hope that we use this as impetus to start organizing our thinking.  Let's start with figuring out what work needs to be done to make the infrastructure all over the city up to standards that one would expect in a city in this century - paved streets, sidewalks, new water mains where they're needed.  Figure out where the need is greatest, and focus our efforts there.  I get annoyed when I see areas that have long been neglected continue to be overlooked, but work going on in areas where the need isn't as great, but perhaps the taxpayers are more vocal.

Then let's look at where we should be planning for growth, and start setting aside money for these efforts.  I think that most people would agree that a second bridge is high on that list, even without massive population growth, so let's stop waiting for other levels of government to build us a bridge, and start investigating what sort of partnership involvement those other levels of government expect from us, and budget for that.  It's not going to happen if we just keep talking the same talk - let's try changing the conversation.

But when we do talk growth, let's not just throw out random numbers - let's figure out what's feasible, and figure out how to get there.

"Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell." - Edward Abbey

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Lessons from Niagara Falls

Andrea and I just returned from Ontario, where we spent the first few days of our trip at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities annual meeting in Niagara Falls.  It was probably the smallest place that FCM has been held - the city has a population of only 84,000 - but its tourism development means that it has a very large convention centre where the meetings took place, and there were also sufficient accommodations for the more than 2,000 delegates.

We chose not to stay in the hotel where the other delegates from Prince Albert stayed.  Instead, we found a bed and breakfast that was a fifteen minute walk from the convention centre.  I've found that staying in a bed and breakfast offers several benefits - doing so supports a local business, rather than a large chain, you get to see more of the city, you get to interact with the other guests at breakfast, you learn more about the city from the owner, and you also get a good breakfast.

Niagara Falls seems almost to be two different cities.  The one that most people see is the area focused around the falls - they are spectacular, and draw crowds from all over the world. The large hotels and the casino are all close to the falls, and boast of the view.  The Niagara Parks Commission maintains a paved pathway along the river for several miles that is suitable for both biking and walking, with beautiful gardens along both sides of the road, and features like an aviary and a butterfly conservatory.  One area, a bit down from the falls, called Clifton Hill, is the street that reminded me of the fair - wax museums, halls of fame, arcades, and a huge Ferris wheel at the top.  At the other end is Marineland, another fair-like experience.

But outside of these areas, the city has the same trouble that most cities have - maintaining a viable, older downtown.  In fact, the difference was evident just on the short walk from the B&B to the conference centre.  It was quite obvious where the tourism area started, just by the state of the sidewalks.  One of the tours offered by the conference was to that downtown area, showing us the various efforts that have been put into making it more attractive with streetscaping efforts - sadly, the many empty storefronts show that it takes more than pots of flowers and signage to attract people to a downtown.  Our host at the B&B also told us of various efforts to bring in live theatre that hadn't worked - with the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake, only a short drive away, the competition is very tough.

However, even for a town that relies on tourism to stay alive, there were signs in the tourist area that stated that cars have the right of way.  If I really wanted to make an area people-friendly, I'd limit the cars, perhaps by having shuttles to the falls rather than encouraging people to drive to the falls.  Although you might think that the exorbitant parking rates ($30 a day!) might encourage people to park further away and walk a few blocks, the lots seemed to be always full.

Another tour that I found interesting was one that focused on the recreational opportunities for young people in the city.  Rather than trying to have a facility in each neighbourhood, the Boys and Girls Club has one central facility for all activities, and they work with the schools to transport kids to this facility.  Being able to focus on maintaining one facility allows them to offer a wide range of activities, and have the resources available for transportation.  This makes sense to me - more efficient and effective, benefiting the whole community.

Far less interesting to the majority of tourists is the historical background of the area.  Just up the street from our B&B was the site of the Battle of Lundy's Lane - the bloodiest battle of the War of 1812.  The battlefield is also a cemetery.  We were also within walking distance of the museum, which had an exhibit devoted to the war, and another small museum across from the battlefield, which is an old reconstructed tavern from the era.  Andrea visited all of these, and was one of very few visitors.  While I realize that these sorts of attractions don't have quite the draw of the Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum, the tourism desk at the conference centre had no information about these - we found out about them from the CAA Tour Book.  I think that the city could do more to invest in this side of tourism.

At the trade show, which always offers new and innovative ideas and products, there was a model of a self-cleaning toilet, suitable for use in parks and along trails.  It cost in the neighbourhood of $100,000, and I couldn't help but think what an asset that would be along the Rotary Trail.  I think that investing in something like this that would make the trail more attractive to users is something worth exploring.  There were also models of outdoor exercise equipment that could be used along trails - these sorts of interactive things are far more likely to attract people to the riverbank than some of the other options that are currently being presented to council.

As I usually do, I found the educational aspects of the conference most interesting, as well as the opportunity to talk with delegates from across the country about our common issues.  I'm hoping that those of us who were there bring these new ideas back to our council and committee meetings - that's the whole point of going to these conferences, of course.

"The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page." - Augustine of Hippo