My hope for Barrie is to be a complete community, not a bedroom community – what a clever person on Twitter called “a living room rather than a bedroom”.
To do that we need more jobs in Barrie, we need more services in Barrie (eg. trades schools, university), and we need prosperous and safe neighbourhoods.
We don’t often think of downtown Barrie as a neighbourhood, but we should. Residential development is key to downtown becoming safer and more prosperous; it means there are more customers for downtown shops and restaurants, and more eyes on the street at night, more residents with a commitment to seeing the area well-maintained and protected. That’s part of the reason the City is interested in seeing some of it’s downtown parking lots redeveloped, which is the subject of a staff report on tomorrow night’s Council agenda.
Two years ago in our downtown, there were some 25 vacant storefronts on Dunlop Street downtown. Today there are only 7. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that during the same period, we’ve seen both new public facilities now bringing people downtown (Mady Centre) and new apartments going up (33/37 Ellen Street, Maple Tower, Collier Centre).
Building an office building or a condo on a parking lot doesn’t necessarily mean losing parking spaces. The Collier Centre, currently being built on the former IGA and City parking lot across from City hall, will have public underground parking replacing the spaces lost on the surface. But as the staff report makes clear, downtown parking lots are only 53% used at the peak time ie. the busiest period. Most of the time it’s less than that. So while we’ll definitely want to retain parking spaces in strategic parts of the downtown, we’re clearly not short on parking overall. And the staff report proposes to sell off only about 10% of the overall supply.
If these properties can be redeveloped, they can bring thousands of residents or new office workers into our core. That would make a big difference on a whole number of fronts – safety, economic activity, social cohesion (as above), and fiscally. These parking lots today basically just cover their costs; redevelopment generates tax revenues and development charges that can help pay for other improvements downtown and around Barrie.
All of this said – one of these lots contains a very, very important heritage building, the Mulcaster Armouries. Council spent about $250,000 restoring this building in 2009 to allow it to be used as a museum (currently Grey and Simcoe Foresters). Anything that happens with that site must maintain that building. We need to be open to new ideas as we revitalize our downtown – but never lose our history, either.
Last week, Metrolinx released it’s list of potential ways to fund improvements to the GTA’s highway and transit network, to try and reduce the gridlock that has made greater Toronto one of the worst cities in North America to try to get around. So why should we in Barrie care about gridlock?
Well, for one, there are something in the order of 30,000 residents of Barrie that commute to Greater Toronto to work. These folks (I was once one of them) are losing thousands of hours of their lives every year to congestion – time that could have been spent with their families, on recreation, or in the community. As one small example, it’s a lot harder to find soccer and baseball coaches when a significant chunk of our population can’t get home before 7pm due to traffic.
An even larger impact is economic. While this may be less obvious, gridlock is a huge drag on our economy. It’s costing us jobs, because companies can’t get their materials or their goods in and out of our region, and spend far more in terms of time and fuel to do so. Employees are caught in traffic, reducing productivity. And of course, the environmental costs are substantial as well.
The solution sounds simple – add capacity to move more people and goods. But of course, the costs of new highways and new transit lines is enormous, especially in established urban areas where land has to be acquired for new corridors. In practice, the costs make this nearly impossible.
So reducing gridlock needs to be about using existing corridors better. Anyone who commutes down Highway 400 in the morning from Barrie to greater Toronto knows that there are pinch-points, particularly at major interchanges like 401/400. To some extent, additional lanes can help. But we also need to make transit a realistic alternative for more people. GO Transit today carries nearly 1,000 people a day from Barrie to jobs in the GTA, but almost all of these are in downtown Toronto or nearby, since the GO system is really only designed to serve one destination, Union Station. As one example, if Barrie riders could take a GO train to Highway 7, then switch to light rail along Highway 7, they could access jobs in Vaughan, Richmond Hill, Markham, and near Pearson Airport in Mississauga – which by the way is the largest concentration of jobs in Ontario (bigger than downtown Toronto).
Now this is not to say I think that’s a good thing – I want the jobs in Barrie, and my view is Barrie needs to be a complete community where fewer people have to commute. But the pattern of jobs and employment will only change slowly over time, and in the meantime, I think we need to face the reality that people from all over southern Ontario are spending far, far longer than they need to be, commuting.
The fact is, however, we are not going to see the investment needed to address gridlock without some sort of new revenue tools. Both the Federal and Provincial governments are deep in deficit. Municipalities are struggling already with the ever-expanding burdens on them today. The money will have to come from somewhere.
Expecting it all to come from motorists through tolls, or from everyone through taxes, is not going to be popular, and it can’t be the only part of the solution. People are taxed enough: while some may accept voluntary charges such as tolls for HOV lanes, there is unlikely to be any degree of support for something like tolls on existing highways, nor do I think that’s the way to go. I think there are better ways.
Development charges or (better) land value capture through Tax-Increment Financing or other new tools needs to be part of the solution. I for one think the Toronto parking levy – a charge on each parking space in Toronto – is a good idea. It is transparent in the sense that it’s directly related to the proposed expenditures (transit/roads). A Toronto region-only luxury sales tax such as a hotel tax or on high-end vehicles may be another part of the solution. Local sales taxes are common in the US, although since this would likely only apply in greater Toronto, it might just drive people to shop in satellite cities like Barrie (!) – an interesting possible side effect.
Regardless of where this ends up I think it’s long past time to stop talking, come up with a plan, and start building the road and especially rapid transit that greater Toronto needs to get out of gridlock.
This is the kind of story that makes this community such an incredible place.
A Barrie couple, Tim and Rhonda Kent, wanted to do something to assist women and their families with transitional housing in Barrie, a huge need. They took a VERY run-down historic home in Barrie and have transformed it into housing units for women trying to get back on their feet after leaving abusive relationships. Aside from helping fill such an important need in the community, this project took on a life of it’s own as they used their network of friends and supporting organizations to donate time, labour, and materials to make the project a reality. The result is incredible, as you can see on their website (link below).
This project happened without any organization pushing them, without a program or a government grant – they just went and did it.
Reason #467,931 why I love this town! Please give this a look and consider giving them your support.
Click here to visit their website.
I promised in a reply to a comment on a previous post that I would provide some perspective on the monthly jobs data. I’ve often said in my comments that the month-to-month swings can be volatile and it’s really only the longer term trends that can be relied on as a reliable indicator of Barrie’s economic strength, and whether we’re truly seeing an increase in employment or not.
For info: here is the average annual unemployment rate by year back to 2007, just before the recession. 2013 is based on only two months of data so far, but remember these are rolling 3 month averages – so it really reflects survey data from Barrie from Nov 2012 through Feb 2013.
* 2013 data is year-to-date
Pretty clear trend, even going back 18 months to late 2011 when the rate spiked.
February’s data was another blockbuster month: unemployment down to 7.0%, employment up another 3,700 jobs. You heard it here first though: these results are too strong to continue, there will almost certainly be some sort of correction in the coming months I think. Still, this matches what we’re hearing from organizations like Manpower, as reported here.
Again I need to say – these are statistics, based on a survey. They’re not comprehensive, and they don’t tell the stories behind the numbers – such as whether the jobs created are stable and well-paid, or not (truth is – some are, some aren’t). They’re a broad measure of how we’re doing. The full story can only be seen in what we see around us in the community: in the demand for social services, in the strength of other markets such as the housing market, and in the stories I hear from people all the time about their experiences looking for jobs.
Every once in a while an idea comes along that is so simple and brilliant that you wonder why we haven’t done that before. Our new program for access to recreation programs for low-income families and individuals is one of those.
The RecAccess program will allow individuals and families below the Low-Income Cutoff level to receive a “credit” on an account that they can spend on recreation programs at the City of Barrie. We almost always have empty spaces in our recreation programs, and sometimes have to cancel programs because they aren’t full. This program will help “top up” those programs with people who otherwise would not be able to participate in the programs.
This costs the City nothing, since the programs cost the same whether there is, for example, ten people in the class, or twelve. The benefits to our community are probably obvious, but in addition to allowing those who couldn’t otherwise to get themselves or their kids into programs that promote fitness or education, it may also generate MORE revenue for the city, since the RecAccess program may also be used to part-subsidize programs (so some folks who qualify may use the funds to part-pay for some programs they wouldn’t take otherwise), and they may continue with programs after the credit is used up if their circumstances permit. Overall, however, it’s about promoting an active community, public health, and more opportunities for our residents, especially kids.
More information is available by clicking here
According to StatsCan, we blew the doors off in the January jobs report, again.
The local unemployment rate is down to 7.3% from 7.4%, below the Provincial rate of 7.7%, and among the lowest rates in Ontario (Toronto’s rate is 8.2% if you’re counting). Still too high, but getting much better.
The bigger news was the employment growth. The number of people with jobs in the Barrie CMA is now 111,200 – more than 2,500 jobs above the pre-recession high of 108,500 in March 2007. As a reminder, the Barrie CMA includes Innisfil and Springwater Twp.
We had suspected that although StatsCan corrects for seasonal factors, there could have been some temporary hiring that drove up the December numbers but this looks to be a more substantial trend. Too early to declare victory, because monthly numbers can swing a lot, but this continues a six-month trend of solid employment growth. All the more interesting when you consider that Canada as a whole actually lost jobs in January.
Now here’s the most interesting thing in the numbers. Barrie’s participation rate rose to 73.2% – the second highest among big cities in Canada, behind only Calgary. Participation rate is the proportion of the population that is in the workforce, and this speaks to Barrie’s reputation as having one of the youngest and most active populations in the country.
I wrote this for the Examiner, it was published a few weeks ago. Despite us holding service costs so low that we only required a 1.0% tax increase to pay for City services, there are other pressures on the City budget. More broadly, we are making the tough decisions required to put the City on a stronger fiscal footing – so we are not passing costs on to our kids. Anyway, here’s the article – now updated to reflect the final 2013 budget as passed by Council.
The City Budget is in the news, and for good reason. The decisions your Council makes at budget time not only set tax rates, but establish how much will be spent on what for the entire year – these decisions shape our city. The City of Barrie delivers 60 different services to its residents, from police and fire to roads, parks, and libraries, and never has the challenge of keeping up with a growing city been greater.
In this era of fiscal austerity, all three levels of government are making cuts to reduce spending. Your city is no different. In this year’s budget, Council has given tentative approval to a series of spending cuts that reduce the city’s operating costs by more than $2 million. In total, the City’s total costs for delivering services are increasing by a scant 1.6% this year – despite adding a Fire Station and a new South Branch Library, and despite all the new pressures in a city that is growing faster than most in the Province.
So why then is the proposed tax increase nearly twice this amount? There are two reasons – your Council is putting more money into fixing roads, pipes, and other infrastructure, and secondly due to the impact of the economic stimulus projects in 2009 and 2010.
First, Council is increasing the amount of money it spends from the operating budget on infrastructure. Of the 3.3% increase, 1.1% consists of additional money that Council is putting into the critical infrastructure that makes our city work. Our residents have told us that fixing roads is their top priority, and there’s no question that in addition to many years of deferred maintenance, the older areas of our city have many roads that desperately need additional work.
Second, the stimulus projects. As the economy faltered in 2009, all three levels of government stepped in to stimulate the economy. In Barrie, stimulus projects funded by the Harper and McGuinty governments allowed the City to advance many road repair and building projects that would otherwise have waited for many years. But the net effect of these projects was to increase the City’s debt – this year, debt payments account for a further 1.2% of the tax increase.
Now that the stimulus period is over, the City needs to cut back its capital plan, and cut the amount of debt used to fund projects. With interest rates at record lows, some borrowing in recent years was a reasonable (if not preferable) move. But again this year, I sat down with our budget staff to find ways to reduce debt. I am pleased that we have been able to reduce planned debt by more than $11 million, building on top of nearly $25 million in debt that was taken out of the City’s plan last year. We need to put the credit card away.
So coming back to City spending – of the 3.3% tax increase, less than one-third is due to the increase in the City’s costs for providing services. And yet, Council is doing more of what you have asked us to do. In our customer service survey in 2011, Barrie residents told us their top two priorities for improved services were roads and public transit. Despite our spending reductions, both are in the 2013 budget – roads through increasing our funding for renewal work, and transit through the new Plan for Transit, set to roll in August.
Moving the city forward despite tight fiscal times is our biggest challenge. I welcome anyone’s comments and input, please don’t hesitate to call, email, or write to me about the budget or any other matters affecting our beautiful city.
First – to the more than 2,000 people in Barrie who gave us their opinion about a casino during more than a month of consultation. Council has decided not to proceed any further with the idea of a casino at this point. All members of Council appreciate the efforts made to let us know your views.
Second – to Robin Munro and all those who helped make the Mayor’s Brunch for United Way on New Year’s Day a success:
- The North Restaurant – Marco Ormonde
- Tara Indian Cuisine – Yar + Nur Mohammad
- Unity Market Cafe – Caleigh Clark
- Lemon Tree Bakery – Revi, Hillary, Wanda
- Cheeky Treats – Nadia McIlveen
- Catering by Rose – Rose Romita and Christina Romita-Taylor
- Barrie Fair Trade Working Group – Bruce Morton
- Kiwanis Club of Barrie – Dick Habib, Stephen Fielder
- Devine Media Services – John Devine
- Guest Guitar Vocalist – Rachel Madden
- Volunteer – Sharon Winchester
A big thanks for all of your help!
My New Year’s Message
How to summarize a year such as this one past? A year that brought new opportunities and new challenges, a year full of events that both inspired us and shocked us. In our peaceful city on the shores of Lake Simcoe, we became more closely connected to the world around us, and we continued to demonstrate the unique energy and strong sense of community that Barrie has always been known for.
In Barrie in 2012, we grew more prosperous. We welcomed new employers and industries on the leading edge of technology, such as IBM and MacLean Engineering, among others. The lights went back on at two of our largest vacant factories, bringing new, higher paying industrial jobs to Barrie. Our unemployment rate dropped by years’ end to 7.4%, now well below the Provincial average.
Yet too many in our town did not share in that prosperity. Despite our gains, more people came through the doors of our charities seeking support. If as is often said, a society is judged by how it treats it’s least fortunate, we need to thank our local angels such as Rose Romita, who again in 2012 provided Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas dinners to hundreds of people in need. 2013 needs to be a year in which our community gets even more strongly behind those organizations who give a hand up to those who need it. And government at all levels needs to tackle the uncomfortable fact of greater income polarization despite prosperity.
In Barrie in 2012, we grew safer – greatly so, with a drop of about 8% in the number of crimes in our city, compared to last year. And yet the world did not seem a safer place, with the events at home on Virgilwood Crescent in July, and tragic events in the US and abroad. We live in a city with an extremely low crime rate, in one of the safest countries in the world. But we must never take that safety for granted – and I for one hope that 2013 brings real steps to make not only our own communities in Canada even safer, but the United States and abroad as well.
In Barrie in 2012, we took great steps forward in health care. Cancer treatment close to home is a reality, with the opening of the Simcoe-Muskoka District Cancer Care Centre at RVH this summer. The hospital itself also expanded, thanks in no small part to a $52.5M donation by the City, and an incredible $35M raised from donations to the I Believe campaign. And the Barrie Community Health Centre opened the doors at its new home on Huronia Road. In 2013, with these facilities in place, we now need to grow the number of health professionals in our community, so more people have a family doctor and can access basic care.
In Barrie in 2012, we became a bigger part of the global community. Barrie companies did more business in new markets, including emerging opportunities in Asia and South America. Products once produced exclusively for North American markets are now being sold overseas – ultimately leading to expansion of industries here in Barrie. In 2012, we formed a new friendship city arrangement with Puerta Princessa, in the Philippines, cementing the already strong ties between Barrie’s Filipino community and their home country.
In Barrie in 2012, our city centre grew stronger, as shovels went into the ground on a long-awaited new grocery store, pharmacy, and office tower/condo complex at Collier and Mulcaster. This development represents the largest new office building downtown in more than 30 years, and will bring hundreds of new workers into the core – providing customers for the shops and services that we need to keep our Downtown’s daytime economy vibrant.
There are many reasons to feel we’ve made progress in 2012, and to look forward with optimism to 2013. Yet, although the strength of a community can be considered in many ways or measured through many statistics, I’ve often felt one of the true measures of community strength is in the support our residents give one another in good times and bad.
Barrie’s strength is embodied in the acts of community service – both the everyday and the extraordinary – that our residents, our businesses, our service clubs, and our charities are famous for. In December alone – witness the legions of volunteers and the outpouring of support from Barrie businesses for the Christmas Cheer campaign; the homeless man in Downtown Barrie who found a lost cellphone and returned it to police; the efforts of a three-year old boy and his family on Innisfil Street to provide gift bags of donated food and clothes to those living in emergency shelters on Christmas Day.
There are thousands of acts of kindness performed every day, and we don’t need a holiday season as a reason to do it. So if I have a wish for 2013, it’s that as our city grows, we keep on looking out for one another – as we welcome the opportunities of a growing city, we retain that close-knit sense of community so often credited to small towns. It’s one of our greatest strengths, and one that makes our beautiful city unique among our peers.
On behalf of City Council, please accept my sincere best wishes to you and your families for a Happy, Healthy and Prosperous New Year!
I’m doing two events in the next month or so to raise money for charity. First – my New Year’s Day Brunch – eight great food vendors to provide a great meal, all proceeds to the United Way. For details click here. Thanks so much to Robin Munro and Nina and Lauren in my office for all the work to prepare for what’s becoming a great New Year’s Day tradition.
Second – Big Roof Fest: A Concert to Benefit the Homeless in Barrie. Featuring none other than Canadian Hall of Fame rockers Blue Rodeo. January 25th, 2013, at the Barrie Molson Centre. Proceeds to support the David Busby Street Centre and the Salvation Army. Huge thanks to Rock 95/Kool FM our partners on this. Click here for tickets (click on the Big Roof Fest logo on the right).