Next week is the mid-term mark of my term as mayor, and an appropriate time to pause and reflect on the past 728 days.
Like every other job, there have been good days and bad days; and a very intense and very public learning curve. And like every other job, if you are always asking yourself "how could I have done this better?" and if you are putting your all into it; you will get better at it over time.
I believe that I am a better mayor today than I was two years ago. I have a more thorough understanding of the city’s capacity and what levers we have available to drive change. I believe our council is more efficient, as the majority of councillors were also newbies and had the same learning curve as I did. One thing that I wish we were better at is seeing around corners, but we are working at it.
We were elected on a mandate for change and there have been many. There is a renewed spirit of co-operation on council. We can agree to disagree and still go for nachos after the meeting. This is important as a team effort and mutual respect result in an effective council.
A classic example of this in action was how we handled the Fleming property decision when then-deputy mayor Jim McCrae took the chair so I could participate fully in the debate. I then lost the decision, and yet we continue to work well together and support many of each other’s initiatives.
There have been a lot of accomplishments over the past two years, all achieved because of a solid plan — Brandon’s Roadmap for Growth. We brought in senior administration from the private sector with the hiring of a new city manager and a new treasurer. We successfully negotiated four of five city union contracts and got them rebalanced so that their end dates were staggered over a five-year period. We have continued to make investments in a stronger online presence with open data, a virtual city hall and effective use of technology in the field. The planning and building safety department has also had significant investments in terms of personnel, expertise and foundational reports. Brandon’s future prosperity and success will be built on growth and we are building a planning department that can service that growth.
We have strong working relationships with our neighbouring municipalities and are an active member of the Association of Manitoba Municipalities. That spirit of co-operation and partnership exists within Brandon as well in beneficial ways with the joint-use agreements we have with schools, the YMCA and Brandon University’s Healthy Living Centre.
The Urban Aboriginal Peoples Council is up and running with a focus on economic development and employment strategies, a youth advisory council is meeting regularly and the consultation process for a seniors advisory council is underway.
Brandon is one of Canada’s faster growing cities and this is causing some real pressure on housing. Prices are high and vacancy is low. We’ve cut the ribbon on a couple of great new projects — but not enough to meet the need. Our new housing strategy gives us a well thought out plan and introduces new tools for us to use. A key component of Brandon’s strategy will be the development of the Black Farm on the North Hill. Not only will the development of this city-owned property significantly add to the housing stock, but it will also result in enhanced infrastructure on the North Hill. This will create commercial opportunities along the highway, enhance water and sewer service to the airport, allow for more residential development, and give us an alternate water and sewer link across the river.
There has been significant progress on several environmental initiatives —revamped garbage collection, including composting with almost 50 per cent of our solid waste now diverted from the landfill, and a brownfield strategy that has two long vacant properties revitalized and generating property taxes.
Brandon continues to be a safe city with enviable crime statistics and a brand new Police Services Building.
We’ve also reopened the files on several very big projects — air service with conversations with Air Canada and WestJet and we are exploring the economic opportunities that a Brandon-owned casino might provide.
I’m not going to mention the all-consuming first year challenge of the flood as so much has been written about it, except to say that the ravaged riverbank and protective dike systems are a priority for capital budgets going forward.
But living in a city isn’t just about roads, sanitation and policing. It’s also about quality of life and there have been some positive progress in the past two years.
We have a home for the Brandon General Museum so that they can turn their attention to programming and curatorial issues. We have the fledgling Brandon Arts Council, we have a summer festival that packs Princess Park in July and a winter festival that continues to expand.
Tourism and recreation investments make Brandon a livable city and help us to attract businesses. We are moving forward with a plan for the Wheat City Golf Course that will be a compromise so that we can continue to invest in the golf course itself. We are fixing the roof at the Keystone Centre and investing in some long-outstanding capital projects there; the campground there will be ready for next summer, and the Arabian horse show is just one of the many new, exciting events residents can enjoy and that will bring visitors to our city.
The accommodation tax ensures that Brandon residents benefit from all these out-of-town guests, with funds generated used to increase "heads-in-beds" and tourism. We have put in our bid for the 2017 Canada Summer Games and hope to have a decision soon.
For several reasons, I have been handcuffed from moving as aggressively as I would have liked on initiatives to revitalize downtown. This has been very frustrating as I have always been a passionate champion of our downtown.
Despite those impediments, there have been numerous changes to the core in the past two years. Both easterly corners of 18th and Rosser are now occupied, the Secondary Plan is in place, the derelict building bylaw and the staff resources to enforce it are in place, patios are now open, empty storefronts are now occupied, and new cultural programming, especially for young people, is up and running.
There have been some hurdles around the development of the former Brandon Inn, however this valuable land will be ready for development soon and Renaissance Brandon will be tasked with implementing an aggressive marketing strategy for its sale. And within the next few months, we’ll find out whether the business plan for the transformation of the former Fire Hall No.1 into a brewpub is strong enough for the project to go forward.
And speaking of heritage, how wonderful it is to see once again some of our most treasured properties receiving their heritage designations.
One of the issues during the election was the fate of the Sportsplex pool. Together, we figured out how to keep the Sportsplex open, do much needed upgrades to the mechanical systems and have a new YMCA downtown.
I am not satisfied with our progress on paying down our debt on infrastructure. We will need to continue to expand other sources of revenue so that we can make significant progress on both repairing, maintaining and expanding our infrastructure. This is one of the most challenging budget areas as the price tags are always large and our council is cautious when it comes to asking our residents to pay more. We partnered with the province on the corners of 17th Street East, and Richmond and 18th Street and Patricia Avenue to improve both their driveability and increase safety for pedestrians. The Eighth Street bridge is on our radar for repair and upgrade as well.
Budgets and taxes caused some controversy last year. The costs of running the city are rising, as are the expectations of the people who live here. For every concern about taxes there are two comments (at least) from residents wanting "more or better": more potholes filled, more spray parks, more policing and bylaw enforcement, more housing, faster building permits, just more … While we are always looking for efficiencies, and we can ride the gains from growth, we need to understand everything comes with a cost.
During the past two years, I have poured all of my energy and my enthusiasm for this city into being your mayor. That learning curve has also been personal as I have also been trying to get better at juggling my commitment to the city with my commitment to my family.
Being the mayor of Brandon is a demanding job, but it is the best job in the world — despite the armchair quarterback heckling and political posturing that comes with it. It can be challenge to balance a thick skin without sacrificing any of the empathy, care, compassion and concern I have for the residents of our city.
So all in all, a very productive mid-term. I love being involved in all the various nooks and crannies of the city, and participating in the various milestones, projects and groups that are important to us all. My hair is greyer (a big thank you to my stylist!), and obviously you get dinged up and bruised in this job.
But my belief in the residents of Brandon is stronger than it was when I first came into office, as is my determination to do right by you. And I make sure to wake up every morning trying to figure out, "How do we make it better?"
» Shari Decter Hirst is Brandon’s mayor. Her column appears monthly.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition October 20, 2012