Chamber of Commerce hosts meet-the-candidate event in Elora

Watters disappointed members of public charged to attend

ELORA – The Centre Wellington Chamber of Commerce held a meet-the-candidates session at the Elora Community Centre on Sept. 12, providing them some public exposure ahead of the municipal election on Oct. 24.

There was some controversy as admission was charged to attend – $20 for chamber members and $25 for non-members.

Even the candidates were charged admission.

In his closing statement, mayoral candidate Shawn Watters expressed his disappointment that the opportunity to meet the candidates required the general public to pay.

“I understand that this event was charged for, and I find that a bit upsetting,” he said.

“We’re trying to encourage people to vote. And if you’re charging people to come out to listen to me, my colleagues, or meet people, that doesn’t encourage people to vote.”

Watters noted only 44 percent of the population voted in the provincial election and turnout for municipal elections is generally lower.

“Our democracy is under real threat. And we need to do whatever we can to get people to come out to these things and at least chat with us,” he added.

In the past the chamber has hosted all-candidates’ debates and they were free to attend.

Chamber executive director Sally Litchfield said they changed the format this time based on feedback from chamber members, who wanted a session geared to the business community.

Mayoral candidate Neil Dunsmore said in a subsequent conversation he’s not upset he had to pay.

“Either you don’t charge anybody or you charge everybody,” he said. “They have to cover their cost.”

The three mayoral candidates – Neil Dunsmore, Bob Foster and Watters – were asked questions in a Q&A about governance and leadership; the housing affordability crisis; the labour shortage; how to increase housing while preserving heritage, agriculture and employment lands; and how to solve the downtown parking problem.

These were topics raised by the chamber’s membership in advance of the event.

On governance

Dunsmore, a one-term councillor and deputy mayor, said his background is in conflict crisis resolution and he’s well equipped to lead council.

“This council was difficult to deal with,” he acknowledged.

“But I’m a team builder. Everybody will have a voice at the table. It’s okay to disagree but we need respect.”

Foster is a two-term councillor who said council has been divisive his entire eight years at the horseshoe.

“Some councillors have been favoured while others were ignored,” he said.

“As mayor, all councillors will be free to speak their minds. All points of view will be respected.”

Watters, who served three terms on local council, and two terms on county council and did not run in 2018, said township council behaviour has been “disconcerting” these past four years.

“We need to build a team,” he said. “We need to get away from egos.”

Even though he’s been away from politics for one term, “I still understand how relationships should be. This is a perfect time to come back.”

The housing affordability crisis

Dunsmore said Centre Wellington doesn’t have enough of a mix of housing types to accommodate renters and home buyers.

The solution, he added, is a planning permit system that eliminates red tape for the builder and has already been vetted by the public.

“A community planning permit is the solution,” Dunsmore said.

“We also need a short-term rental bylaw” that would regulate short-term rentals like Airbnbs, that often push out long-term rentals.

Foster said the federal government’s move to raise interest rates will cause housing prices to drop and that will lead to attainable housing.

“We are in the midst of a housing correction,” Foster said, adding house prices tripled these past two years because of “ultra-cheap mortgages.”

“We also need to encourage developers to build attainable housing,” by working with the county, he added.

Watters said the township needs some vision when it comes to housing, adding tiny homes, container homes, rental units over garages and basement apartments need to be encouraged.

“There are some interesting alternative housing options,” Watters said.

“We need council to look at progressive ways of providing housing.”

On the widespread labour shortage

Dunsmore said solving the housing crisis will help the labour issues many businesses are experiencing because people will then have a place to live that’s close to where they work or they will be looking for work close to where they live.

“Fix the housing situation first and add incentives for builders to do that,” Dunsmore said.

Foster said baby boomers are leaving the workforce in droves as they reach retirement age and there aren’t enough millennials to fill the void.

“It’s largely demographics,” he said. “Immigration is the best solution.”

Watters said the double whammy of less immigration because of the pandemic and more baby boomers reaching retirement age are the main causes of the labour shortage now.

He said increasing immigration will help, “but we need to let people know about this community. We need to think outside the box.”

How to increase housing while preserving heritage, agriculture and employment lands

Dunsmore said the way to save agricultural land is to grow higher instead of spreading out.

“We need to look at four and five-storey buildings… and four to five storeys is not a highrise,” he said.

“We infill where we can, respecting heritage buildings, then we go up. We can’t say no to growth; we have to plan where we grow.”

Foster said he believes residents think the township is growing too fast and it’s time to revisit growth targets set by the province and county.

“If we continue to grow, we will lose the heritage look and feel” of Fergus and Elora, and that will impact tourism, which is important to the township, Foster said.

“The correction to housing is underway. We will see housing prices fall as interest rates go higher. That will address many of our housing issues,” he said.

Watters said Centre Wellington can either grow up, grow out, or intensify – that is how to save farmland from being developed.

“We need to discourage outward growth,” he said.

“We need folks on council who understand how to build community. It’s all about design, and it can still reflect the values of the community.”

How to solve the downtown parking problem

Dunsmore called the three-hour parking bylaw passed by council this term and the new shuttle bus pilot project as good first steps to addressing parking.

He added more active transportation routes would encourage residents to leave cars at home when they head downtown.

“I won’t tear down heritage homes for parking though,” Dunsmore said.

“And it may be time for a permit system for people who live downtown. We’ll see the data and then we can figure out next steps.”

Foster said many building applications request fewer parking spots than are currently required, which, especially in the Fergus and Elora downtowns, exacerbates the problem.

He said many builders are allowed to pay money to the township rather than provide parking spots for tenants and visitors and the cash-in-lieu amount should be increased as a deterrent.

“We need a strategy,” Watters said, adding it’s okay to accept cash-in-lieu if the funds go to solving parking problems.

He said there are many different styles of parking – from underground parking to multi-level parking garages – that also should be considered.

Watters added there should be a system for those who live downtown to get a parking permit, so they are not constantly dinged by the township’s three-hour parking limit.

Speed dating?

The rest of the event felt a bit like speed dating. There were just a few minutes for a council candidate to lay on the charm, make their pitch, and then move on to the next person trying to catch their attention.

It wasn’t possible to meet them all within the time constraints of the event.

Twenty of the 27 Centre Wellington candidates were there, Litchfield said, and about 75 community members attended.

Bronwynne Wilton is running for a Centre Wellington council seat in Ward 5. Her competitor Peter Viol tried to pull out of the race on Sept. 6, but it was after the Aug. 19 deadline, so his name will remain on the ballot.

The work for Wilton now is to knock on doors and let people know about this complication and to remind them to make sure they are on the voters’ list, she said.

“I’m reminding people to go out and vote,” she said. “That’s the important thing, and that’s across the board.”

Kirk McElwain has spent 16 years on council representing Ward 2 and was acclaimed twice in that time.

But he has some competition this year as Kimberley Jefferson and Eric Nealson are also running in Ward 2.

“I don’t mind the race,” he said.

“Even when I was acclaimed, I still knocked on doors. I will have to run harder and faster, that’s all.”

Jennifer Adams is running in Ward 4. She gained experience as a member of the Community Services Advisory Committee and has always had an interest in politics, she said.

She recently started working for the Region of Waterloo after 12 years working for Wellington County, a job change that means she can run for office here.

“I knew in March I was running,” she said, adding that’s when she switched jobs. “I think it’s time for change (on council).”

Also running in Ward 4 is Brock Aldersley.

Deb Taylor is running for a seat in Ward 3.

Taylor said she attends all the council meetings, and “I feel I am informed. I see what’s happening,” she said.

“I would be taking over the job and following through the process.”

Growth is “out of control,” she said. “We don’t have the services here that are needed already.”

She listed doctors and mental health support among the services located in Guelph but needed in Centre Wellington as well.

She said roads and attainable housing are important but on new developments, “I think we need to slow down,” she said.

Barb Lustgarten-Evoy is also running in Ward 3.

In fact there are six people vying for the seat, “and that makes it very exciting, but it’s also indicative of the idea to move the needle toward positive change,” she said.

Also running in Ward 3 are James Mantelos, Neil Armstrong, Ray Trafford and Dave Kenny.

In Ward 1 Lisa MacDonald and Jonathon Davis are duking it out and in Ward 6 it’s Rick Schroeder and Denis Craddock.

Mary Lloyd hopes to retain her Ward 5 county council seat but she’s finding she has to offer some education to voters about the two-tier system here and how the Ward 5 county council seat is different from the Ward 5 township council seat.

Still, growth falls within her responsibilities too and it’s top of mind for voters.

“People wonder why the density, and they don’t understand that some land has already been designated for future urbanization,” she said.

“But personally, I don’t believe five-storey buildings should be downtown, especially when the downtowns already have a problem with parking.”

Randy Vaine is running against Lloyd for the Ward 5 county seat.

He moved to Centre Wellington from Grimsby last year, where he has been a town councillor since 2018.

Vaine said daycare is a key issue for working families in the township.

“There aren’t enough spaces. Getting more for Centre Wellington is huge,” he said.

Vaine said he thinks there is “a lot of complacency on county council. I think they’ve lost touch. We need to get in touch with the people,” he said.

Melanie Lang said she decided to run for a county council seat in Ward 6 after running in the federal election as the Liberal candidate for Wellington-Halton Hills.

“I remain committed to the community,” Lang said.

As well as explaining her position on local issues, Ward 6 county council incumbent Diane Ballantyne said she wants people to be sure they are on the voters’ list and to vote on Oct. 24.

“Especially people new to the community – they might not realize if they haven’t registered, they are not on the list,” Ballantyne said.

One consequence of growth is traffic and Ballantyne said that’s what she hears about most from constituents.

“And that is why the county installed two community safety zones (in Centre Wellington),” she said.

Ballantyne said she also hears complaints about broadband internet and housing affordability, both of which need federal and provincial funding beyond what the county can do.

Ward 4 county councillor Stephen O’Neill was acclaimed.

Also acclaimed are Marina Hanenberg as trustee with the Upper Grand District School Board, and Andrew Finoro as trustee with Wellington Catholic District School Board.

All the candidates were invited to submit a three-minute video introducing themselves and explaining their priorities.

These will be posted at at – as will the Q&A with mayoral candidates.