Pressing issues facing Chilliwack were front and centre at Friday’s all-candidates’ meeting at the Coast Chilliwack.
Sixteen of 20 council candidates jockeyed for position at the head table, presenting ideas on job creation, downtown revitalization or balancing growth. They were asked about marijuana grow-op proliferation, and weighed in on protecting the Agricultural Land Reserve.
A job creation question kicked off the meeting, and Mitchell Nosko suggested setting up “mentoring programs” for small business operators to help create jobs, while Rob Stelmaschuk’s idea was attracting the movie and film industry to town.
Candidate Jason Lum said keeping tax rates “fair and equitable” was key to job creation, since maintaining a low business tax multiplier would in turn attract “job creators.”
Brenda Currie, whose election tagline is “Brenda Means Business” said “we need to keep promoting business” and encouraging businesses to come to Chilliwack.
When candidates were asked how they’d balance Chilliwack’s growth, while staying true to its grass-roots nature, two incumbent councillors reinforced the importance of agriculture to the city’s economy. Sue Attrill said that because agriculture accounts for almost 70 per cent of the activity, it creates a “challenge” for council, in terms of land-use, hillside development, density and infilling.
Stewart McLean said that with 65 per cent of the land base zoned agricultural, there’s only about 35 per cent available for any future growth.
“We have to continue to look a vision for growth that’s both sustainable and appropriate.”
On the topic of how to manage growth, Lum said: “Become engaged. That’s how,” and advised citizens to take part in upcoming discussions about the official community plan.
Ken Huttema offered the Webster Block development as “a good example” of Chilliwack planning for balanced growth, with its mixed use plan and variety of housing, since each community in the region has to plan for managing its share of regional growth.
Gerry Goosen recommended a population cap of 200,000 on Chilliwack to control growth.
Visions for Chilliwack’s downtown core included an idea by Stelmaschuk to create a covered shopping area near Five Corners, similar to the one in Las Vegas.
“Why not create a conversation piece?” he said. “Everything else has failed.”
Gord Kornelsen said the downtown area to date has been the “squeaky wheel,” in need of grease, but funding for improvements should not be paid out of the city coffers.
“You want to revitalize the downtown? Stop developing everywhere else,” was Mike Britton’s take on the issue.
Garth Glassel wants to see lower tax rates which in turn would create more “police resources to clean up the vagrants” in the downtown.
“We’ve been throwing money at this every year but it’s not doing anything,” Glassel said. “Small businesses need a break.”
Lum said he’s anxiously awaiting recommendations to be made public from a new report by the city’s Downtown Task Force, of which he was a member.
“I think we have to look at land use decisions through the lens of how it will affect the downtown,” Lum said, adding that a lot of the problems in the core were “systemic.”
“Want to help the downtown?” he asked. “Go shop there.”
Phill Bruce’s take on the problem was that people were not going downtown because they’re “scared,” adding the recent police sweep of sex trade workers and johns showed that addictions and crime were part of the “cold, hard facts” of the downtown core.
Some thought revitalization was urgent, while another candidate said it takes time.
Currie suggested following the lead of other B.C. communities which successfully “turned their downtowns around,” offering Langley as an example.
“Whatever those communities are doing, we need to do it and do it quickly,” she said.
But Harrington, who lives downtown, said it “takes time” to make those substantial changes, as well as money, dedication and confidence. He referenced changes made in Niagara Falls, as a comparison, where they drove tourist traffic into the downtown core.
“It doesn’t just happen overnight,” he said.
Ron Browne said a resident described being approached by sex trade workers in the downtown, in the wake of the police crackdown on prostitution, as an example of the “systemic problems” there. He predicted the new Chilliwack Health Contact Centre would be responsible for making “systemic changes” in Chilliwack.
Huttema commented there was “no magic bullet” for improving the downtown, and it stood to improve over time. Throwing “buckets of money” at it wasn’t the solution, stressing that 57 new businesses opened their doors downtown in the past year.
Asked how they would alleviate problems the city has had with marijuana grow-ops, several candidates advocated legalization and taxing of marijuana, including Britton, Stelmaschuk, Mitchell and Harrington.
Britton said the city has done “a pretty good job” of dealing with controlling grow-ops with bylaw changes made a few years ago, but the situation will continue as long as there is money to be made.
“Speaking as a citizen, what’s a better solution?” he asked. “Legalize it and tax it.”
But Lum said legalization won’t work here, according to RCMP he’s heard from, since it will never be legalized in the U.S.
“Their supply will still come from here,” he said. “So it won’t eliminate the problem of the drug trade.”
Some recognized the municipality’s limitations in terms of jurisdiction.
“There’s not much the city can do because it’s a federal issue,” said Mitchell. “But legalizing it would remove the profit incentive.”
Goosen’s idea was to increase the number of RCMP or bringing in “stiffer penalties” for growing, while Glassel said Chilliwack should get its own police force, adding that he would “rather police officers were accountable to us, not Ottawa.”
Attrill pointed out the city’s biggest challenge was distinguishing between illegal and medical grow-ops.
Ron Wedel’s idea was getting tougher laws in place and reducing the number of people that judges let off on a technicality.
Huttema said the grow-op problem was not as simple as it appeared.
“Perhaps the time has come for the city to zone certain areas,” where medical pot could be grown,” he suggested, such as in commercial or industrial zones, since it causes health and safety issues in residential areas.
Chad Eros said the answer was giving people an opportunity to earn a “liveable” salary, so that owning a house wasn’t just a “pipe dream.”
On the topic of protecting the Agricultural Land Reserve, Eros said the ALR policy was overdue to be updated.
“It needs to make sense,” he said.
Lum said teaching people the inherent value of agriculture was the way to protect it.
“It’s important for young people to understand its true value, and until they do, it will be under threat.”
Britton complained that the ALR is being whittled away for development.
“At a certain point you have to say, no, you can’t build on it.”
Rapid transit or light rail was a “hot button issue” for Mitchell.
“This is something we need desperately,” he said.
Harrington acknowledged the “nitty gritty” of the cost issue, but said he favoured the idea of light rail.
Lum pointed out there’s an “inadequate” transit issue within Chilliwack on the local level.
“We have to solve it first,” he said.
For Bruce the transit questions boiled down to “Do we need it?” and “Can we afford it?” and he said the costs would have to be weighed against use and the number of residents commuting.