London Votes Part III
A first and exciting opportunity for City Mom to sit down with London’s Mayor, Anne Marie DeCicco-Best, to discuss the city of London and her current mayoral campaign as it relates to City Mom.
City Mom: Can you share a summary of what your 2010 campaign platform will include?
Mayor DeCicco-Best: The campaign is really going to focus on a couple of things. The economy is going to be the main focus as it has been in every one of my campaigns. We have a new economic action plan that our council has unanimously supported and it will be the thing that drives our economy during this recession but also taking advantage of the new clusters of areas where we think we can compete very aggressively and proactively for new jobs.
First and foremost we have a new advancement in a green technology park that broke ground where we have partnered with the University of Western Ontario, Fanshawe College and the private sector to create a specialized Advanced Manufacturing and Green Park. Council has already designated 25 acres for Western and 10 acres for Fanshawe, College. This partnership will create leading-edge production facilities, integrated research, training and workforce programs that target new opportunities for green technology, such as solar, specialty heating, metals, composite materials and equipment. Green area is going to be very competitive for us and we think we have an advantage because we’ve got good rural/urban areas and these relationships continue to build well for us.
Building on that, one of the other areas that we’re pushing very hard is to make London one of the centres of a new transportation corridor where we are going to be very competitive again because it brings in the whole issue of jobs as well because companies need to know that they are close to the American border and Toronto. They will also want to be in a city where the cost of living is competitive. For us, because we are connected to the 401, 402 & 403 and connected by rail and international airport, it makes us the perfect site to be right in the hub of that transportation corridor.
We recently opened our new cargo terminal which has been another one of our initiatives working with the Federal Government and the airport. It’s going to open up new markets particularly in Europe and the US and there will be a lot of new jobs that come as a result of that. We are going to be building a new downtown campus that will be led by Fanshawe College with the city as a partner. It’s the last piece to the downtown revitalization vision that started with the JLC, Central Library, Splash Pad and building up the businesses and residential by not having development fees.
Building the downtown campus is going to focus on the technical performing and theatre arts area for Fanshawe. It’s not going to be just one building but spread over many buildings as we want to build that campus flavour. It will bring new youth and professionals to the core which will help build the economy and as a part of that connection we felt it was important that because we have such a growing cluster of technology and gaming jobs in the city, that we build a centre of excellence for digital media. We have put 5 million dollars into that project as well as others and we are also looking at involving the federal government, so we are moving full speed ahead with that.
We have been hit like others have around the world with the loss of jobs but we’ve also been able to continue to bring jobs to London. The part of that which is of most interest to Londoners is to make sure there is a great affordability of living in London. While I don’t campaign with empty promises that I am going to freeze your taxes, because I believe that is a step backwards rather than forward, we always say that the plan we have as a council focuses on managing our debt, paying as you go, bringing money from other levels of government like stimulus money and we try to balance the affordability of taxes with the reality that we have to continue to invest in our city. There was a time when we let everything deteriorate in this city. We didn’t focus on our sewers, having good infrastructure in place or investing in our neighbourhoods, so in the last 10 – 15 years we’ve had to invest a lot into the quality of life to a very high level so we can offer our citizens everything they want and desire and still be able to afford it.
We were very fortunate [in the middle of what is a recession that hit the entire world] to be rated by MacLean’s magazine as the best-managed city in Ontario and the sixth best in Canada. For me that says a lot about the plan that we have in place; that we’re moving in the right direction and that we need to stay the course and continue to implement as we go forward.
CM: I often enjoy walks throughout the downtown core with my husband and young daughter, but we always stay away from Dundas Street, between Ridout and Wellington. I have seen plans for revitalization of that area such as the LTC pilot project to reroute bus service, and the attempts to fill retail space with national chains and large independent businesses. What would you be planning to carry out to bring that section of downtown back to life and make it a family friendly place?
MD: In the last 10 years we have invested well over 100 million dollars in downtown and I think that it has been one of the most successful downtown revitalization anywhere in the country. We set up [what was main street which is now] downtown London as a separate area of the downtown business association to really focus on the things that you’ve spoken about. So when we the built the JLC we knew that was going to be a very strong anchor in the west end. Obviously if you take walks and you walk down towards the splash-pad that’s all family friendly areas because we wanted people to have that experience and we certainly continue to invest in that. We also have the investments in putting our library right on the main street of downtown rather than a free-standing building where it used to be. That brings a lot of people walking and that is another really important part, to get more and more people living downtown because the more people we have living downtown, the more positive things there are to do rather than perhaps some of the more negative things that would detract people from coming.
The LTC pilot project still is something that needs to be approved by council. I want to clarify that we’re not getting rid of the buses, but what we’re looking at is moving the buses that go down Dundas Street one block over where they can still transfer at those locations to get anywhere else they want to go. We are going to ensure that they are still able to transfer from where they are to get to where they want to go. We know that the decentralization of the buses is one thing that can help with safety because the police very much support this initiative in trying to see if it helps with the issues of safety that people might have, perceived or otherwise. Because it’s not always real, but if you perceive it, it will still stop you from coming. The other thing that we have done is started with the decentralization of the Ontario Works location at Dundas and Richmond. We are trying to bring that service to other parts of the community where we know we have our clients so they don’t all have to come downtown but that they also can be served in the Argyle and Glenn Cairn areas which happen already and the White Oaks area. I think that by decentralizing some of the offices that we have there [that often bring people together in one area] we can remove the fear factor from some people, again, perceived or not.
The London Economic Development Corporation has also been advertising for downtown and the city of London in other markets like Toronto and elsewhere. They have an active strategy to help fill the empty spaces downtown. I sit on that board and am very supportive of the efforts that are going on there. The downtown campus is going to be a huge part of it. The Digital Media Centre is going to be right in that area so all of these things combined are going to help with the downtown revitalization.
CM: What is the timeline for these initiatives?
MD: The decentralization of Ontario Works has already been approved by council and we are working on finding proper locations so that will happen in due course. The pilot project for transit will be part of the next budget cycle for consideration so council will still need to look at whether they want to do that or not. That budget cycle will be concluded by February so the timeline if that one is to go forward has to be for a full year so you get all the seasons so it would likely start next Spring providing council approves that project. The downtown campus and Digital Media Centre are already approved concepts, so it’s about Fanshawe getting their information together to really look at how that faculty would work for them because it’s a new area for them and when they get ready to launch they want to make sure all their ducks are in order. These are all in some ways short-term and long-term, it’s not going to happen overnight but it is the last piece what has been 10 years of revitalization of downtown.
CM: There are many wonderful parks in the downtown core. A new recreational swimming pool was opened in Gibbons Park this summer and the revitalization of Piccadilly Park is taking place. What other Parks & Recreation enhancements would you carry out for the downtown core for 2011 and on?
MD: We have a whole list of things that we’re going to be doing that are part of the recreation master plan, so it’s not just about downtown, but all over the city. Each of those areas is approved through the budget cycle. The newest thing we are going to be opening [not downtown but in the city] that is going to be a strong addition to the neighbourhood and family focus is the new North End Community Centre, Library and YMCA. If you have never seen it, it is spectacular and it also has a green component to it so it is very much being built with the future in mind. That is a multi-million dollar facility and we have two more big projects like that [longer term] in the works. One in the west end and one in the south-east end. It’s about finding land and money for the project. Those are the bigger sides of it. We are constantly doing renovations and trying to improve our projects such as the skateboard parks, to new swimming pools that are part of stimulus dollars to the new Springbank Gardens Community Centre off Wonderland road. There is no shortage of things in the works that we have already opened and that are coming not just for downtown but around the entire city.
CM: Will the Parks & Recreation budget receive the same funding as we saw in 2009 & 2010?
MD: Its good news/bad news: People are complaining about all the construction around the city but it’s because we received over 100 million dollars (from the Federal government) for projects that need to be complete by March 2011 or we don’t get the money. This was an anomaly year for us and it helped to bring us forward at least 3 years in advance so we spent an extraordinary amount of money in this year’s budget and part of next year’s and then it will level off again unless we’re successful in getting more money. Everything is with a plan in place and with a vision and we follow our master plan that says what our timing to build certain things is.
CM: Citi Plaza (formerly Galleria) has seemed to struggle for years now. Do you have any long-term plans for Citi Plaza?
MD: Citi Plaza is privately owned and the management there has made some overtures and announcements that they are looking at bringing in lots of new tenants. They have done very well in the last few years to bring in new clients and business. It’s not something that the city is involved with but we are always very happy when they fill up space with new companies and businesses.
CM: Is there a possibility that we would see a big chain grocery store moving in to make it more convenient for families and individuals living in the downtown core?
MD: Yes there is a possibility. That is something that our downtown association has been working on. Part of the difficulty is that no grocery store is going to go somewhere unless there is a critical mass of people living there so all of our efforts to get more people living downtown by lifting the development fees and getting condo and apartment buildings, that all helps to make a case that the time is now to bring a grocery store on side. I know that efforts have been made. I don’t know the timing of being successful with that but I know that it is a very real possibility and a lot of people are working towards that.
CM: I recently created a post on City Mom called a Tale of Two Cities where I made a comparison between London and Toronto. I received feedback from my London readers that there was a lack of Mom & Tot programs available in the city. Do you have plans to increase city funding for such programs or offer incentives to private businesses wishing to open such programs in the downtown core?
MD: We need to be careful in the sense that we can’t be all things to all private businesses so a lot of the responsibility comes with the businesses that want to promote that. We do support a number of daycare programs throughout the community. We have received both federal and provincial funding because daycare is primarily their responsibility and they have cut a lot of that funding. Without some new programs that they announce at those two levels, I think it will be a bit of a struggle to again be everything to all people. One of the things that we are promoting and pushing, because they are going to full day kindergarten, is funding for after school care to make sure there are after care programs throughout the whole community. It is better run by private sector with support from the city and support from the school boards rather than having the schools have to do it themselves. We have made a pretty compelling argument to the government and they have said for the next two years that they agree with our assessment. We hope that they will listen (longer term) to some of the suggestions that we have had and I hope we can prove to them that the model we are using is the right model rather than trying to reinvent the wheel on something completely different.