Mayor forecasts a year of challenges and opportunities

   Mayor Randy Simms sketched out challenges and opportunities on Tuesday during his annual 'Outlook' on the year ahead to members of the Mount Pearl - Paradise Chamber of Commerce.
In an upbeat but frank State of the Union type presentation, the Mount Pearl mayor outlined steps the City is taking to foster business growth.
   Last year was a good year, Simms said. "What I have to say about 2016 might be a little bit different. The current state of affairs, both in Canada and in Newfoundland, will have an impact on what happens in the local area and everything you hear about in the news every day is something that we also deal with at the local level. We have some challenges going into 2016; some of them existed before now, some of them are relatively new to us, but as a result it kind of changed the way we go about doing our business in this community."
   Among he challenges, Simms pointed out, is an aging demographic. Newfoundland, Mount Pearl included, is not only older, per capita wise, than any other province, it is also "aging in place faster," said Simms. "That's a challenge provincially and believe it or not it's also a challenge at the municipal level. It means that our service mix probably has to change as times go by."
   The low Canadian dollar is also having an impact, Simms said, because much of the economic activity in Mount Pearl is tied to supplying and servicing the oil industry. And low oil prices are also affecting the local economy.
   "We're already having higher vacancy rates than we're used to having," said the mayor, noting the vacancy rate now stands at 13.5 per cent. "It looks like it's probably going to go a little higher."
   All these factors influenced the City's budget preparations for this year, Simms explained. "We decided that what we should do is adopt a strategy of renewal - let's take the money that we have and spend it on the things we've (already) got as opposed to 'Let's try to expand, let's build something new.'”
   At just over $49.5 million, the City's budget is the highest it’s ever been, Simms said.
Some 13.3 million this year will go towards capital improvements, Simms said, including upgrades to "one of the busiest streets in all of Atlantic Canada," Commonwealth Avenue.
Only a portion of it will see new pavement this year though. "We're kind of doing it in sections as we go along," he said. "So there's going to be some traffic interruption this year on Commonwealth Avenue, but hey, if you want to clean up, the first thing you've got to do is make a mess."
   Sunrise Avenue, a major collector street that leads onto Commonwealth, will also see work.
"Probably the biggest thing we're going to do this year from the point of view of traffic is the intersection of Blackmarsh Road and Topsail Road," Simms added. "The opening the Team Gushue Highway, we believe, is going to lead to an increase in traffic coming into the city off Blackmarsh Road… We recognize that if there is going to be an increased traffic load, we're going to exacerbate a problem that already exists at that intersection... We'd love to put in one of those traffic circles like there is in Paradise, but there's not enough land there to do it for a four lane highway."
   Instead, the City is going to install traffic lights there.
   In other capital developments, the $4.5 million Campia Gymnastics facility will be finished this year. The City is covering the construction cost and will lease it to Campia, which has some 900 young people from all over the region as members, Simms said.
   “Mount Pearl's strategic plan says that from the point of view of tourism as an economic development driver, sport is where we're going to build it," Simms said. "So we can't just build it for Mount Pearl. If we're going to be a sport centre, we've got to build it for the region, we've got to build it for the province. This will be the newest, most modern competitive gymnastics centre anywhere in Atlantic Canada."
   Another major investment this year is taking place at St. David's Field, said Simms, where some $1.2 million is being spent redeveloping it into "a passive leisure park" that will include a new cenotaph for the Royal Canadian Legion.
   Admiralty House Annex, which got some $600,000 in work last year, will get an additional $350,000 in upgrades this year. "We want to get the Annex open, get it being used, both by our arts community and by the museum itself to make that museum a little more lively, a little more active, to give it a little more gravitas in the historical community and hopefully the tourism community as well," Simms said.
   Donovans Business Park, meanwhile, is in for a $3 million face lift this year. "Donovans remains the largest business park in the province," Simms said. "Now it's one of the older ones."
It also has more competition, he noted, from a new industrial park in Paradise, two in St. John's, and one that the Town of Conception Bay South is developing.
   "We don't want to be the business park that is like the house that needs painting or new shingles, so we're investing in the park every year for the next five years to see to it that we maintain our status as modern, new, and aggressively planned with all the right business mixes, because it generates income for our city," Simms said. "And it's important that all of these business people here, who actually pay all of these taxes, see a little bit of it flow back."
   One prime piece of real estate that will open up for future municipal development is the old Smallwood Arena. Simms said the storied old hockey rink will be torn down this year. "It has outlived its life, it has asbestos and things in it, we're not even allowed in it anymore without a Hazmat suit," he said. "So it's going to be demolished this year and will become an empty lot."
   But it probably won't be empty for long. Simms said an architectural firm has been hired to look at what might be put back there. “I believe in 2017, 2018 we're going to be able to put back a new building," he added. "What we really need to talk about is what kind of recreational mix should it be. I champion the idea of having a little theatre there, others on council have said we need a big place for our seniors - we have the largest seniors club in the province."
   Simms said other possible uses include an indoor tennis court or an indoor soccer field.
   “That's going to be a challenge this year, trying to determine what we're going to do with that empty lot," said the mayor. Something could happen even sooner, he suggested, if new federal infrastructure money starts flowing to the province this year.
   Other development opportunities lie between Topsail Road and Kenmount Road above the 190 contour, Simms said. A comprehensive development plan is being compiled to govern how the area will be developed.
   Several years ago, the province and City of St. John's lifted their restrictions on building more than 190 metres above sea level. The restriction had been in place for years because of the extra costs and infrastructure required to pump water that high.
   "Now you can build to the 220 contour," said Simms. "That has opened up a lot of opportunity in the City of Mount Pearl."
   Some 59 acres of such land on the north side of Mount Pearl, “the bulk of it fronting onto Kenmount Road,” will be available for development, Simms said.
The mayor is also encouraging council to explore the possibility of using public-private partnerships to lower the cost of municipal government.
   "If there are services that can be provided by somebody else more effectively or more efficiently and maybe even cheaper, why not do it?" Simms asked. "We're going to do a little exploration of that because frankly, the innovation and expertise of the private sector has not been used as effectively in our jurisdiction, at all government levels, as it should be and it's time that we opened that door.
   “So while we face what we call a fiscal challenge or a crisis or a cliff or whatever terminology you want to use, nobody should forget that it also represents an unbelievable opportunity, because it opens the door to doing all things differently. And we wouldn't do that if the oil money was flowing and everybody was happy and we could spend what we want; everything would stay the same forever. So while this is going to be unbelievably challenging for everyone, there's also going to be tremendous opportunity in it for us, particularly in places like Paradise and Mount Pearl. I think we're just big enough that we can be of interest enough to the private sector to say, 'Yes, we can do some work for you.' The question is how?”

Posted on January 27, 2016 .