Tuesday night’s all candidates meeting in the District of Kent gave voters a glimpse into a negative undercurrent that has been building up in the community.
Despite a three-year term in which many large projects have been successfully completed, several of the council hopefuls criticized the work of current council and staff, taking shots at the new Community Cultural and Recreation Centre, business friendliness, DCC costs, and the recent decision to spend some extra revenue on a mobile stage.
The meeting was hosted by the Harrison-Agassiz Chamber of Commerce, in the Agricultural Hall. About 150 people turned out to listen in, and the discussions started out with introductions of the eight council and two mayoral candidates.
Then, the Chamber stated that agriculture has been a dominant part of the economy historically, and asked the candidates how they would take specific steps to support local businesses, stimulate business growth and diversify the business economy.
Council candidate Ken Vanderhoek had the chance to speak first, and said that council “puts almost no effort into promoting us.”
Duane Post, running for re-election as councillor, noted that perhaps council could start a business improvement grant to help improve businesses downtown. Darcy Striker, also running for re-election as councillor, said there are a number of things council has been working on, and will continue to look at to stimulate the economy, including improving the parking situation downtown.
But Striker also underlined the need for a bigger grocery store, “whether SuperValu expands or someone else comes here.”
He also urged other businesses to get involved with the Chamber.
“They’re an important tool and we need to use them,” he said. All incumbents noted that the development cost charges are too high and are currently under review. Mayor John Van Laerhoven noted that the current DCC structure was built in 2004, long before current council’s term.
In her closing comments, Pranger noted that it was time to “learn from past mistakes.”
But to the question posed by Chamber, Pranger said “we need to sit down with the business community to find out what they need.”
Lorne Fisher pointed out that council can’t actually give money to businesses, but that it can find ways to make starting a business easier. He noted that they gave agriculture a boost when they supported the Agassiz Farm Fresh market for its first three years of operation.
Newcomer Jack Van Dongen said it’s “long overdue that the District become business friendly,” and said if elected he’d look into ways to be more fiscally responsible.
Susan Spaeti, running for council for the first time, spoke about creating partnerships between businesses, and creating interactive maps that could help potential business owners locate the best place to set up shop.
Council candidate John Wouda did not attend the meeting, but answered the Chamber question via email, to be read by the moderator.
Wouda said “as soon as someone walk in the District door they should receive VIP treatment and support” from staff.
Mayoral candidate Ken Schwaerzle alluded to “red tape” and too many bylaws that he said are driving away potential businesses. He said that a local business celebrating 75 years was told to take down their sign recently. That business is Pioneer Motors, city staff confirmed with the Observer. A bylaw officer did visit to inform them of the sign bylaw process, but the action by the bylaw officer was based on complaints by other local business owners.
Finally, current mayor John Van Laerhoven spoke to the Chamber question, stating that one of the most important part of a business succeeding is that people support them.
“We can’t bring business to town without people,” he stated. “Businesses will not come here if we can’t provide them with customers… the community has to get on board.”
Van Laerhoven also noted that if businesses get a tax break, the “shortfall” lands in the hands of residential taxpayers.
During the open question period, Rose Tustian asked the incumbent councillors to explain what the process was behind the decision to build an expansion to the fitness centre.
Van Laerhoven said the decision was based on the Community Needs Assessment done many years ago.
“It was a long and thoughtful process,” he said, that had the support of the community. Tustian, a school board trustee running for election, noted in her question that there are six school gymnasiums that could be used for programs.
Many candidates disagreed with Tustian, stating that they had scrambled for years to provide decent programing for the community, without much success.
“The time of day the gym gets used is the same time of day the school gyms are being used, and the school gyms have to be there for the schools,” Van Laerhoven said.
Fisher, a school trustee himself for 15 years, said organizing programs in school gyms was “always a hassle.”
Striker said past employee Stephanie Key had a knack for organizing the programs, but eventually people were complaining about inconsistent programs, and as people stopped signing up, programs were often cancelled.
That has led to a community that goes elsewhere for recreation, either to Rosedale Community School or centres in Chilliwack. The gymnasium is an attempt to provide recreation locally, Striker underlined.
Spaeti took the question as an opportunity to encourage people to contact the recreation department about programs they want, and to register at them.
However, not all candidates are in favour of the gymnasium. Schwaerzle said the community had a perfectly good gymnasium with the Ag-Rec Centre. Pranger said the question should have gone to referendum, and Van Dongen called it “just another big expense that burdens the taxpayer.”
“It’s nice to have it but can we afford it?” he asked.
The expansion project had a price tag of just over $1 million, and $750,000 came from a grant from the province in 2012. A fundraising committee helped find funds to complete the project, which drew the attention of the Canucks’ Sedin twins.
A few candidates voiced their displeasure with the recent decision to purchase a mobile stage from the revenue earned by the filming of Wayward Pines downtown. The money was earmarked in September to be spent on projects that help promote culture. One of the items the community asked for in the Community Needs Assessment was a community stage to promote arts and culture.
When the purchase decision was reported in this newspaper, the District of Kent received backlash for it. At the next council meeting, Van Laerhoven made a motion to rescind that decision and invited the community to help decide how the revenue would be best spent.
The funds, which are not from tax revenue but from fees and payments from Wayward Pines, have now not been spent. A public meeting to garner feedback was held on Nov. 5.