Heavy rain didn’t stop huge numbers of District of Kent residents from coming to the all-candidates meeting at the Agricultural Hall Tuesday night. Hosted by the Harrison Agassiz Chamber of Commerce, the meeting put councillor-hopefuls in front of a nearly full hall to introduce themselves and answer some tough questions from locals.
All seven District of Kent councillor candidates were present except for incumbent councillor Sylvia Pranger, who, as the only candidate for mayor in the coming term, freed up a spot on council. Four councillors are to be elected for Kent.
A brief round of introductions gave residents a chance to learn a little bit about who the candidates were, and why they were running.
Kerstin Schwichtenberg is a dairy farmer who grew up in Agassiz and has run her own veterinary business for over 20 years. She said she’s running for councillor because she has a “genuine desire to give back to my community.”
Incumbent councillor Duane Post was born and raised in Agassiz and has raised his own family here. With two terms as councillor under his belt, Post said he wants to continue the work he’s started on council and on boards such as the Kent Agricultural Advisory Committee and Drainage Committee.
Erin Kelley told the audience she moved to Agassiz with her husband and young son in 2016. She said she stands for traditional values and wants to see Agassiz thrive, “not only as an agricultural district but as a community.” Kelley said she is out and about in the community often with her son, which she said would make her an accessible councillor.
Ian Gardner has lived and worked in the community for 29 years. He said that if elected, he’ll focus on sustainability, commercial business growth and relationship building.
Like Post, incumbent councillor Susan Spaeti grew up in Agassiz. “I was raised to give back to my community,” she said, adding that she is passionate about improving health and wellness in the District. Spaeti chairs the Parks and Recreation and Trails committees. “I’m very proud of my hands-on work and want to keep working with the community,” she said.
Stan Watchorn, the current principal of Kent Elementary and former councillor and mayor in Harrison, told the audience that “the key element of leadership is learning to listen effectively with a curious mindset.” Watchorn said he understands good fiscal management and planning.
Finally, Sung Y Wong introduced himself and acknowledged that he’s wild card candidate, the only one who doesn’t live in the District of Kent.
But Wong said that it is precisely because he is not from Kent that he can bring a unique perspective. “Perhaps we can find a new outlook on some old problems,” he said. “I would love to have a chance to know you all better.” Wong is also running councillor in Harrison and Hope.
|Moderator Allan Main (far left) delivered questions to DOK councillor candidates at the all-candidates meeting Tuesday night. (From left to right: Main, Kirsten Schwichtenberg, Duane Post, Erin Kelley, Ian Gardner, Susan Spaeti, Stan Watchorn, Sung Y Wong. (Nina Grossman/The Observer)|
Agri-business in Agassiz
With introductions out of the way, the questions began. One recurring theme was how to make Agassiz a destination – both for tourists, small farmers and prospective business owners.
“What role should council play in encouraging agri-business and agriculture development?” asked the Chamber of Commerce, referencing Pemberton – where agri-business has been heavily encouraged by government.
Every councillor answered within a one-minute time limit.
“Council should always be encouraging to businesses that provide services and benefits to our community. This includes farming,” said Duane Post. “As a farmer myself, all I want, in all levels of government is support for the industry…”
“I also don’t think we need to emulate Pemberton as much, Pemberton has lost a lot of its farming capacity because of foreign investment from Dubai and England buying up land for recreation and large homes,” he said. “Something like that can’t happen here.”
When Kirsten Schwichtenberg responded, she said Agassiz is practically “the epicentre for the 100-mile diet.” “We could even call it the 10-mile diet!”
“Council could promote and advertise Agassiz,” she said.
Sung Y Wong took the mic and said, “it only makes sense that the governing body of the town should play an active role in promoting and incentivizing its main industry.”
“Council must use ever means at its disposal, whether that be through bylaws, advertising, policy or other strategies ot promote every facet and aspect of Kent’s agricultural business.”
Improving local business
“What would you do to encourage new businesses to locate to the District of Kent…and support small businesses?” asked the Chamber.
Erin Kelley said updating the District’s website should be the first step.
“I do feel like some of our stuff needs to be re-vamped,” she said. “And I have the motivation and enthusiasm to get that job done.”
Post responded: “It is kind of up to each individual or each business owner to really champion their own business.”
Schwichtenberg agreed with Post that businesses play a big role in their own success here.
“What the District of Kent can do specifically is make it a community that people want to live in, where it’s walkable and live-able…make it a destination and make people feel welcome…”
Stan Watchorn said the role of council is to make sure the regulations are not barriers.
“When you start to promote one sector, it can be…unfair to another sector,” he said. “Reducing any barriers is important but I have to be cautious about how much you invest in attracting business. Business has to be sustainable for the community and if you try to force business into the community, you’re going to probably undermine success in the long run.”
Susan Spaeti said it is council’s job to help businesses, but added it legally can’t aid them.
“What council has done over the last four years is we have made our business licensing a little bit more streamlined…last year we did our commercial and industrial revitalization tax exemption bylaw because we have empty properties and we need to get them filled.”
“If we continue to be supportive, more businesses will come.”
Ian Gardner agreed with Spaeti, saying incentives could make a difference.
“Making it worthwhile for [businesses] to even come and have a look at our community and see what we have to offer, maybe we need to throw some incentives out there to make it more attractive.”
Protecting the ALR
When asked how they felt about removing land from the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) for residential use, each candidate said they were strongly opposed.
Schwichtenberg acknowledged that the issue isn’t black and white.
“It’s a very, very difficult question, there is tremendous pressure on ALR, there’s tremendous money to be made or lost on each side of the fence…but instinctively and [on] principle, I know it’s difficult but I am an avid supporter of the ALR and I do not support residential homes being built on the best farm land in the world,” she said, to a strong round of applause.
Wong said he is “absolutely and categorically against taking land out of the ALR.”
As a resident of Harrison Highlands, Watchorn said residential development on the mountains is a good thing. “It’s much more expensive to build up there but I think…that’s the way to go whenever possible.”
Spaeti said she believes that “we need to keep our agricultural land for our farmers and there are many other places we could look at farming.”
Post said he supports the ALR but admitted that, while on council, he supported the application to remove a section of land – the ‘Teacup’ property bordered by Highway 7 and 9 from the land reserve – but only because the developers were going to make an agricultural investment per house or lot built.
Next week’s Observer will include questions and answers with councillor candidates from Kent, Harrison and Electoral Area-C. The General Voting Day for the District of Kent is Oct. 20 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Agassiz Agricultural Hall.