Community Centre planning, real estate development, and traffic on Pelham Street
BY DAVE BURKET
When my spouse and I moved to Fonthill we had a big Yellow Lab with a big appetite. After getting the keys to the house our first stop was PetValu. What should have been a five-minute transaction for a bag of kibble turned into a 45-minute chat with a friendly man named Ron, who turned out to own the store. Then it also turned out he was a former mayor, not all that long out of office. It helped explain his breadth of knowledge about Pelham.
Two contradictions struck me back then about Ron Leavens and haven’t gone away since.
First, for a socialist and a stalwart NDP supporter, he’s remarkably pro-business.
Second, his warmth, self-effacement, and tendency to speak plainly are at odds with what we’ve come to dread from our politicians. It’s a wonder he was elected to start with. His style stands in particular contrast to the smug self-aggrandizement that characterizes much of our current leadership at all levels. You won’t catch Leavens speaking in surgically assembled soundbites designed to deflect or conceal.
Now 71, he tells anyone who asks that his days in politics are done. Leavens was a teacher in Niagara schools from 1975 to 2000, and he’s owned his PetValu store for 20 years. He served as Pelham’s mayor from 2002 to 2006. Then, as he says, he was “voted out of office,” beaten in a close race for re-election by Dave Augustyn. The issue that killed Leavens was the municipal purchase of the acreage now known as East Fonthill. In part, Leavens sought to protect it from developers bent on making a quick buck with cheap, slipshod construction. He wanted the Town to determine how, and when, the tract was developed.
Every few months I’ll stop in for a reality-check with Ron. While we share some fundamental political philosophies, we disagree on a few details, particularly when it comes to how well, or badly, the current council has overseen new development. It’s true that provincial law can’t be flouted by local municipalities, but it’s equally true that some municipalities do development better than others.
When we got chatting a few days ago at his store, after I’d come by on ad business, I realized that Voice readers ought to be included too. We did the official interview the next day, talking over coffee and barking dogs being groomed in the back. The conversation has been edited for clarity. Even condensed, though, you might want to brew your own pot of coffee before settling in.
BURKET: You’ve expressed disappointment that the Town didn’t go after provincial or federal funding for the Community Centre. When was that, and what do you mean?
LEAVENS: Well, there were a number of times over the last 25 years where we had the opportunity to take advantage of infrastructure grants from the two senior levels of government, not just this council, but previous councils as well, and we weren’t ready to do it. And as a result of that, our local taxpayers missed out on some funding that should have been here. I’m not laying blame on any one council for it, it’s just that as a municipality, when you know you’ve got these types of projects coming up, you need to be agile and ready to take advantage.
How did the pursuit of that money not happen. This project has been in the works for how many years?
Quarter of a century.
Yeah. At least. Well, I just think that over the years there were a number of councils who received a consultant’s report, and the consultant’s report said, “This is what you need.” And council said, “Okay. Well, let’s put that on the shelf.” Which was wrong— even if you didn’t want to move ahead with the project at that time, you get some planning in place so that when opportunities do come along, you can pull that plan off the shelf and say, “Okay. We’re ready to go.” I mean, we’ve had enough consultant’s reports over the years that we should have known we had to get something ready.
When you were mayor, did you attempt to move that process along?
We were hoping. We were getting ready. Number one was to secure the land, and that’s what the council decided to do. And after that was to put together a plan so that when infrastructure money came along like it did in 2008, 2009, we’d be ready for it. And the plan wasn’t there.
So what happened in 2008 that the plan wasn’t there?
They weren’t ready for it. The fact of the matter is that I got voted out of office. Hopefully any council that I would have led after 2006 would have been putting together the plan for it. And East Fonthill wasn’t ready at that time either. But council did get the Region to put the services down Rice Road.
When did that happen.
I think it was completed before I was voted out of office in 2006.
That’s an interesting way to phrase it. “Voted out of office.”
Hey, that’s what happens. You want to say booted out? That’s okay.
Rather than “beaten by so-and-so.”
You mentioned yesterday that a customer had come in to the store who wasn’t happy about how tough it is to find out how the Community Centre build is progressing, and you said that Port Colborne had done a much better job of communicating the progress of their build.
I haven’t seen it, but I’ve heard from numerous people that Port Colborne used a very good communications program that keep people up to date on how things were proceeding. I looked on Pelham’s website today and there’s stuff there, but you’ve got to wade through it. And people in this day and age don’t have time to wade through that kind of stuff.
It’s not laid out in a user-friendly way?
No. It would have been nice if they had identified milestones in the whole process. And then report on those milestones throughout. There’s some information from the Oversight Committee on phase one, phase two, phase three, phase four, phase five, but what does that mean to the average person in town? If you talk about it in everyday terms— steel work’s going in, and we’re this far along in getting that completed, and so on. A report like that on a monthly basis.
The Town should be doing this, or the contractor.
Yeah, the Town definitely should be doing that. For sure. If you want to have open lines of communication with people, you’ve got to make it easy for them. You can’t bury it in jargon. I used to get this when I was teaching as well. I got so sick and tired of the educational jargon that was being used instead of directly communicating with people in plain, ordinary English. I think it’s really important to understand that the average person doesn’t understand the jargon that Town staff or Council might. Give it to them in plain, ordinary, everyday English.
The Town does seem to be particularly fond of euphemisms and rather elaborate job titles.
That’s the name of the game in this day and age in politics, you know? You see it at all levels. But you need to remember who it is that you’re doing it for, and why you’re doing it, and how you need to communicate with those people. It’s like talking to a lawyer. You know? It really is.
What do you make of the Town’s shifting explanations for the 9,000 square foot design change?
It’s typical. Nobody wants to take responsibility for it. It happened, it has to be dealt with. When everything is said and done, then you can go look at pointing the finger at someone for not having followed through on what they should have. If that was the situation. It has to be done. Let’s get it done. And that’s why you build a contingency in any major construction project, to take are of those things.
In this case, the contingency seems to have been eaten up by the buyback of the Development Charge credits.
Yeah. That I would have had problems with. You build a contingency fund into a project like that to deal with problems involved in the actual construction project itself, not to cover anything else outside of it. So, from my own point of view, I would have had a real problem allocating that money for something else. And I should add, not that what they did was wrong or anything, I just—
Not illegal. Well, let’s say not— no, let’s just say it certainly wasn’t illegal. I mean, when you’re in a position like that you have to make decisions. “We need three million dollars right away. How do we get it? Well, we can find it here? Okay.” They’re in a position where they had to make decisions, and I’m not going to second-guess the decisions they made but—
You’re questioning the fiscal prudence of the decision.
Yeah. The overall prudence. If it’s surplus to a project, okay, I can understand. But you’re not far enough along at this point to know whether it’s surplus or not. It may happen that somewhere down the road you’re going to need that three million because there is still a lot of work to be done there, and where are you going to get it? Once, as far as I’m concerned, council earmarks for a project and the project is ongoing, then you’ve got to leave that money in the project just to make sure that when you’re finished, you’ve done everything that you need to do.
Who handled human resources while you were mayor? For a town of our size, albeit with a growing staff, it’s surprising that we have our own Human Resources Director. [Note: This position paid $106,500 in 2015, and $134,000 in 2016, a 26% salary increase in one year.]
We did a lot of it through the Region. The day-to-day stuff was handled in-house, but if we had any serious situations where we needed advice and guidance, we went to the Region. And when we were doing searches for upper-level management, we always went through the Region.
How did that work? They would place the advertising, or—?
They do the advertising. They would screen applicants for us and get it down to the top 10 or so, and then they would set up interview sessions for us. They would give us their evaluation on the candidates for the position as well. So the final decision was ours, but they had input. And it worked well. I don’t know that it still would at the Region because I don’t know what the situation there is anymore.
Yesterday we were chatting about Town staff. We hear from time to time from residents who go to Town Hall that they are maybe not treated as well as they think they ought to be. And I’m wondering whether you’ve heard anything like this, or what your own experiences have been recently.
Of course I’ve heard it, but I take the things I hear with a grain of salt. It’s a two-way street. My philosophy always in my job and as mayor is if you treat people with respect, they’ll treat you with respect. For the most part. For the most part. I think the important thing for management at the Town is to remember that they are employees of this people of this town, and if someone comes in to you with a reasonable request, then it’s your job to make sure that you fulfill that request, if you can, in an efficient and a friendly manner. Customer service is all-important. And sometimes it’s pretty difficult to deliver friendly, good customer service when you’re dealing with people like— what I used to do in teaching, Dave, interview time. I’d tell parents when they’d come in— actually, I told them at our parent “Meet the Creature Night” we called it, at the very beginning of the year. So parents would come in and I’d lay my philosophy on the line. It was very simple. “I’m here to help your child. I hope you are, too, because then we’ll get along.” I don’t want to come across as that I’ve experienced it personally. But I’ve heard people come into the store all the time and talk. Staff need to realize that they have to serve the public in a friendly and efficient manner. And if they’re not doing it, they shouldn’t be there. Over the last number of years, for a number of reasons, because the community center project and East Fonthill, there’s been a lot of flak coming both ways. Residents feel they’re not getting the answers they need to get. Not just the staff, but the Town in general figures that they’re providing the answers and people just aren’t listening. So unless you’re on the inside experiencing what’s going on, it’s very difficult to say either they’re wrong, or the public’s wrong. But just based on what I’ve heard— you’ve got to be customer friendly, and the public is your customer if you’re a Town staffer.
What do you make of the current staffing numbers in Town Hall?
A lot of it is driven by liability in this day and age. It first started when I was mayor. When you look at the front desk, the auditors started talking to us at that time about, “Well, you can’t have this person handling the money and that same person paying it out. It’s got to be two different people for liability reasons.” And I think a lot of that kind of thing may have driven some of the expansion at Town Hall, as well as the increased workload. I’m not sure whether it’s being run efficiently or not. It just seems to me that everything is driven by liability these days. You want to protect your backside, so you hire somebody to do that job. The good old days, one person did it all because they could. It’s hard to say who is not needed or who is needed. The town is growing. When I was mayor, we were really challenged in some areas, especially in planning and development. We were really challenged because of the very small staff that we had at the time. And I’m not prepared to say that the number of staff we’ve got now is too great or it’s too low. I will tell you that once all of this is developed in East Fonthill, we are going to need a lot more people than we had when I was mayor. That’s for sure.
More people for?
Everything. Everything. I mean, I was just looking at staff at Town Hall this morning, on the website. And you see in Recreation, I think there are four or five people, including an administrative assistant. Well, when this new building is up and running, those four or five people are going to have a hard time if the Centre is being run right. So you’re probably going to see an expansion. One of the major responsibilities of municipalities is cultural and recreation activities. The public needs to understand that municipalities are mandated by the province to provide those kind of things. So we can make up our own minds what level we want to provide them, but at some point you have to decide that you’re going to bite the bullet and do what’s necessary. I think in the town of Pelham, for a number of years, we’ve gotten away, in a lot of situations, with the bare minimum. It’s not saying the programs weren’t good, but there were probably other things that we could have and should have been providing that we didn’t.
Doesn’t that depend on resident demand?
Yeah. And you’re seeing now that we’re getting a lot of people moving into the municipality from the GTA and they’re used to having a lot more services, so they’re asking about what services are provided. If we want to continue to be a viable community, then we have to provide the services that are necessary. Otherwise, what are we doing? Why are we here?
But think about this for a second. When you say if we want to remain a “viable community,” what does that really mean?
Well, I hear from all kinds of people who are lifelong residents like I am, the community is growing and we’re losing our identity. And at the same time, I’ve heard those people complaining about the cost of providing certain types of services. Well, we’re going to lose our identity if we’re sending our people off to other communities in Niagara to access those services. You maintain your character and your culture in your community by having your people participate in things in your community. You know, I always go back to looking at some of the old smaller communities in the GTA. They have managed to maintain their community identity even though they are part of the city of Toronto now.
Rexdale is one example. Don Mills is another one. They’ve lost something, sure, but you don’t go into Don Mills and play a Toronto AAA hockey team. You play the Don Mills Flyers. They still have those organizations active in their municipalities. And I don’t want to leave this out—the business community in those municipalities is to a very great extent responsible for that because they form their BIAs. They’ve been very active. Probably the most notable one in Toronto is the Danforth. So they’ve been able to create and maintain that kind of community spirit even though they’re in a huge city.
Back on the “viability” thing. What we hear, both through letters to the editor and talk on the street, is that there are so many facilities, athletic facilities, concert facilities, restaurants, etc., within a very short drive of Fonthill and of Pelham, here in Niagara, and there’s really no solid business case to be made for Pelham building these facilities here. People who move to Pelham move here for the country—arguably idyllic, country lifestyle, and that’s what’s being lost. Remaining “viable” may not necessarily be found in a new Food Basics.
Well, you know what? If you’re content to travel out of town for all of these things, you can make that argument. But if you’re like me, and I believe in this municipality, if you want to keep the municipality vibrant and alive, then you need to keep the people that live here doing things in town. As a business person, I applaud what they’ve done in that new shopping centre, even though it brings in more competition. In the long run it will keep more people here in town shopping than running off to the Pen Centre or to Welland. And that’s the whole name of the game for businesses. If you don’t have the traffic, you die.
At the same time, you can appreciate how the perspective that you’ve just described is a business perspective.
And that there are relatively few residents of Pelham who are business owners.
But from the perspective of a resident who’s not involved in business, would you prefer to hop in your car and drive two minutes down the road to do your grocery shopping? Because now you have a couple of different grocery stores. Or do you want to drive to Costco in St. Catherines to do it? I mean, you’re going to go to Costco anyway.
Well, if you were asking me personally, I would prefer to drive a little farther out of town than have the amount of development that’s coming in now that we’re seeing.
That development is inevitable because of the province. You’re mandated by the province to have a certain number of years of development land within your municipal boundaries. The only thing that the municipality can really control is the speed at which that development takes place and the character of the development.
What’s your opinion of the character of the development so far.
Overall, I’m pleased. I think it’s meeting the need that we have here in town. I think the commercial development was well-planned, and it’s attractive. That, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. We’ll have to see what’s happening in the housing area. I suppose there will be some cookie-cutter stuff. But that type of development leads to more affordable housing, which we also need. I hear the seniors all the time complaining about the prices. They’re not looking for a six or seven or eight-hundred-thousand-dollar home. They’re looking at something under five hundred thousand. And hopefully, we’ll have a bit of that here with this Fonthill development. About the Community Centre, I think it’s going to be a great boon to the municipality. I want to give the present council credit for moving ahead. I know there’s a lot of controversy around the financing and that. People will expect to hear this from me, but I fully support what they’ve done. I think the design is beautiful. And I hope it gets used as effectively as it potentially can be. But the one thing that is missing, Dave, is that swimming pool. I hope that as soon as this project is done, the council will look forward three or four or five years down the road and start planning for that. Because I think it’s something that’s absolutely necessary as well.
Was the second pad necessary?
You wouldn’t have rather seen a pool there?
I don’t think it’s a case of either-or. There’s not an efficiently run single pad arena in the province of Ontario. Probably nowhere in the world. When you stop and think about it, okay, you put that second pad in, takes the same number of people to service it as it does a single pad, but you double the potential revenue stream from it. And that’s another thing too. People say that arenas never pay for themselves. No. Of course they don’t. And they shouldn’t be expected to. Does the library pay for itself? We still have a library. We still put tax money into that. And do the baseball fields and the soccer fields pay for themselves? No. They don’t, but we put tax money into that.
There’s a significantly less amount of capital expense in painting lines on grass for a baseball field.
That is true. But the fact of the matter is that we live in a country where skating on ice, and playing hockey, and all kinds of things like that are very popular. We go through cycles where activity in those sports drops off a little bit but it tends to bounce back over time. The only part of hockey in Canada that is really growing right now is women’s hockey. For decades women have played second fiddle to the boys who were playing hockey. Well, this gives the opportunity to expand even more of that part of the game. And if it’s run properly, not only you can have lacrosse in there in the summer time, lots of other things you can do in them too, like having concerts and that type of thing. And it will be nice for something like the Art Festival to be able to come in, and you still have a venue that can be used for the hockey and lacrosse while the Art Festival is going on. So everybody benefits. There was a reason that we bought the 32 acres. We looked at the future and the kinds of things that could be put down there on a permanent basis. And one of the things that’s always been of interest to me, because we are a farming community—not as much as we used to be—but how about a permanent farmers’ market that could be run all year long?
I look at a farmers’ market in the city of Welland. They have a nice building there with a kitchen that can be used for community activities, and by service clubs as well. And that’s over and above what you can do in a Community Centre facility. Despite the controversy over the funding—I took a look at the funding plan that they put together when they first brought it out. I wasn’t unhappy with it, based on what I’ve been told in the past by municipal economists. And we had that discussion yesterday. I’m still not unhappy with it. There’s a lot of if’s in there. Like you said, if the growth takes place the way it’s supposed to. But there’s always if’s in everything. Any big project that you do. I mean, a developer comes in and puts up a new shopping plaza. What if all the stores don’t rent out?
Interesting you’ve mentioned that. There’s a surprising number of vacancies in this new Fonthill Marketplace.
Well, I’ll tell you, I think that there are still some businesses in town that are planning on moving over. It’s going to take a place like that a year or two to fill up. I was approached about moving my business down there but we still have four years left on our lease here and were quite happy with our landlord. It will fill up eventually. In the meantime, they’ve got their anchors in there.
One thing we have heard, and I have to say that I personally agree with this, is that the signage in Pelham, the commercial signage, can be pretty garish and a little bit too in-your-face. Is there something that could be done, do you think, in line with what Niagara-on-the-Lake did, and other communities have done, to sort of rein-in the worst of it?
You have to be careful what you want council to do. If you want them to take total control of every aspect of the development, down to the very design of the buildings, they can do it. We did it in the Lookout development up behind the fire hall. We exerted architectural control in there. We were afraid that the developer had a reputation for cookie-cutter homes, and the council that I was on didn’t want that. One of the things the developer said when we did this was, “These are not going to be affordable homes.” As a council, we knew that was going to be the case. And I think the results speak for themselves. A lot of people want to live there if they can afford it.
You could argue that it’s not absent it’s own cookie-cutter look, though. There are a lot of very similar designs.
Yeah, there’s only so much that you can do, really. But they are upscale homes, there’s absolutely no doubt about that. And that’s what the developer said to us when we were bargaining with him. They’re going to be expensive homes. And they are. I’m just saying just be careful what you wish for because it can lead to results, down the road, that you didn’t expect and you didn’t want. Understand what it is you’re asking for before you ask for it because, generally speaking, I think government should be a facilitator.
We should facilitate what we believe the electorate wants us to do, the direction we want to go. I’m a long-time politics nut. I have some real— even though I’m a socialist—I have some real problems with government interference in the things that should be up to the individual. And part of that’s the individual’s fault because they don’t want to take responsibility. I’ll give you a good example. I was thinking about this one today. When I was mayor, I went to the police chief because a lot of people were complaining about speeding in town. I said, “You know, we need more enforcement,” and I gave him an example. “I live out on Chantler Road, out in the rural area. They come down there 120k an hour. We need radar out there once in a while just to send a message.” So I’m coming home from the office one night and I’m late for something, going down Chantler Road, and a cop steps out and pulls me over. And he said, “Could I see your license, sir?” I give him my license and he looks at it and he started laughing. He said, “You should know better!” And I said, “Don’t you dare let me off. Give me the ticket.” And he did. Well, you and I were talking yesterday about traffic on Haist Street, the speed humps and all of that. If we could depend on everybody to obey the law, they wouldn’t be necessary. But people don’t. And the police will tell you that the vast majority of the people they stop on Haist for speeding, or did before we had these things built in, were local residents.
Well, that’s a good segue. There’s a proposal now to require a right turn at the foot of Church Hill, which would send traffic down College Street and up Station to come back to Pelham Street. And there’s a similar proposal to mandate a right-turn-only at the arches on Pelham Town Square. Any opinion on this one?
Oh yes! From the residents’ point of views, first of all, if you live on College Street, you better be fighting this one big time, because that’s where all the traffic is going to go. And from a business perspective, it’s just one more hurdle for businesses. I mean, the problem at the foot of Church Hill is the fact that those signals on Pelham Street cannot be seen by the people coming down Church Hill. If you happen to be new to the area and don’t realize that there’s a signalized crosswalk there, you’re pulling out and going through them. The same is true over here coming out of our plaza by the library. In front of the library, the crosswalk there. Coming out of our plaza, people coming out and wanting to make a left turn, they don’t see that signal there.
And at the arches?
At one time that was supposed to be signalized. The Region had built it into their budget. I can claim responsibility—I told them, “No, don’t put it in!”
Yeah! Simply because it was too close to the signal on 20.
Do you still feel that way?
Yes. The one parking spot near the TD Bank is the big problem. When there’s a car parked in that space, you can’t see the oncoming traffic very well. So again, I guess it comes back to personal responsibility. Take some responsibility and do what the driving code tells you to do. If you can’t see down there, just creep up a little bit at a time until you can see. And people do that.
But isn’t it also true that the amount of traffic in the last 10 years has increased, and certainly in the 10 years to come will multiply to the point that some sort of better control at that intersection will be required?
Well, if we’re going to do that, then we need to have a community-wide traffic plan. One of the councilors on my council used to call these stop signs and traffic signals “political stop signs.” You put them there because people are complaining about it and that really doesn’t solve the problem. Again, personal responsibility. Do what you’re supposed to do and the problems are largely solved.
Do you really have any hope that that’s going to happen? Let’s take texting while driving, or using your cell phone while driving. I see it multiple times a day. I’m sure you do too. How do you cope with that?
I think that the laws need to be stiffened. Statistics and studies show you’re just as likely to get into an accident texting as you are if you’re driving under the influence. Make the penalties equal. Take their license away for 24 hours or whatever, and seize their vehicle. That’s the thing that will get people’s attention. Back in the early part of the 2000s, they tried to experiment in Niagara with red-light cameras. People were dead against it because it’s an “intrusion.” No, it’s not. It’s an easy way to enforce the law.
Even as a dyed-in-the-wool NDP partisan, you’d be okay with red- light cameras?
Oh, I certainly would. Because you see it all the time, and people keep pushing it more and more and more. But if they’re getting a ticket for running that red light, even though they didn’t see a cruiser around, they’re going to have second thoughts about it next time. And it’s unfortunate that you have to have negative reinforcement to get you to act the right way, but it quite often is the case.
Anything I missed that you want to comment on?
There’s all kinds of things, but not all of them related to the Town.
All right. I appreciate your time.
Not a problem.