BY DAVE BURKET
Ontario Premier Doug Ford made a quick stop in Fonthill last Thursday to announce that the Town of Pelham is the recipient of a provincial grant.
Beamer’s Hardware owners Lloyd Beamer and his wife, Shirley, longtime conservatives, were pleased to host the Premier at their store, saying that a call had come earlier in the week from Niagara West MPP Sam Oosterhoff, asking whether they were interested.
A few customers paid for items, seemingly oblivious to the growing number of television cameras being mounted on tripods, tucked behind a black velvet rope on the far side of the cash register.
“We ask that you to stay on this side of the rope,” one of Ford’s communications staff told reporters as they entered.
Shortly before Ford’s arrival, the front door was locked and a serious looking OPP plainclothes officer in suit and tie, standing near a stack of water softener salt, turned even more serious.
Entering from the back door, Ford, accompanied by Oosterhoff, strode past tubes of caulk, spray bottles of insecticide, and tiny tubes of Krazy Glue, to reach an acrylic lectern featuring a sign in Tory blue reading, “FOR THE PEOPLE.” Two glasses of water stood ready to quench any speech-incited thirst.
Ford and Oosterhoff greeted the Beamers, and Mayor Marvin Junkin, the only Pelham office holder notified of the event.
While the press was not briefed in advance as to what Ford would announce, it was an open secret that it would relate to local infrastructure.
Reading from a prepared statement, Ford said that the province is allocating $1.67 million dollars toward reconstruction of Pelham Street—consisting of an approximately 2.5 KM stretch from downtown Fonthill to just south of Quaker Road. If confirmed by Town Council, the project will include sidewalks, cycling lanes, storm drains and other water works, and new street lighting.
However, the total projected cost for the work—first proposed in 2012, at just under $7 million dollars—is nearly $8 million dollars. The project was delayed over the intervening years, due in large part to the Town’s focus on East Fonthill and the community centre, the completion of which came to take precedence over virtually anything else.
Barb Wiens, Pelham’s Director of Planning and Development, noted that the reconstruction plan significantly exceeded the Town’s annual road budget.
“Proceeding with this project required the funding support from other levels of government,” said Wiens. “The Town had the foresight to have the design of this project ready to be able to qualify for funding programs. Receiving a commitment from the Province for $1.67million is a most welcomed contribution and we are pleased that the provincial government has nominated this project to the federal government for the federal portion of funding.”
An additional $2.6 million grant for the work may announced soon by the federal government, according to Mayor Junkin, who said he thought there was a “99.9 percent chance” that the federal funds would come through before this fall’s election.
“This is a very significant grant for a Town the size of Pelham,” said Junkin. “It was also a nice touch that the Premier traveled to Pelham to make the announcement.”
Junkin echoed Wiens’ nod to Town staff.
“It was a fantastic effort by staff that got this grant application in front of the right people at the provincial level.”
In the meantime, staff are working on the 2020 budget, said Wiens, which will require a decision of council to commit to the Town’s portion of funding for the project.
Town CAO David Cribbs was also pleased by the cash.
“This provincial funding is a most welcome contribution that will allow the Town to move forward on this critical file,” said Cribbs. “We are thrilled to partner with Ontario to help improve local infrastructure which will increase both safety and traffic flow.”
According to a Ford spokesperson, Fonthill was one of five stops that the Premier made on his swing through Niagara, ending with a $1000-dollar-a-plate Progressive Conservative fundraiser at a Beamsville winery, where he was reportedly greeted by protesters upset over the government’s planned changes in funding for those with autism.
Two protesters were also in Fonthill, and a third arrived after Ford’s departure. As the Premier spoke inside Beamer’s, Katherine Hunt and Joe Serianni stood on the sidewalk, holding signs and earning the occasional toot of support from passing motorists.
After briefly detailing the Pelham grant, as well as a number of grants for other provincial infrastructure and transit projects, Ford went on to speak at greater length regarding what he asserted were his government’s overall accomplishments thus far.
Asked whether it was okay to get some photos from the back, the serious looking OPP officer told the Voice to go ahead. Shortly later, a Ford staffer was less enthusiastic with the rogue snapping.
“Please stay behind the rope,” she said, a touch grumpily.
A handful of television crews recorded the proceedings, and three or four print reporters scribbled away. The event was closed to the public, to the disappointment of some onlookers who knocked on the locked front door, only to be told by Ford’s team that unless they were press they would not be admitted.
The sole exception, by some force of nature, appeared to be Fonthill residents and PC stalwarts Bernie Law and his wife, Sue. Not even senior Town staff got the nod, to the Mayor’s mild frustration.
Prepared remarks concluded, Ford took questions.
Asked by the Voice whether his recent flagging poll numbers had led him to rethink his government’s proposal to bring some form of municipal amalgamation to Niagara, Ford scoffed.
“Well, that’s the Toronto Star’s numbers,” said Ford. “I don’t believe the Toronto Star readership polls. I believe the ones at election time.”
Amalgamation, he said, was still on the table.
“[Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark] will be rolling that out over the next little while, and he’ll be able to speak to that. But let me speak to the people in the Niagara Region—”
Here Ford turned to Oosterhoff to confirm the number of office holders for Niagara’s 400,000-odd residents. Oosterhoff told him that it was 136.
“A hundred and thirty-six,” repeated Ford. “It’s almost comical. A hundred and thirty-six politicians for four hundred thousand people. Something’s wrong. That’s just wasting taxpayers’ money. But I have all the confidence in the world in Minister Clark to straighten out any of those issues, and make sure we respect the taxpayers, and run a leaner and more efficient government.”
Asked whether he would have any input himself, Ford said that, “like any decision we make,” the matter would go to caucus, to local representatives, to the people, and to cabinet.
“The most important people to us are the stakeholders, the people. The people make the decision. I can assure you—you go door-knocking and you tell the locals that they have a hundred and thirty-six politicians and that’s where their tax dollars are going—I’ve heard it, they aren’t too happy about that.”
With a concluding smile, Ford turned and headed back past the adhesives and insect killers to depart the way he had arrived. Oosterhoff, on the other hand, made a point of going out to the sidewalk to speak briefly with the pair of autism protesters who had remained throughout.
“I was very happy and impressed that Sam came out to address us and acknowledge us,” said Joe Seriani, of Welland, whose 3-year-old son is autistic. “It showed a lot of who he is. I was let down that Doug snuck out the back.”
Seriani said he is scheduled to meet with Oosterhoff this week to discuss his situation.
“My major concern is the current funding that was rolled out this year—not one family has received any funding that is on the wait list, and I do not understand why it takes so long for the government to release these funds they talk about.”
Seriani said his son was recommended to receive 10 to 15 hours a week of therapy, while the family can only afford three hours out of pocket.
“I can only imagine how beneficial and the success he would get if he actually received needs-based therapy.”
Inside, a St. Catharines Standard reporter interviewed Mayor Junkin as the TV crews silently packed their gear. A moment later, Junkin left through the rear door to walk back to Town Hall, and found the Premier standing next to a black SUV in the store’s parking lot, a cellphone to his ear and smoking a cigarette. They exchanged a wave.
At the register, two sales were chalked up to security staff—one cellphone charger, and one jug of deck wash.
The previously serious looking OPP officer was now all smiles as he held up the deck wash.
“This is gonna be my weekend,” he said, heading out the front door.
While you’re here…consider taking out a Voice Membership to express your support for local journalism.