With the early voting now opened in the townships this week, residents of Woolwich had the opportunity to prime themselves ahead of time at a meet the candidates event October 3 in the community room at the WMC.
Some 125 people came out for the session organized by the Woolwich Seniors Association. The all-candidates meeting brought together all five council hopefuls for the two contested wards in the township.
Running for the two seats in Ward 1 (Elmira) are candidates Scott McMillan, Julie-Anne Herteis (incumbent) and Patrick Merlihan (incumbent). In Ward 2 – the area representing the northwestern half of Woolwich, including Floradale, Heidelberg and St. Jacobs but excluding Elmira – are newcomers Fred Redekop and Eric Schwindt.
Mayor Sandy Shantz and Ward 3 incumbents Murray Martin and Larry Shantz were all returned by acclamation, as no other candidates stepped up.
At last week’s meeting, candidates were each given three minutes to explain their platforms, followed by a question-and-answer period hosted by moderators Rob Waters and Sebastian Siebel Achenbach. Questions were also fielded from the audience, and ran the gamut from traffic and housing concerns to the township’s greening initiatives.
The need for affordable housing, particularly for seniors and young families, was a major concern broached, with moderators asking candidates whether they felt it was a priority, and what the solutions might be.
Candidates unanimously agreed affordable housing was a priority of the upcoming council. Incumbents Herteis and Merlihan, however, noted the challenge of pushing contractors and developers to create affordable housing.
“We cannot dictate to the contractors and developers to do that, but we can highly suggest it to them,” said Herteis, who served as Ward 1 councillor from 2010-14 and was appointed to council again earlier this year following the resignation of Scott Hahn. “I think what I’d like to do is work with the Waterloo Region … and find out if there’s any way of maybe having a couple units that are subsidized on the housing market for seniors.
“I’m not sure how we can go about it, convincing the contractors and the developers into making more seniors’ housing,” she added.
Merlihan added that affordable housing, like many services in the township, actually fell under the regional government’s authority, and that local council was limited in what it could do. He noted the difficulty with just getting the region to maintain existing affordable housing in the township, let alone fund new projects.
He noted he had hoped to use the site of the old Riverside Public School for an affordable housing project, bringing up a motion at the October 2 council meeting.
“Just last night (Oct. 2) I brought up a motion for Woolwich council to start a process with the Riverside Public School on Williams Street. It’s been vacant for two years; council has asked staff to secure that property, to have a conversation with the community and see what we can do with that property to alleviate some of those housing shortfalls that we have,” he said.
“That’s something we can’t even talk about because right now the school board is just holding onto the property.”
The other candidates had their own suggestions.
“This is one of the most pressing issues to all municipalities across the province,” noted McMillan, agreeing there were no straightforward solutions to council. “I think we have to be open to all possible solutions. I know the City of Waterloo right now is working to improve the zoning process for adding nanny flats and existing suites into existing units. We’re going to need to get creative.”
“We’ve had a great project here in Elmira recently called the Foundry … and that’s through MennoHomes,” said Redekop, a Ward 2 candidate. “As Patrick [Merlihan] mentioned, it’s a regional issue. And so we’ll have to continue to advocate on behalf of our seniors.”
“I see the township’s role as an enabler: and how does the township make it easier for that housing to appear?” said fellow Ward 2 candidate Schwindt, suggesting reducing unnecessary restrictions in the bylaws could help entice developers with lower costs. Large rural homes were another possible source of low-income housing, he added, such through basement apartments and in-law suites.
Traffic formed another major theme at the meeting, with moderators calling the islands and boulevards on Church Street in Elmira a “disgrace” and questioning prospective councillors about traffic in the broader township.
Merlihan noted Woolwich council had just voted to install left-hand turn lanes at the Church and Arthur street intersection to alleviate traffic woes in town, at the cost of a few roadside parking spots. Candidates weighed in on the lost parking spots, with Herteis and Schwindt leaning against the idea, and McMillan in favour.
“I think sometimes you have to give up space for traffic efficiency,” said McMillan. “But I think sometimes it would also be nice to give up space for a sidewalk café, or a wider sidewalk that you could walk hand-in-hand with your wife… Creating a space where you want to spend time, which then allows businesses to move in and serve those people that are spending time in your downtown.”
For traffic in Elmira, Schwindt was strongly supportive of a bypass route for trucks, which would take heavy traffic through the town’s industrial area, away from the downtown core. The plan has long stalled on the regional government’s priorities, with Schwindt suggesting a renewed push was needed.
“As an opportunity lost, we have an opportunity now to push that project forward, to start that conversation again about bypassing Elmira,” he said. “Definitely, downtown, small communities weren’t meant for truck traffic.”
However, others pointed out the likelihood of successfully petitioning the region for the funding anytime soon was minimal.
“The region is looking at a bypass, but again, it’s kind of like your Highway 7. Eventually it will get there,” said Herteis.
Both Arthur and Church streets were regional roads, she noted, with the region once again having the final say on the matter.
“Working with the region is about the best option we have at this point,” she said, adding that residents too could help advocate for the bypass route. “If you guys want to submit your comments to the region too, that might help put a little fire.”
McMillan agreed the region was likely to delay the project.
“Probably the thing that I’ve heard the most about when I’m out knocking on doors, talking to people is, ‘When are we getting the bypass?’” he said.
“I think right now the strategy of the region has been to make our main street as efficient for trucks as possible, until we can spend tens of millions of dollars to create an even more efficient way for trucks,” he added, suggesting a fundamental re-think in street planning was needed.
“The main goal of a street shouldn’t be to move a truck as fast as we can from the Listowel cutoff to the north end of the township. The main goal of a street should be to attract people, to attract diverse activities, create room for active transportation, create space that people want to spend time in.”
Merlihan admitted that many of the problems being discussed by the candidates had been present in the township for years. The challenge, he suggested, was that many of the problems, from housing to roadways, were controlled at the regional level, rather than by the local council.
“As the night goes on and we have these questions that all involve the region, you’re going to maybe hear a theme come from me. I’m very frustrated with the region – dealing with any of these traffic issues in particular, but affordable housing [as well],” he said.
He noted that the region was sometimes quick to dismiss the lower-tier municipality’s concerns, or otherwise claimed there was not enough funds available to invest – either in new housing, roadwork or other projects.
“And it’s really unfortunate. It will take more than just us on council asking the region. It will take the community to say, ‘Hey, we need this addressed. We say it’s a problem.’”
Election day is October 22, though voting is now open early to residents via the internet and telephone.