There are a number of advantages to attending Rotary. One is the good meals and fine company, another is to get involved in the community and the third is the quality of speakers.
This past Friday is was Mayor Chris Friel's time to speak to the club. I believe he said this was one of the first speeches he will make in the new year. So it was interesting to hear what he had to say. It was as you can remember an interesting election and I think he may have won because he was not a part of the last city council and the fact he had some progressive ideas and promises.
He began by mentioning he had some props with him, one was a congratulation note to a Rotarian who had been made a Paul Harris Fellow. The second was interesting, he brought a city flag that had flown in Afghanistan. One of the local young men who had been stationed had asked for a flag and had it flown over his Armoured Vehicle. It was a success and at the end, he had his platoon sign it, for the city to have. It was quite something to see the names and to realize where this flag had been, plus there was photographs showing the young man proudly flying the flag.
Mayor Chris said he wanted to connect with community groups because they are an important part of the community, and its one that is a challenge. The lives of people are becoming busy and find it a challenge to give time to make the community a better place.
He has a vision and wants to start with a Call to Action. To have all groups in the community get involved. To him an important part of the call is to celebrate the successes of Brantford. Most of the time we hear all that is wrong with Brantford, and he did admit being part of that when he spoke of the downtown as being the worst in Canada. The negative thought is still out there and is very vocal, to him one thing that surprised him was the vocal anti-University sentiment in the community. He heard that people are tired of the fact that the University has been on a free ride and has not brought much to the community. Yes there are students, but they have not brought about any change to the downtown, except to have students. It seems that to many, the City has given a lot to the University and has got nothing in return. In fact it appears all the changes, whether wanted by the people of the City appear to have the University as the motivator. Even the debate of making the roads in the downtown to two way is because of the University.
He took some of these criticisms and gave some answers; first of all the University has generated 38 million dollars worth of building permits over the past 10 years. This includes the 2.3 million for the new Academic Research Centre. Now the City has helped the University with its development. It has used surplus funds, for example, as well as given support through land sales. Also the City has donated building for the University, such as the Carnegie Centre and more recently the SJ Johnson building, which was the old CIBC building. All structures were abandoned and therefore cost the City nothing at all. The result of this is, 2050 students coming to the University. It is estimated these students generate 9.8-12.8 million dollars in economic activity to the downtown, this includes rent, food and retail. Some complain that the students haven't brought much retail, yet the stores that succeed are the ones that market to the students. As an aside, this is probably correct for most of them. Although I think it could be said the Fresh Co plaza probably has been developed by the student base.
What he has discovered is that outsiders are excited about what is taking place in the downtown of Brantford. He talked about discussions he had with a major development and the partners were very excited with what is happening. Projects were being developed that they wanted to be a part of and invest in the downtown.
Mayor Chris also confronted the complaint that the downtown is only for students and there is nothing for people in the north end, say to come downtown. He pointed out, of course, Harmony Square, which is the meeting space of the City. As well, the University is the place where change will commence. There is a lot of exciting things happening and things are even going to get more positive for Brantford. He spoke of the City 'exploding' with positive energy and things. He spoke of the continual need for dialogue between Brant County and the Six Nations. In fact he said there will be some "made in Brantford" decisions which will force the federal government to move forward on land claims. There will be local initiatives which will help the three communities to work together for a change.
One of the questions he was asked was regarding the future of Mohawk College; as we know there are noises of the College pulling out of Brantford. He said to bring Mohawk downtown and that is the desire will cost the City money. The benefits of the College is that it brings more students to the downtown, to the number of 1371. Both sides want to stay in Brantford, so now it is a matter of dealing with outstanding issues.
There was another question about one of the problems is students are only in the City 8 months of the year, is there a way to bring the Colleges and Universities to to full-time. The answer is waiting for the critical mass to be reached.
More good news is that there are other Universities and Colleges looking to expand into Brantford and into the downtown core. Again, this is the Call to Action, to celebrate the good news of Brantford and more from there.
There was warm applause after the speech. He was thanked and it was mentioned of his work keeping Mohawk in Brantford 10 years ago. So we have a mayor willing to take on the challenges facing the City.