Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that in a town with two board game cafes and board game nights at numerous pubs and coffee shops that Mayor Cam Guthrie would use the concept of a board game to deliver his State of the City last week.
Sounds like fun, right? It’s a bright, cheerful and interactive way to talk about the accomplishments of the City of Guelph at an event that’s ostensibly a promotional opportunity. Being hosted by the Chamber of Commerce, business is top of mind for the State of the City, and the best business is done by putting your best face forward.
Having said that, you know that the State of the City is not going to be about its real state. Instead, it’s about #GuelphAwesome, or rather #GuelphProud, a laundry list of actions that taken together might make Guelph sound like the mythical Shangri-La come to life.
The mayor did mention that transit’s got issues, but none that would be solved by throwing money at them. The service review will tell us what to do, eventually, but in the meantime, the city’s doing its best. Hey, you’re getting the posted schedules back at the bus stops right? See, City Hall listens!
I sat there wondering how many in the room, like me, had taken the bus to get to the Delta Hotel and Conference Centre that morning, and I strongly suspected that I alone arrived on Guelph Transit.
The point being that there are two sides to the story, and as I pointed out last year in the column I wrote after the State of the City, there’s one side of the story that gets no play in the mayor’s speech.
Interestingly, the State of the City was delivered the day after the VitalSigns report from the Guelph Community Foundation, Toward Common Ground, and the Community Engaged Scholarship Institute at the University of Guelph was released. Some of the numbers in that report were quite stunning, and about as far from the picture painted in the State of the City as Sri Lanka is from Downtown Guelph.
Startlingly, 11 per cent of people in Guelph live in poverty, according to the report. One in four families with one parent live in poverty, and 13 per cent of children in the city are technically poor. Nearly one out of every five households in the Royal City experience food insecurity, and one in 10 households struggle with housing that is either inadequate, unsuitable or unaffordable.
This report comes one week after the annual 20,000 Homes report to city council by the Guelph and Wellington Task Force for Poverty Elimination. That report, which focused on housing, painted a grim picture of homelessness in Guelph where the number of youth on the street has increased and the “creativity” of city social agencies being able to put a roof over the heads of those in need is starting to show its strain.
This is worth noting because Mayor Guthrie mentioned rather prominently at the end of his speech that he wants to see a city where “everyone has a chance for a good job, a home they can afford, and where no one gets left behind.”
Great. But there’s a disconnect with the shiny happy Guelph the mayor spent 40 minutes outlining, and the statistical data from two reports from local agencies delivered one week apart.
Maybe disconnect is the wrong word. Maybe it’s a wall.
I realize that “wall” is a four-letter word these days because of *somebody’s* crazy obsession to build a wall on the southern border of the country they’re president of, but to say “wall” here is another way of saying barrier.
And this is not just a barrier between poor and wealthy. There are plenty of people with a good paying job that can’t afford a house, and for those that couldn’t afford a house anyway, Guelph’s incredibly low vacancy rate is making it none too easy for even people with an okay paying job find just a nice place to rent.
Now, the VitalSigns report did have a number of positive things to say about life in Guelph. We have good air quality, a safe community, generous donors and volunteers, and we are fairly well educated. What’s concerning though is that there are so many people being held back by systemic poverty, that you know it’s hard for those people to enjoy the benefits of living in Guelph. What good is being a top 10 city for Culture Days when you struggle to keep a roof over your head and food in your belly?
And none of that is to say that the mayor shouldn’t tout the accomplishments of the city, especially at an early morning breakfast with business leaders who would probably rather not hear about how Guelph is failing the most vulnerable over their scrambled eggs and bacon.
Still, Mayor Guthrie thought outside the [game] box in terms of the format of his speech, but I think we need to further re-think how we handle these types of speeches.
The hosts of the podcast Pod Save America, all of who are former staffers in the Obama White House, supposed a scenario where the State of the Union isn’t a laundry list of policy proposals, but rather a tight 20-minute discussion of one issue. Since the State of the City is modelled on the U.S. tradition, I wonder if maybe we can’t do the same thing.
There’s an entire mechanism at city hall meant to tout every new accomplishment of the administration. We, in the media, pick-up on those none-too-subtle hints and post about them. I don’t think anyone in town let the knowledge that the scaffolding on the Petrie Building came down pass them by, and time lapse videos are fun and all, but honestly, are their more important things that this platform can be used for?
What the State of the City ably proved was that this is an affluent community, but affluence doesn’t trickle down like it should. And at an event with so many business leaders, I wonder if the time might be better spent addressing how the successful in Guelph might be mobilized to address the challenges we face rather than just pat ourselves on the back for the success already achieved.
The building of new community centres, business complexes and parkades are all important developments for the city, but a real shake up in the status quo would be a State of the City that touts a record year in working to eliminate homelessness and poverty. Sadly, go from rags to riches is a little more difficult in real life than it is when you’re playing a board game.