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The State of the City is also the State of Criticism

This week's Market Squared looks at one mayor's speech, and another mayor's death, to see the whole picture of modern municipal pressures
Mayor Cam Guthrie delivered the 2023 Mayor's State of the City Address, an event hosted by Guelph Chamber of Commerce, on Thursday morning.

I was talking with someone before this week’s State of the City and I said that I only go to see what gimmick Mayor Cam Guthrie uses during the speech.

I can joke about this because I’m in the news business, I’m at every council meeting, and I like to think I have my finger on the pulse about the political challenges facing this city. Members of the Chamber of Commerce, I understand, are busy with other things like running their businesses, so I get why I find these things relatively spoiler-free.

Having said that, it was kind of a surprise when Guthrie said Thursday morning that he was going gimmick-free for this speech. No board game, no sitcom parody, no reference to flash in the pan internet ephemera, just the straight dope.

Guthrie told the crowd of about 850 people at the Delta Hotel to “listen very carefully” to his words and his tone, and to watch his demeanor and body language. He kind of oversold it in my opinion. I don’t think anyone walked into breakfast Thursday thinking that the world is rainbows and unicorns, but you might be forgiven hearing the mayor cue up his speech and think that these might be the last bacon and eggs you ever eat.

But I reached back into my conscious mind to some of the things I’ve said in this space. I’ve noted in the past that sometimes communications from the City of Guelph and its representatives have been overly solicitous if not downright sunny, so perhaps the dose of cold water at the State of the City was warranted.

We’re in the same boat now and we all know it, and now we know that the city and mayor knows that we know.

As for the substance of the speech, I thought Guthrie struck a pretty good chord painting the urgency of the situation, the complexity of the problems, and the neglect of the provincial government. If he didn’t mention any easy solutions, it’s because there are none, which is why Guthrie put the emphasis on advocacy and partnerships.

One moment that kind of took me aback though was when Guthrie, Guelph’s affable jokey Mayor Dad, showed visible anger and frustration about the Ontario government’s refusal to meeting with the Big City Mayors Caucus on matters of social spending eight months after he called for one. Nero frosts cookies as Rome burns.

Guthrie also showed no small level of frustration with planning meeting delegates in advanced of the next slate of proposals.

“More often than not it is the same recipe of complaints from every neighbourhood. Not every development is going to destroy the value in your home, cause accidents and have children or animals run over or cause massive parking issues or have a design element that you don’t like,” he said.

He took a similar tact with local developers, though not quite as pointedly, saying, “Developers must have applications that are fully complete and ready for that stamp of approval from either staff or council if necessary. And developers have to commit to put shovels in the ground as quickly as the approvals come.”

Across the road from the Delta there’s a big empty lot where two big towers of student housing is supposed to be, and it’s been empty for three years even though the same developer is now at the OLT wanting to tear down another hotel for another tower of geared-to-students housing. I’m not sure if Guthrie was thinking about this, but I certainly was.

Speaking of student housing, Guthrie was asked directly in the Q&A about those issues, and he was sympathetic, but didn’t really put the feet of the University of Guelph to the fire for their role in the crisis.

In the course of his answer, Guthrie noted that the U of G admin is working on a housing plan of its own, which, I believe, is the first time that anyone has heard that they’re working on a housing plan. He also never suggested, even humbly, that perhaps the U of G could go back to pre-pandemic levels of enrollment until they can guarantee residence placements for all first-year students again.

But pointed criticism is not really what events like the State of the City are about.

Speaking of pointed criticism, I wanted to take a moment to talk about the passing of Hazel McCallion. While there’s no doubt that she represents tremendous progress for women in governance roles and made herself a powerful voice in Canadian politics by sheer force of will, there’s been a distinct lack of context about her political career and her so-called accomplishments.

While McCallion can’t be blamed exclusively for the model of sprawl that extends from one end of Highway #401 to the other, she certainly set a tone for sprawl as a model of success. As once observed, when she took over as the Mayor of Mississauga there were still cows grazing in the city centre, and by the end, Mississauga was a concrete block with more parking spaces than animals.

I hear this term thrown around a lot, “Guelph-issauga”, and it’s not a compliment, but you can’t call out the spawl monster, or 'sprawlster' if you like, without calling out its rubberstamp, “Hurricane Hazel”. Presently, there’s one government in Ontario that has taken on that McCallion playbook that there’s no problem that you can’t build your way out of while keep taxes low, and its head is Doug Ford.

You can honour Hazel the woman, but Hazel the politician created a type of thinking we’re still paying the price for: wealthy developers with a lot of power, a population with the mindset that property taxes are wasteful, and years of neglected City assets now pressing hard against our proverbial arteries.

Back in Guelph, Guthrie made the point that we can’t wait for a magical cure to these issues. We must act now because delay will end up costing us more in the long run.

So the State of the City is complicated, but then again, it always was.


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Adam A. Donaldson

About the Author: Adam A. Donaldson

In addition to writing his weekly political column for GuelphToday, Adam A. Donaldson writes and manages Guelph Politico, frequently writes for Nerd Bastards and sometimes has to do less cool things for a paycheque.
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