The pandemic has posed challenges for many; “I am very proud of the way our community handled this,” said the mayor.
A combination of the resilience of the Orillians and the level of activity in the city makes the mayor confident about the year ahead.
Steve Clarke recently reflected on the ups and downs of 2021, and naturally the COVID-19 pandemic has been a big factor.
“As much as the pandemic has been on all of us, I must say I am very proud of the way our community has handled this. It was not easy, “he said.
He made the comments at a time when the region was seeing a record number of cases, but he said “we would be in a much, much worse situation” – straining the health system – without the high vaccination rate. among the Orillians.
“It is really to the credit of our fellow citizens,” he said.
The pandemic hasn’t stopped the city from moving forward with some big projects.
Anticipating significant growth over the next few decades, the city has completed a Land Needs Analysis which determined the need for an additional 380 hectares of land, so annexation is being considered.
It presents challenges and opportunities. The city is considering both intensification and expansion, both of which have sparked criticism and controversy.
“We cannot continue to develop only in green spaces. We have to find a balance, ”Clarke said. “I think the balance can be found. “
When considering intensification, he said, “while it is inevitable that you develop to some extent, it is important that you do not lose the character of the city”.
He considers that the redevelopment of the downtown area and the waterfront plays a major role in this regard.
The city is expected to finalize an agreement with FRAM Building Group in the first quarter of 2022, which will pave the way for substantial residential and commercial development.
The front street esplanade, with the exception of the Metro grocery store, will be demolished in January and February as part of this project.
Other plans for this area of town also generated a lot of discussion and interest, including the realignment of Centennial Drive and a redesigned Terry Fox Circle.
“Not everyone got everything they wanted, but everyone got something they wanted,” Clarke said of the Terry Fox Circle. “It’s a significant compromise.”
The changes and proposed changes to the features of the park have turned out to be lightning rods in recent years. This includes the Samuel de Champlain monument.
After being removed for repairs in 2017, an effort began to reimagine the statue, with the goal of including additional elements to better recognize the history of Champlain and the indigenous peoples of the region.
However, in August, Parks Canada announced that the return of the monument would be “postponed” after the Huron-Wendat Nation and the Chippewa of Rama First Nation indicated “that they are no longer able to continue to participate in the process. (from the Champlain monument working group), noting that the circumstances surrounding this affair have changed.
This happened after the discovery of children’s graves in old residential schools.
“The fact that the pause button was pressed is absolutely justified,” Clarke said, adding that a “complete and accurate history” had to be described.
“Hopefully in 2022 we can land on what those extra pieces and education are.”
One of the biggest challenges facing the city and other jurisdictions is housing, the mayor said.
“Perhaps the most critical issue right now is our housing crisis,” he said. “House prices in Orillia had increased at an insane rate before the pandemic, and this was only exacerbated during the pandemic. “
The city’s affordable housing committee is looking for affordable housing development opportunities.
In addition, Simcoe County has opened an affordable housing center on the site of the former Orillia District Collegiate and Vocational Institute.
While the pandemic has put the housing crisis in the spotlight, it has, in some ways, had the opposite effect on the opioid crisis.
“It has unfortunately overshadowed our opioid problem in Canada and beyond,” despite the reported increase in overdoses over the past two years, Clarke said.
“I call it the pandemic within the pandemic,” he said. “Entire families are devastated by the loss of loved ones to addiction. Those affected come from all demographic groups. “
It is difficult to tackle the problem only at the local level, he added. This is why he and other mayors hope that Canada will follow Portugal’s example in decriminalizing personal possession of all drugs, which has resulted in a decrease in drug use in that country.
“This is the transition that has to take place for there to be meaningful resolution,” Clarke said.
Another problem that is bigger than any city or country is climate change, but municipalities and individual citizens can do their part, the mayor said.
“We are seeing all kinds of evidence of the effects of climate change, and every municipality will have to find a way to mitigate the effects of climate change but also to adapt to it,” he said.
Orillia’s climate change action plan is expected to be presented to the board in January and will include suggested actions.
The city is already looking for ways to electrify its fleet and make municipal buildings as energy efficient as possible.
Looking ahead to 2022, Clarke is excited about the city’s development.
“Much of it is already underway,” he said, referring to the waterfront redevelopment, the first of three Hydro One facilities and the county housing hub as examples.
However, his main hope is to “kick COVID in the butt, out the door and get as many people vaccinated as possible before another variant has a chance to evolve in our region.”