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Virtual town hall updates effects of pandemic on community issues

Prince Edward County Mayor Steve Ferguson with Picton councillor Phil St.-Jean at a second Virtual Town Hall discussion.

By Sharon Harrison
Speaking to issues of tourism, events, construction, housing and several hot issues, Prince Edward County’s mayor praises the community, and the municipality, for efforts to move forward through the global pandemic.

“We have learned from COVID-19 and we have learned how resilient our community is,” said Mayor Steve Ferguson, during the recent second in a series of virtual Town Hall discussions hosted by the Picton Kinsmen on Eastlink cable and its YouTube channel.

Picton councillors Phil St-Jean and Kate MacNaughton came up with the idea to hold virtual town hall discussions to provide updates to constituents during the COVID-19 pandemic where face-in-face meetings are limited due to safety protocols. Members of the public were invited to submit questions.

St-Jean noted the last session with MacNaughton had been viewed a number of times and he was pleased with the public’s response.

“Keeping in touch with our residents in whatever ways we can is vitally important,” added Ferguson. “We’ve got other councillors who are reaching out in other ways. John Hirsch, for example, sends out a daily email blast; Bill Roberts does a monthly summary of agenda items, others are on Facebook and other social media, but everybody is reaching out and communicating with our residents and it is vitally important.”

The impact of COVID-19 on the community was one of a number of items discussed, along with tourism, the Sir John A. Macdonald statue, the Picton Terminals cruise ship proposal, the 2021 budget and construction.

COVID-19
“When COVID arrived through the declaration made by the World Health Organization on March 11, it changed the world, including Prince Edward County,” said Ferguson. “Over the months we have being going through this, we have never lost sight of the fact that health and safety are important. That said, the coronavirus has had such a profound effect on our community and the way in which we interact with each other and the way we behave.”

Ferguson noted the many community events that people have not been able to do, and won’t be able to do for the foreseeable future – “the things that make this community what it is”, including fairs and Santa Claus parades.

And while he reassures County residents will get through the pandemic by adhering to safety protocols of social distancing, wearing a mask, and hand sanitization, he also suggested tourism may take on a different look in 2021.

Despite an overwhelming number of tourists during the pandemic, there were eight cases of COVID-19 (currently zero) reported in Prince Edward County. As of Oct. 19, there have been 66 cases, the majority at 35, in Belleville.

The influx of tourists to the County this summer, Ferguson said was difficult for the municipality and resident, but understandable given how so many attractions and amenities were closed across the province and beyond.

“We did the best we could, and staff deserve a lot of credit for the steps they took.”

He said it is something that will be dealt with differently next year. Council has asked staff to explore ways to better manage tourism before next summer.

“We’ve needed a tourism management plan for some time, but this summer we really had a situation with numbers and the way in which people got around the County.” Ferguson said.

The plan is to be presented by January with ideas on how the municipality can better manage tourism, including waterfronts, roadways, and so on.

“Going hand-in-hand with that, is the park management.”

Ferguson said in his meetings this year with Jeff Yurek, Minister of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, he suggested the Sandbanks Provincial Park needs a different kind of management because its significant appeal as a destination for tourists.

“The minister has committed to putting together a different way of operating the park for 2021,” Ferguson said. “That will dovetail with the tourist management plan that staff are putting together.”

He also noted that whether the United States border is still closed then or not, he fully expects Prince Edward County will be in the same situation again next year regarding tourists.

“I still think we are going to be living with COVID next summer, and we have to plan around that. We have to manage people in the interests of safety and public health.”

St-Jean added that while the County’s population is around 25,000, the visitor population is in excess of 750,000 within a very short period of time.

Ferguson asks people “to keep their chin up” during the pandemic and reminds that everyone is affected by it in one way, shape or form. “Please have patience,” he said.

As the holiday season approaches he hopes residents will continue to support local businesses, whether it’s restaurants, stores or markets and try to avoid online shopping where possible.

St. Jean and Ferguson, also worked through other questions submitted by the public.

SIR JOHN
The Holding Court statue of Sir John A. Macdonald located outside Picton branch library on Picton Main Street was remains a hot topic while the review process for the statue is under way.

St-Jean stated social media has been flooded with commentary, both for and against, producing passionate conversation.

“There is a process under way,” said St-Jean, “And the public must respect that process,” added Ferguson.

Ferguson said the working group formed by the Prince Edward Heritage Advisory Committee is to investigate and make recommendations as to the fate of the statue.

“This is about discussion. This is respectful deliberation and discussion about certain aspects,” said Ferguson. “What can’t be allowed to happen, and I hope will not happen, is some of the more pointed accusations and taking a side.”

PEHAC is expected to make its recommendations to council at a special council meeting set for Nov. 17. The public can still comment by writing to the working work, or requesting a deputation. The County’s ‘Have Your Say’ commenting option is now closed.

PICTON TERMINALS
St-Jean said Picton Terminals’ application for re-zoning for, among other things, a proposed cruise ship docking concept and storage for goods and materials.

Municipal staff have created a report for consideration, scheduled to be presented at the Oct. 21 planning meeting, that recommends approval.

“It has been a sensitive and long-standing issue, and it will be another difficult matter council is going to have to address,” said Ferguson.

CONSTRUCTION
One question submitted from a member of the public sought an update on the never ending construction at the intersection of Lake, Talbot and Main streets in Picton.

Ferguson noted the project has taken longer than anticipated, as COVID-19 has had a profound effect on the supply chain, which in turn, affected the contractor.

He expects the project will be complete by the end of the year. It was originally to be finished in October, with that now pushed to November.

COUNTY ROAD 49
The County is also “still chipping away at County Road 49,” said Ferguson, noting it is at least a $21 million hit.

The contract for design services goes to council’s Oct. 27 meeting for approval. The outcome of the design services contract is to be an option for a phased construction plan, with segments reflecting annual budget stipulations and logical construction break points.

Questions about speeding, construction and parking issues, for any area in the County, they noted, should first be directed to the local member of council or the mayor. Concerns would then be brought to the attention of the Traffic Advisory Committee.

AFFORDABLE HOUSING
St-Jean raised the subject of affordable housing, noting it is complicated, and cannot be solved simply.

“We know there are a number of projects and plans in the works, particularly around repurposing some infrastructure and said the Prince Edward County Affordable Housing Corporation will help facilitate getting things done.”

Ferguson noted this month’s formal key handover of the former Pinecrest Memorial Elementary School to LoveSong, and was pleased the the project is proceeding. The 53-year-old Bloomfield school is to be re-purposed into 50 housing units, each providing 400-square-foot apartments in phase one of the renovation.

He noted ideas to transform Picton’s now closed Queen Elizabeth Public School project are still in discussion with the province, with hope for potential affordable housing options.

Ferguson added a presentation in late September by the developer for a new housing development on Picton Heights includes some affordable housing. That project has yet to come before council.

“Something that is top of mind for me is having a balanced community, such as housing for families that is affordable and for seniors,” said St-Jean. “A community must be balanced, and obviously affordable because it isn’t cheap to live here.”

“We’ve got the pressure of people wanting to escape the density of urban environment looking elsewhere and we’ve certainly been affected by that,” Ferguson stated, noting that other areas have also been affected in a similar way. “People are migrating here to escape and it’s had an effect on pricing.”

2021 BUDGET
Municipal budget deliberations are set for Dec. 7 and expected to last three or four days.

“Last year, people may remember it was 30 days after the arrival of our new CAO Marcia Wallace, who got the budget to council by the end of January – originally it was supposed to be February,” said Ferguson. “This year, she is working with staff to present it to council in the first week in December.”

Despite COVID-19, “as a municipality, we are in good shape,” said Ferguson, “even though a bunch of things, such as delayed taxes and lack of revenue from hall rentals, affected County revenue.”

“We did receive news about the federal-provincial relief program that is generating over providing an aggregate number of $1.9 million that is going into a reserve, and there maybe some other funding coming from other levels of government.”

“That will help offset some of the current shortfalls, as well, it will help mitigate future impacts in 2021/2022,” St-Jean added.

Ferguson said given the likelihood that COVID-19 is going to continue for a while, the municipality must look at how, operationally, business is going to be conducted.

“It may necessitate adjusting some of our space and where people are located, and how they work,” he said.

With the end of the year approaching, COVID-19 continues to curtail events. It is yet unknown how Remembrance Day ceremonies will unfold.

“And I am wracking my brain to see how we can have a Santa Claus something, and I don’t have an answer yet,” said Ferguson, who added he was open to ideas.

“I have faith in our community in really making the best of this extremely strange situation, and the dire circumstances that we are given with this disease.”

There are a number of ways the public can engage with the municipality. Contact details of local ward councillors and the mayor can be found on the County website, at pecounty.on.ca

The next virtual town hall is scheduled for December when St.-Jean plans to host Wellington councillor Mike Harper.

The virtual town hall broadcasts are available on YouTube by searching for the Picton Kinsmen Bingo channel.

Local Government Week (Oct. 19-23) activities have moved online this year due to the COVID-19 protocols.

The Clerk’s Office and Prince Edward County Fire and Rescue have partnered to host virtual interactive sessions with Grade 5/6 students at four local schools: Massassauga-Rednersville Public School, Kente Public School, CML Snider School, and Sonrise Christian Academy.

The sessions will educate students on municipal government and the local services the County provides, as well as inspire them to get involved and make a difference.

The municipality encourages schools to participate in local government activities throughout the school year. For more information, contact Catalina Blumenberg, Clerk, at 613.476.2148 extension 1021 or email cblumenberg@pecounty.on.ca

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