The last time that the Guelph Chamber of Commerce held a State of the City event in-person, COVID-19 was still a topic of local conversation that started with, “Hey, did you hear about that thing happening in China?” More than two years later, Chamber members once again met inside the Delta Hotel and Conference to hear about the State of the City from Mayor Cam Guthrie. A state, he says, that’s all about the fundamentals now.
“The pandemic brought unprecedented challenges. It also brought a new appreciation for the foundations of what’s important. Our health. Our mental health. Family and friends. The ability to connect with people,” Guthrie said. “As we move forward in the months and years to come, we can’t forget those lessons. We have to rededicate ourselves to what’s really important, and focus on the things that really matter.”
In other words, it’s about the simple things. To that end, this year’s State of the City was framed as a game of Wordle, the internet sensation where you get five tries to guess a five-letter word. Breaking at least one of the rules, Guthrie had six different five-letter words that formed the foundation of his speech.
Under “Homes”, Guthrie touted success on initiatives like Welcoming Streets, the Addiction Court Support Worker program, the creation of the Support Recovery Room, and council’s approval of three supportive housing projects last year.
Guthrie encouraged the room to go further and played a video featuring Dawn Mewhinney from the Stonehenge Therapeutic Community. One of the programs at Stonehenge covers the rent for people who are trying get back to independent living but still need some help to get there. All Stonehenge needs are some more landlords with a unit to rent who want to get their rent cheque on time.
“Everyone has unique needs, and the goal is to help them stabilize, because you can’t stabilize without a roof over your head,” Mewhinney said to Guelph Politico after the speech. “This is a program that’s kind of a step up from supportive housing. What I’m trying to do is find units to for folks who don’t need that high level of support. They can live independently with some supports coming to them regularly and as needed.”
Along with housing there’s the topic of growth, or “Grows” as it was called in order to fill the Wordle board. In terms of up-to-the-minute insights, Guthrie said that yesterday’s proposed Bill 109 from the Government of Ontario took feedback from Ontario’s mayors, and while it was a “step in the right direction”, it didn’t answer all concerns.
“The Province has framed this mostly as an issue of supply. I question that. Certainly, supply is a factor, but it’s not the only one,” Guthrie said. “The OLT [Ontario Land Tribunal] costs the municipality tens of thousands of dollars, and can hold up housing unit construction sometimes for years. We also know that there are housing units that have been approved, but not built. As a City, we need to work with developers to find out why that is.”
Guthrie also said that there needs to be a broader discussion about affordability, because that’s not an issue the municipal government can tackle alone. He then went off script in order to describe how affordability is a personal issue for him and his family.
“We bought our first home on Victoria Road and I remember I had to sell my drum set, some baseball cards, I sold a bunch of stuff on eBay, and we scrounged together that $9,000 down payment,” Guthrie said. “Now I look at my son and my daughter and I think that there’s absolutely no way they can afford a house.
Moving on, Guthrie touted the Guelph Police Service’s success in turning around the crime statistics the last two years, and he also touted the Guelph General Hospital Foundation’s success raising $37 million for new equipment in their latest campaign. But the good work of the current hospital is being overshadowed by the growing pressure to add to Guelph’s hospital capacity.
“When I look at our city’s growth targets for the next 10 to 20 years – it is clear to me that
we are going to need a newer, larger hospital,” Guthrie explained, adding that planning has started at the Ministry of Health, and that could involving building a entirely new hospital somewhere in Guelph, or adding a new building next to the existing hospital property on Delhi Street. Either way, it’s going to be a while.
“In an ideal situation, this build would be completed within ten years. I have been told this is on the radar at the Ministry,” Guthrie said. “They are aware of the need and the hospital is working hard to move things forward.”
Guthrie added that council and City staff need to start thinking ahead now about funding the 10 per cent of the new hospital cost that’s covered by the community, including the possibility that the dedicated hospital levy might continue once the funds for the capital upgrades to the General Hospital are covered.
After talking about positive changes to transit including, the free transit pilot for young people under 12, the mayor tackled another tricky subject, the added proposed costs of infrastructure projects like the South End Community Centre.
“The process is working exactly the way it’s supposed to. When staff received the bids, everything stopped. The tender has not been awarded. No dollars have been spent. No shovels are in the ground,” Guthrie said. “We are being transparent about the problem. And we’re going to have a transparent discussion about how to deal with it.”
Guthrie added that it’s possible that tenders for the Baker Street redevelopment, including the new main library, could also come in over budget. He promised that if this is the case, City staff will pause to consider next steps, but people should not anticipate full-scale cancellation of these projects. At the end of the day, there’s a need and business case for these projects, and, in the case of Baker, there’s a contract with a private developer to consider.
“You don’t throw out your plans entirely with a knee-jerk reaction when you have investments and private sector relationships when you hit a bump in the road. That’s not the way you would do business – and that’s not the way the city does business, either,” Guthrie explained.
“We will not panic. We will take a breath and trust city staff. There are off-ramps and key decision points all along the way on these projects, so that Council and the City’s Executive Team can weigh the options, manage the risks, the finances and decide on a path forward.”
The last Wordle was very topical, “COVID.” Guthrie used the moment to honour Medical Officer of Health Dr. Nicola Mercer, who was sitting at the mayor’s table at the foot of the stage. Guthrie credited Mercer’s “brave, bold, and steady leadership” for Guelph’s success navigating the pandemic and becoming one of the most vaccinated communities in North America.
“She was the first Medical Officer of Health in Canada to mandate wearing masks,” Guthrie recalled. “Many others followed – and it soon became a given that masks were one of the simplest, easiest, and most effective public health tools we had. But I know she took a lot of criticism for her decision in the early days.”
As a token of gratitude, Guthrie presented Mercer with a print from Guelph artist Barbara Salsberg Mathews featuring a scene from Royal City Park. A visibly moved Dr. Mercer was given a standing ovation by the room, and accepted the print on behalf of the entire public health team.
“I have an amazing team of people, you just cannot express how many hours have been put in by those people on the team and in the community; people who have never been in the health business, got in the health business,” Mercer said. “We are not at the end. I don’t want to always be the bearer of bad news, but I do know that we’ve done all the right things, and we will get through this. It is been a journey, and it’s been a privilege to be your MOH, and I cannot thank you enough.”
Watch the complete event in the video below: