Forestry, recreation and seniors housing were some of the topics discussed at an all-candidate’s forum in Vanderhoof on Thursday, Feb. 7.
The meeting, hosted by the Chamber of Commerce and held at Nechako Valley Secondary School (NVSS), lasted almost two hours as candidates John Murphy, Marje Makow and Peet Vahi outlined their priorities and responded to questions from residents ahead of the Feb. 16 by-election.
Although the forum covered a broad range of issues in the community, seniors’ housing was a primary topic of concern for each candidate.
Vahi, whose 90-year-old mother is awaiting a room in The Manor, stressed the importance of shelving seniors’ housing projects and concepts in preparation for the day when federal or provincial funding becomes available.
There is ample land in Vanderhoof that could be zoned, sold to entrepreneurs and developed into long-term housing for seniors, Vahi said.
“We need more private people to start putting it together.”
Murphy, a longtime advocate for seniors’ housing, also said numerous properties in Vanderhoof are capable of being developed into complexes for new units.
A partnership with the provincial government would enable more homes to be built, he said.
Makow, who retired from the municipality in 2010 after some 23 years of service, said council would play a key role in establishing more housing for seniors by providing land and funding.
All candidates agreed on the importance of recreation in keeping people healthy and occupied.
Regarding the initiative to borrow $4 million to put towards building an aquatic facility, however, Makow expressed reservations about the additional $4.25 million of interest affixed to the loan, she said.
Instead, Makow suggested pursuing a multi-purpose community centre with features like a climbing wall, a skateboard park, work spaces for hobbies like woodworking, as well as an outdoor pool.
“I believe there must be other viable alternatives out there,” she said.
“I think it’s important that we separate all the emotion and the hype that has been generated over the past few weeks from the practical reality that the pool has to be paid for.”
Murphy spoke about the economic and social impacts a pool would have on Vanderhoof by drawing people to the community for swim meets and leisure.
Vahi agreed, saying the Vanderhoof Pool Committee had invested much time into developing the initiative. He said it was important for the community to follow through with the Feb. 16 pool referendum as plans for a community centre proceed irregardless of the outcome.
Commenting on public works improvements needed within the community, Murphy discussed what he perceived to be a sometimes problematic and inconsistent flow of traffic through town, as well as deteriorating road infrastructure.
If elected, Vahi promised to create a transparent “honey-do list” of priorities to direct expenditures.
“If those priorities aren’t met, there should be some sort of explanation as to why they weren’t met,” he said.
The district’s former corporate officer of 11 years, Makow said council has identified a $10-million infrastructure deficit.
“That’s huge,” she said. “That needs to be addressed.”
Additionally, Makow said council has been looking at upgrading the public works yard for some time and she recommended developing a methodical, systematic plan to carrying out improvements on a regular basis.
“Otherwise, we are just wasting tax dollars,” she said.
On the timber supply, Vahi, a forestry technician with a Bachelor of Science in natural resources management, discussed how the amount of softwood is declining, how mills are collecting timber from further and further away and how the town is looking at different forms of tenures to help industry cope.
Although Vahi isn’t a supporter of communities holding tenures for forestry, he said “a community forest agreement, if it helps our local area, is part of our business.”
Murphy offered realisms about the forestry industry, saying that, with fibre supply in decline, some truck drivers are hauling timber across Canada in order to make a living. In the post-mountain-pine-beetle economy, Murphy highlighted the importance of looking at alternatives to forestry.
“It has been our bread and butter for a long time. It will be a long time before that comes back,” he said.
Marge credited Vahi’s knowledge of forestry and acknowledged that a declining timber supply is affecting area mills, which have been strained further by the transfer of tenures to Burns Lake to support the new mill being built there, she said.
“I believe council needs to lobby long and hard to keep the annual allowable cut that has been allotted to other mills,” she said.
Despite hardship in the forestry sector, the number of logging trucks transporting timber through town on Burrard Street is constant, yet their presence is increasingly undesirable and disruptive, the candidates agreed.
“I bloody well hate it,” said Vahi, who has previously discussed the matter of logging trucks passing through town with Sergeant Jason Keays of the Vanderhoof RCMP detachment.
“It should be addressed,” said Vahi, who suggested ticketing blitzes as a means of mitigating logging traffic.
Murphy wondered whether a law prohibits the trucks from driving through town or not.
“The streets can’t handle the weight,” Makow said.
Near the end of the forum, each candidate assessed the proposed reconfiguration of district schools, prompted by the deteriorating condition of Prairiedale Elementary.
Other schools are underutilized or in need of replacement and upgrades, according to a recent audit discussed at a community meeting organized by the Nechako Lakes District School Board of Education on Feb. 4.
Makow, a mother and grandmother with extensive teaching experience, attended the meeting, but left feeling bewildered by comments on the amalgamation of some schools into NVSS and W.L. McLeod.
“I believe the potential scenarios outlined at that meeting were about figures on paper without consideration for the student body,” Makow said.
A former student of Prairiedale, Murphy said closing down the 53-year-old school would probably make economic sense. However, some scenarios for closures and amalgamations that were presented at the meeting concerned him.
“I for one don’t want to see my Grade-6 grandson intermingling with Grade 12 kids in high school. Socially, it’s a step backwards.”
In their closing statements, each candidate briefly summarized their approach to council.
“I believe in Vanderhoof, and I believe in giving back,” said Murphy, who has a long history of volunteering.
“I don’t know all the answers, but I don’t mind rolling my sleeves up, getting my elbows dirty.”
Makow stressed the importance of promoting Vanderhoof bright future, such as the planned $15-million College of New Caledonia campus, the renovation to the St. John Hospital emergency room, or how local businesses are thriving off mining activity.
“There are seven seats on council and ideally the workload would be shared equally by all members,” she said.
“If elected, I would most certainly accept my share of the workload, working on your behalf to do what it takes to move our community into the future,” said Makow.
Vahi closed with a series of promises to be an accessible and accountable councillor for all members of Vanderhoof, and to get questions answered.
“I’m going to promise to you that I’m going to act in the best interest of the community, as the majority tells me, as the mandate pushes us forward,” he said.“On February 16, go out and vote. You’ve got some really good choices.”
The Vanderhoof by-election is being held at the Nechako Senior Friendship Centre on Saturday, Feb. 16, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Two pieces of identification are required to vote. For more information, call the municipal office at 250.567.4711.