The municipal election less than two weeks away, Woolwich residents got a chance Tuesday night in Elmira to get a read on the candidates running for mayor and in Wards 1 and 2.
The event, organized by the Lions Club of Elmira, was held at Lions Hall. While well attended, the majority of residents that participated were of older demographics.
Candidates were asked what they would do to get a more diverse group of people engaging in local politics to ensure that Woolwich does not become a bedroom community.
Sandy Shantz, who is seeking re-election as mayor, noted Elmira is one of the most walkable communities in the region, and is attracting young families.
“Right now I’m meeting with lots of new parents, younger kids, by watching my grandkids. And so for me personally, that’s how I will engage with the community and with the younger generation,” she said.
Patrick Merlihan, the current Ward 1 councillor now running for mayor, rejected the idea that Woolwich is a bedroom community, pointing to the industrial base in the township. If elected he would introduce a youth council as a way to connect with younger people.
“Right now, if you’re looking at people on this board here, there is the potential to have the most diverse and youngest council if you choose to elect them,” he said.
Ward 1 candidate Cheryle Baker would push for more social events.
“We need everybody working together, because everyone has great ideas no matter what age you are. So let’s hold more social events. Let’s look at our budget, see if we can fit that in somehow,” Baker added.
Also running for one of the two Ward 1 seats, Evan Burgess says he would look to work with schools to get students involved.
“So the Grade 5s or civics class in high school, and maybe even a tour of town hall and stuff like that – just connecting with them,” he said. He would also look to increase council’s use of social media.
For Ward 1 candidate Nathan Cadeau, the key is meeting people where they are at.
“If we ask the youth what’s going to get you engaged, maybe they’ll actually answer us. And we can develop a strategy that is inclusive, that hears their voice, and it actually uses that voice to direct it forward. But again, it’s not about just engaging with the youth. It’s engaging with all of the citizens. And I think that the prime way to do that is to create a space in our downtown core where people feel comfortable and encouraged to go,” he said.
Ward 1 candidate Dan Holt said he, too, would introduce a youth council, adding he would work to engage other demographics such as Indigenous residents.
“We need to bring them more into it. We need to bring in senior citizens. I think all the various groups that are involved in our community need to be involved in solutions to problems,” Holt said.
Running for re-election in Ward 2, Fred Redekop proposed the use of structures and organizations in the community, such as churches and service clubs.
“The Kiwanis are interested in passing on a good society to the next generation. So make it be part of the council,” he added.
Fellow Ward 2 candidate Eric Schwindt said he disagrees with the premise of the question.
“I’m not so sure that the demographics aren’t accurately represented [at the meeting]. We have to understand our ages are changing every year. And that society is getting older,” he argued.
However Schwindt did suggest the need for a more diverse council.
Candidates were also asked what they would do to improve the downtown corridor in Elmira.
“Our vision has been frustrating because we’ve been waiting for the region to redo it. And in that waiting we’ve been able to get a plan for downtown. The BIA has worked with us and I think that’s really important. Downtown Elmira needs a plan and some work done,” Shantz said.
Merlihan pointed to the reconstruction project that the region has planned for 2025.
“It is going to cost all of us a lot of money. We need to invest in our downtown, because if we don’t invest, who is?”
The recently released core urban design study includes more trees for the downtown , for instance, but there is a cost to that, Merlihan said.
Baker says she’d like to see more greenery added.
“Now trees are a great idea … but that’s just at the street level, we can actually add more hangers and greenery along the windowsills so that they fall down and cascade like a waterfall down the sides of buildings downtown,” she suggested.
While Burgess also highlighted the core study, he also expressed concern about the lack of parking. The amount of engagement the plan received shows its importance, he added.
“That isn’t often the case with other stuff… it’s just important for us to engage with you guys each step of this process,” he said.
Cadeau said he would like to see a town square put in the corridor.
“I recognize the need for parking, but we also need to balance nature with that parking. Right now in the downtown there are very few trees, which causes a heat trap for the citizens.”
Holt suggested engaging community groups to get planters built.
“They could be placed along different strategic locations in Elmira, Arthur Street to enhance it, make it more colourful and prettier, as well as work on getting some trees,” he suggested.
As Ward 2 does not include Elmira, Redekop noted that St. Jacobs has many of the same concerns. However the river “makes a huge difference in people wanting to engage,” he said.
Schwindt said his biggest concern is that Elmira’s master plan does not take everything into account.
“We want to design a master plan for downtown Elmira that’s going to be pedestrian friendly, bike friendly, [however] we don’t have a bypass for 15-20 years – we have to have the region the townships and the province working hand-in-hand to come up with something we’ll be proud of and enjoy,” he said.