— Kendra Wong and Pamela Roth
Highly productive and action-oriented is how Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps would describe 2015 and she plans to continue that into the new year.
At the top of Helps’ proudest accomplishments was the creation and action of the mayor’s task force on economic development and prosperity, including the opening of the new business hub at city hall earlier this month; and housing affordability task force, aimed at promoting the construction of affordable housing in the city.
But the year hasn’t been without challenges.
In the summer, city council’s proposed plan to house a temporary tent city in Topaz Park sparked outrage from the public and forced Helps to backpedal. She later apologized for the way the plan was rolled out and hosted a public forum on the issue of homelessness in the park, which gave birth to a plan to borrow $30 million to build housing from the Capital Regional District Hospital Board.
“Some people might say Topaz Park was a low point, but that was one of the highest points of the year because of what came out of it which was the idea to borrow $30 million for housing and that also has moved into reality,” she said.
Most recently, Helps, who is also the co-chair of the Victoria and Esquimalt Police Board, came under fire for the handling of the investigation into Victoria police chief Frank Elsner after he sent inappropriate Twitter messages to a fellow officer’s wife.
“It’s been very challenging. There’s been public perceptions on one side and then there’s the truth and reality on the other side and there’s only so much we can say,” Helps said, adding she prides herself on being upfront, open and transparent.
Heading into the new year, Helps hopes to focus on bringing the city’s strategic plan to fruition.
Council’s 13 objectives, as laid out in the plan, include innovate and lead, engage and empower the community, make Victoria more affordable, enhance and steward public spaces, green spaces and food systems, and steward water systems and waste streams responsibly.
Specifically, Helps hopes to create a task force on social enterprise on how the city can create conditions for businesses, and non-profits to make money and “do good at the same time; bolster partnerships with the University of Victoria, Royal Roads University and Camosun College.
Council will also be working on an arts and culture and parks master plan, along with beginning construction on sections of the David Foster Harbour Pathway.
“It’s all laid out for us, all we need to do it follow a road map,” Helps said. “We set a really strong framework, we set a ground work, we spent a year doing some things, but really laying a strong foundation for the next three years.”
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For Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins, 2015 has been a productive and busy year full of events that challenged people to view the Township in a different light.
Most of the year has been filled with good news stories for Desjardins, noting council was given a clear mandate to move forward on a handful of important items.
Those items include the transportation network, sewage treatment process, economic development, and Esquimalt Village Project (EVP).
After seven years in the making, a requests for proposals was finally issued in October for the development of the EVP — a property of about 87,000 square feet located adjacent to the municipal hall. The vision calls for a lively and sustainable town centre that includes retail, residential and office space, along with a new education facility and library.
Shovels could be in the ground by the end of 2016. Desjardins believes the project will breath new life into the community.
“We’ve been told over and over this will be a catalyst for economic development in Esquimalt,” said Desjardins. “There’s a lot of interest in Esquimalt right now so this will be just another way of bringing people in and emphasizing that this is a great place to live.”
As for the other items on the list, Desjardins said council has succeeded in taking steps forward, even though the sewage treatment project is not as far as some people might like.
One of the highlights of Desjardins’ year is seeing growth in the number of events hosted in the community and how well they’ve been received.
Last year’s RibFest had record-breaking numbers and the Esquimalt Farmers Market continues to be a big hit. Now in its second year, the Township Community Arts Council was also very active, hosting the Memorial Park Music Festival, Esquimalt Arts Festival, Sculpture Splash, Township Classics and Artists in Residence.
“The community events that went on this year — some of them a second year, some for a first year — again raised the bar of arts and culture in Esquimalt and the recognition in the region that this is a place to come for events,” said Desjardins.
“Many people had been to Esquimalt, but they hadn’t been in years and it was oh wow, I didn’t know this was here and I have never seen this before. It was very positive feedback. It’s almost a new look at an older community.”
Some of the low points of the year, said Desjardins, were traffic and construction concerns on Admirals Road, along with the discovery of Kerosene in the Gorge Creek on Nov. 30. Officials traced the spill back to the Colville Road/Carrie Street area and determined it was caused by a one-time illegal discharge into a manhole. The spill was contained at the mouth of the creek at the end of Sioux Place. Officials don’t believe any wildlife was affected.
A large house fire on Canada Day also left a home on Admirals Road in ruins and sent an elderly couple in their 60s to hospital with serious injuries.
“The community rallied, everybody did everything they possibly could,” recalled Desjardins. “It really makes you recognize all of the wonderful people in the community.”
Looking into the new year, Desjardins is looking forward to reviewing the EVP requests for proposals and moving ahead with the township’s economic development strategy. Council is also allocating more money into sidewalks and roadwork in order to make the community more walkable.