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Mayor reflects on challenges, accomplishments from 2021

Pandemic has posed challenges for many; 'I am very proud of how our community has handled this,' mayor says
2019-09-27 Orillia climate strike 18
Mayor Steve Clarke is shown in this file photo. Nathan Taylor/OrilliaMatters

A combination of the resiliency of Orillians and the level of activity happening in the city has the mayor confident about the year to come.

Steve Clarke recently reflected on the highs and lows of 2021 and, naturally, the COVID-19 pandemic was a significant factor.

“As much as the pandemic has been a pain to all of us, I’ve got to say I am very proud of how our community has handled this. It has not been easy,” he said.

He made those comments at a time when the region was seeing record numbers of cases, but he said “we would be in a much, much worse situation” — burdening the health-care system — if it weren’t for the high vaccination rate among Orillians.

“That really is a credit to our citizens,” he said.

The pandemic hasn’t stopped the city from forging ahead with some major plans.

Anticipating significant growth over the coming decades, the city completed a land needs analysis that determined the need for an additional 380 hectares of land, so annexation is being considered.

It presents challenges and opportunities. The city is looking at both intensification and expansion, both of which have been met with criticism and controversy.

“We cannot continue just expanding into greenfields. We have to find a balance,” Clarke said. “I do believe that balance can be found.”

When considering intensification, he said, “if it is inevitable that you’re going to grow to some degree, it is important that you don’t lose the character of the city.”

He sees the downtown/waterfront redevelopment as playing a major role in that regard.

The city is expected to finalize a deal with FRAM Building Group in the first quarter of 2022, which will pave the way for substantial residential and commercial development.

The Front Street plaza, with the exception of the Metro grocery store, will be demolished in January and February as part of that project.

Other plans for that area of town have also generated plenty of discussion and interest, including the realignment of Centennial Drive and a redesigned Terry Fox Circle.

“Not everybody got everything they wanted, but everybody got something they wanted,” Clarke said of Terry Fox Circle. “It is a meaningful compromise.”

Changes, and proposed changes, to park features have proven to be lightning rods in recent years. That includes the Samuel de Champlain monument.

After being removed for repairs in 2017, an effort began to reimagine the statue, with the goal of including additional elements to more fully acknowledge the history of Champlain and Indigenous peoples in the area.

In August, however, Parks Canada announced the monument’s return would be “deferred” after the Huron-Wendat Nation and Chippewas of Rama First Nation indicated “they are no longer able to continue to participate in the (Champlain Monument working group) process, noting that circumstances around this matter have evolved.”

That came after the discovery of children’s graves at former residential schools.

“The fact that the pause button has been hit is quite justified,” Clarke said, adding a “whole and accurate history” needs to be depicted.

“I would hope that, in 2022, we can land on what those additional pieces and education are.”

One of the greatest challenges faced by the city and other jurisdictions is housing, the mayor said.

“Maybe the most critical issue at the moment is our housing crisis,” he said. “The housing prices in Orillia had gone up at a crazy rate before the pandemic, and that has been nothing but exacerbated during the pandemic.”

The city’s affordable housing committee is looking for opportunities for affordable housing development.

Also, the County of Simcoe has broken ground on an affordable housing hub at the site of the former Orillia District Collegiate and Vocational Institute.

While the pandemic has thrust the housing crisis into the spotlight, it has, in some ways, had the opposite effect on the opioid crisis.

“It has, unfortunately, overshadowed our opioid issue in Canada and beyond,” despite reported increases in overdoses over the past two years, Clarke said.

“I call it the pandemic within the pandemic,” he said. “Whole families are being devastated by losing loved ones to addiction. The people being affected are from every demographic.”

It’s difficult to tackle the issue solely at a local level, he added. That’s why he and some other mayors are hoping Canada will follow Portugal’s lead in decriminalizing personal possession of all drugs, which led to a decrease in drug use in that country.

“That is the transition that needs to take place for there to be any meaningful resolution,” Clarke said.

Another issue that is bigger than any city or country is climate change, but individual municipalities and citizens can do their part, the mayor said.

“We’re seeing all kinds of evidence of the effects of climate change, and every municipality is going to have to find a way to mitigate the effects of climate change but also adapt to it,” he said.

Orillia’s climate change action plan is expected to come before council in January and will include suggested measures.

The city is already looking at ways to electrify its fleet and make municipal buildings as energy efficient as possible.

Looking ahead to 2022, Clarke is excited about development in the city.

“A lot of it is already in progress,” he said, referring to waterfront redevelopment, the first of three Hydro One facilities and the county housing hub as examples.

However, his main hope is to “kick COVID in the butt, out the door, and get as many people vaccinated as possible before another variant has a chance to evolve in our region.”