By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express
Regional chair and CEO candidates got their chance to discuss their views on the future of business in Durham recently.
The region’s eight chambers of commerce and board of trade organizations hosted a ‘business forum’ in Whitby earlier this month.
In attendance were candidates Tom Dingwall, John Henry, John Mutton and Muhammad Sahi.
Candidate Peter Neal was unable to attend due to prior commitments
Dingwall described himself as not being a politician, and that he would represent all of Durham Region “not only [the communities] where I get the most votes and financial support” and “challenge the status quo.”
Henry noted that business is booming in Durham Region, and it will continue when the province opens up employment lands around the 407.
The current Oshawa mayor said there are challenges to face as well such the current opioid crisis, mental health and homelessness.
Mutton believes that the region “hasn’t even come close to realizing its full potential.”
He promised to cut taxes, and won’t be afraid of trying “new and innovative things” if elected.
Sahi says Durham’s governance “fails [Durham residents] every day.”
“I make a solemn promise that I will work for the community,” Sahi says, adding that he wants Durham to be more than a “suburb of the big city.”
The four candidates spoke on a number of business issues throughout the event;
For Henry, “listening to business is key,” and the region must create an environment that is welcoming.
As an example, he said it was once said that trucks would never be built again in Oshawa but GM is at “full capacity, building trucks seven day a week.”
Mutton said businesses face too much “red tape” and “taxes are way too high.”
And while Durham has a lot of land, a great deal of it is unserviced.
He believes the region should dig into the reserves to get lands ready for businesses to be able to move in and get to work.
Sahi says he feels Durham has been attracting the type of “businesses nobody wants in their backyards.”
He says the region should be attracting “industries that answers the desire of the residents.”
“That is failure in my mind,” he says.
Dingwall says investments must be made to transportation infrastructure such as transit and airports, as it would expedite the movement of goods and services.
He pledged to work with the local board of trades and chambers of commerce, and focus on expanding industries such as arts, culture and information in the region.
Mutton says transit funding should come from all three levels of government, but the service must be run by the region.
He believes routes should be “optimized”, as he says there are a “a lot of roads that go nowhere” and “buses running empty.”
A rapid transit route from the Oshawa Centre to the Scarborough Town Centre, and more investment into rideshare programs are among the actions he is suggesting.
There is already too much money spent on transit, Sahi says.
He says the region should consider bringing in the private sector to address its infrastructure.
Dingwall says the region has been investing in transit, with a 7.5 per cent increase to the budget last year, and $300 million earmarked for projects over the next nine years.
“We are investing, but it needs to be in the right areas,” he says, adding that 44 per cent of Durham Transit riders are on three routes.
Henry says there are 1.4 million people a year on the Highway 2 bus rapid transit route and 900,000 on the Simcoe Street line.
When asked if DRT should be handled by a senior level of government, Henry responded be asking, “should we let another level of government run a service our children use every day.”
Future of Pickering Airport, harbours in Durham
The proposed Pickering Airport, in the works for more than 40 years, needs to become an international airport, Sahi says.
“I’d never listen to any opposition,” he explained.
Dingwall said he also supports building the airport because the economic spin-off could be “one of the greatest things for Durham Region.”
Henry says any rail car can now go into the Oshawa Port.
He also highlighted the Oshawa airport, noting the city has invested $6 million into new runways and it is a facility that creates 400 jobs and $80 million of economic activity a year.
However, Mutton argued that the Oshawa port is has yet to reach its full potential.
He says the St. Marys Cement Company Ltd. Dock in Bowmanville actually gets more traffic.
Improving broadband internet across the region
Dingwall says three out of four business are ‘network dependent’ at this point.
He says rural and northern parts of the region are in need of “last mile infrastructure” to improve broadband.
With telMAX planning to invest $100 million in Oshawa and $30 million in Clarington, Henry says once the 407 lands are opened up broadband can expand more into rural areas.
Noting there needs to be a “plan not a dream”, Mutton says he has spoken with representatives from local municipalities and Ajax-based company Veridian connections about expanding its fibre network in underserviced areas.
Mutton also claims that there is a conduit underneath a major regional road that Durham has not allowed access to.
Sahi said there are third-word economies that exceed the broadband capabilities in parts of the region.
“Broadband is more important than roads,” he says.
Priorities for the region
First and foremost, Henry says he wants tolls taken off Highway 412 and the future Highway 418, noting that sometimes the only car on the 412 is the police officer looking for speeders.
In his view, a ‘rapid response team’ must also be formed to address issues such as mental health, homelessness and opioid abuse, stating the issues need to be “looked at in a different way.”
The first priority for Mutton is to solve what he calls Durham’s “tax problem.”
He promised to hire an auditor general and review mandated and non-mandated services to avoid duplication with lower-tier municipalities.
“You’ll no longer see regional snowploughs lift their blades on local roads,” he says.
Mutton says agricultural tax ratios should be lower and development charge exemptions given for affordable and senior housing projects.
Lastly, he said he would build a new police station in Ajax and work to get 100 Durham Regional Police Service officers on leave back on the job.
Sahi believes the region is currently spending too much on policing. He also wants to introduce new, and innovative technologies.
On the topic of homelessness, Dingwall says it is not a new issue, but “we’ve watched a serious problem become a crisis.”
He wants to develop a community health centre using resources such as nurse practitioners to address Durham’s mental health ‘crisis.” He noted there were 1,600 apprehensions under the Mental Health Act last year, which is 60 per cent higher than 2005.
Dingwall also wants to “rebuild our police services,” noting that staffing levels haven’t increased since 2010.
Municipalities working together
Durham Region will soon embark on its first official plan review in 25 years, and Mutton says this will move the municipality forward.
Dingwall says local municipalities currently operate in “silos”, working independently rather than together.
“We need a strong, united voice,” he adds. “We are much stronger when we work together.”
Henry agreed that there needs to be a united effort, and Durham needs to put itself on the map instead of waiting for recognition.
Thoughts on Premier Doug Ford reviewing regional governments
Dingwall says he hopes “Durham is left alone,” and to him, the people of Durham know how the region should be run.
Henry points out that municipal governments have influence on people’s day-to-day lives.
“The other two levels of government do not touch you every day, and it’s important, the other levels of government respect that.”
While Mutton says the reason he wants to review duplication of services is to show the province what the region does well.
He says a service review hasn’t been done regionally in more than 20 years, and the only reason it was done last time was “because we didn’t want to get amalgamated.”
Sahi says he feels Durham has the “most broken municipal system” and would stand by decisions made by the provincial government.
The Durham Region Association of Realtors and Durham Region Home Builders’ Association will host a regional chair candidate debate on Oct. 4 at the Jubilee Pavilion in Oshawa.
Questions will focus on real estate and the home building industry.