Conversation begins (continues?) on future of Gravenhurst with ‘Stuart talk’
GRAVENHURST — A broad discussion on “where to next” in Gravenhurst included everything from the fanciful to the simple practical truths of a local government they say has not met the test of four years.
Saturday afternoon’s presentation by Stuart Morley and a handful of frustrated citizens to a room full of equally worried taxpayers, yielded some positive ideas about how to combat rising taxes, while still creating growth and opportunity now and in the decades to come.
It was a usually good dialogue to kick off another election season heading into the next eight weeks.
Talking points to open a critical conversation many dubbed “crisis” heading into the Oct. 27 municipal election.
An important discussion, he said, noting in one of his charts that the amount of unpaid taxes shows about 30 per cent of “people are hanging on by their fingernails.”
Morley, a financial consultant in Gravenhurst — “and a grandfather (twice) this year” — scoured local and international websites to come up with his 40-minute “Stuart talk.”
He said he wants to get the conversation going ahead of the election and spelled out a critical scenario of unsustainably rising taxes and a lack of imagination.
Based on 20 interviews with residents aged 30 to 70, he came up with 20 talking points.
His a presentation to an older demographic of stakeholders, billed as part shock and awe — reality check — and part consultant, Morley pointed out that Gravenhurst’s debt risen to $22 million from $5 million since 2004.
However, a claim that taxes doubled in that time didn’t add up as one person noted their tax bill is not twice what it was.
He particularly noted the District of Muskoka is in real trouble, with the provincial warning Muskoka is not putting enough into reserves for infrastructure by a long shot and its debt, too, is going up rather than coming down.
And as concerning is the district’s credit rating, recently reported as among the worst in Ontario.
All that aside, there was plenty of good, solid evidence and suggestions for getting Gravenhurst going.
He said his survey indicated people wanted more growth and business.
His suggestions ranged from expanding the Wharf (which he said isn’t going anywhere) with a futuristic freshwater water aquarium and IMAX theatre, to the practical, like volleyball courts in the old IGA/LCBO building.
Or art installations on the street.
But his biggest push is for faster WiFi all over town, paid for by the taxpayer as an economic incentive for businesses moving to town and tourists wanting to surf their phone while walking down main street.
He’s betting on that turning around the town in the decades to come.
He also suggested a meet-and-greet for new residents and a bolder kids playground.
What about turning the Opera House into a community college, he suggested?
The 5 main themes of his survey that people worried about were attitude of public staff serving themselves before the public; a lack of good leadership; no vision; a downtown that needs more than Band-aid facades on buildings; and a lack of growth of potential.
They amounted to 81 per cent of the group’s concerns.
Morley’s group handed out another survey to those at the three-hour meeting at Dock on the Bay and asked them the same kinds of questions to see if their impressions were the same as the group of 20.
Perhaps, he said, it isn’t prudent to close schools and hospitals when in 20 years a population spurt in Muskoka will call for such services.
An interesting point in his initial survey was that the 20 in Gravenhurst seemed more interested in first responders rather than hospitals. He said while Bracebridge and Huntsville fight over where one new hospital would go, in Muskoka’s southern-most town the debate should be about Paramedic who can stabilize you and get you to Soldiers’ MemorialHospital in Orillia. (Note the 3 meetings this coming week with MAHC officials about the one hospital option.)
He says decision-making in Gravenhurst is top-down (council), rather than driven by the community.
Sidewalk cafes — “front row seats to the urban theatre of life” — where people can sit and watch life go by are what’s needed UpTown, along with more opportunities for youth to work and play, instead of going to Casino Rama.
A report full of charts and graphs, noted a town of 30,000 is the optimum size to provide services financially, which when you factor in cottagers, is what Gravenhurst has.
But he says it’s not working.
Policing costs which are to go up from $10 million to $14 million a year starting in 2015 make it worth looking at having a local police service across Central Ontario to include Parry Sound and the Kawarthas.
As for “big ideas,” he said Gravenhurst needs a covered street (mall) or maybe that water park on MuskokaBay.
Maybe a convention centre at the Wharf?
How about golf carts running around town on their own cart paths, or on the snowmobile trails in the summer? And electric car filling stations?
Anything, he said, is better than nothing.
Make the Muskoka airport a hub for drones.
Morley claims almost a third of Gravnhurst residents aren’t paying their taxes on time because of the poor state of the community. He says “people are hanging on by their finger nails.”
He dismisses progress at the Wharf and new YMCA pool as nothing special.
Add more to the tax problem, he said, is that the combined district, town and education taxes have soared from $15 million in 2004 to $30 million in 2014; but those figure are based on spending and doesn’t take into account provincial grants and development charges and other fees taken in.
He’d like a more transparent set of books, which he says are simpler to decipher.
And don’t get him started on the town’s website(s) —among the worst out there, he said.
Morley would also like to look at one governance tier, with only the mayor and deputy mayor sitting at district.
There was lots to digest but there was no mention of the Muskoka Centre, save for a question and comment by new proponents calling for a film studio and arts university.
Overall, it wasn’t all that new to those who have been following the local scene – and who hasn’t - but it brought into focus a lingering problem of lack of economic and sustainable development.
Watch for these topics in the coming weeks.
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