The return of General Motors to Oshawa, taxes, waterfront high-rises, opioid crisis, downtown core safety, homelessness and many more topics, were touched upon by Oshawa Mayor Dan Carter during an exclusive wide-raging interview with Durham Post.
Following are some of the excerpts.
DP: What achievements are you most proud of?
DC: I’m very, very proud of a few things. One is our ongoing discussions and support, throughout one of the most difficult periods of time, with the earlier announcement of General Motors (GM) closing. And our work with General Motors and Unifor over a three-year period, to really be able to see that investment come back – that was a collective effort. I’m really proud that we went from the plant being closed, to us seeing over $1.5 billion invested and three shifts at 2,600 people back to work. That was a huge accomplishment.
DP: Are GM workers right in saying they’re getting half the pay now than before the plant closed?
DC: I don’t know the exact hourly rates that they are receiving at this particular time. There was a restructuring in regard to the contract. Unifor negotiates the contract, and that’s the contract that Unifor was able to negotiate.
One of the biggest part of the story out of this is, over 50 per cent of the assembly line workers are females. And that is a huge cultural change. It’s a huge statement in regard to the diversity.
In the early days we were frustrated and angry because GM made that decision. Then we had meetings with them to understand why they made those decisions, and then working with General Motors in both behind-the-scenes and in front of the camera, to be able to understand and create a pathway forward. The first pathway was with them committing $170 million investment of the test track and the parts division. I thought that that was a good starting point.
Then we had the continuing conversation about how do we find our pathway back to auto assembly and the auto industry itself and the transportation industry. I’ve been very proud that we were able to accomplish that.
Investments & Job Creation: I think number two is the amount of jobs that have been attracted to our great city, and the investment. Over the last four years we’ve seen over $2 billion of investment. In the last two years we had record amounts of investment (of over $1 billion) while facing historic pandemic. That really speaks about what we do at the city, about how we were able to get through the approval process quickly, and also were able to get those projects out the door.
A prime example is how we were able to meet the needs of Panattoni [developer] and their group that was moving from Tennessee into Oshawa to take up 500,000 square feet of logistic and industrial space. We were able to get that done within a year. That was a significant milestone.
Strong Finances: We have been able to establish ourselves as having the strongest finances in Durham region. At one time we were rated under BMA [consulting firm that measures municipal finances] near the bottom of the 444 municipalities in Ontario. We are now in the top third. We’ve increased our reserves, we’ve invested over $200 million in capital, and we’ve paid that down. We’ve had the lowest tax impact on our residents over the last four years. I believe that we’ve had the least impact out of all eight municipalities [in Durham]. It says to the world that we are a strong government, and that we are fiscally responsible. This isn’t a four-year plan. Our finances have been struggling for over 20 years, and this has been a lot of work. We have really concentrated over the last 12 years about paying that down, investing into our capital, our infrastructure, and also making sure that our reserves are built.
DP: But other municipalities contest that Oshawa has the least tax impact.
DC: Check Ajax, Pickering and Whitby, and you will see that those waterfront communities have a higher residential tax base than we do. And the key component of this is to be able to attract more jobs and more investment in regard to the commercial-industrial aspect, so there’s less dependence upon the residential aspect. Value of our homes is more affordable and we’re a safe community. You have to take everything into consideration. If you do your research, you will see that Ajax, Whitby, and Pickering, all have higher taxes than the City of Oshawa.
DP: Is Oshawa Transit still on the Oshawa tax bill?
DC: We don’t have Oshawa Transit. We have the Durham Regional Transit (DRT). We came to a settlement with DRT and that’s been settled over two years – almost three years now. DRT is all part of the regional budget. The city gets 40 per cent, school boards get 20 per cent, and the region gets 40 per cent. The region is responsible for transit, police, water, sewer, paramedics, social services, housing – all those things. That tax is within their regional budget.
Green Investments: The third component is our investment in the green space. We have expanded our parks and trails, we’ve protected sensitive lands such as the Second Marsh, we’ve protected lands such as the historical area of the south field of the airport, we’ve protected Camp Samac. We’re investing in the conversion of our fleet to electric vehicles. You see electric charging stations on the streets in the city. I am fully committed in regard to really expanding our green spots and making sure the environment is protected. We’ve also invested into in-boulevard transportation pathways for safe cycling.
DP: You have made several calls to DRPS for better policing, but why is there a perception that downtown areas need better security?
DC: In the last two years homelessness across this country has increased by 140 per cent. Some 235,000 Canadians are sleeping on the streets nightly. We’ve had a record number of deaths across the country in regard to opiate-related illnesses. Ontario has seen an increase of over 1,100 opiate-related deaths last year over the previous high. The 444 municipalities across Ontario – from the smallest to some of the largest in Ottawa or Toronto – where if you go to varsity stadium, you have 400 individuals living in tents.
Oshawa is a city. Oshawa has always had compassion for individuals that are less fortunate. We have invested into making sure that we have outreach teams able to assist individuals that are ill with addiction or mental health. We’ve housed over 225 individuals in 2021; we’ve been able to get $16 million investment into unsheltered, homeless, addiction and mental health services for the City of Oshawa alone – out of the allocation of $25 million from the region.
Here’s the issue − we do not have the authority to take somebody off the street and demand that they’ve got to be in a house. What we can do is only provide services where they can receive them.
This is a community of law and order. I expect people to respect our bylaws and our laws. I do not have authority over the Police Department. But what I do expect is, not only that the police charge individuals for selling their poison on our streets and destroying these lives, but I expect the court systems to be able to support our police officers. And at this time, they are not doing that. What is happening is these individuals are coming back on our streets and selling their poison and people are dying. I find that unacceptable. Our task isn’t done and we’re going to have to continue.
Believe in Downtown: I have my life savings invested in the downtown. I believe in the downtown very, very deeply. We’ve seen over $250 million worth of investment in the downtown over the last five years. We have seen historical buildings that sat empty for 25 years revitalized. We’ve seen a world class $130 million investment in one of the most spectacular residential communities that are being developed. We have 1,000 other units that are being processed. The city itself is not only investing in safety, but also in creating a vibrant downtown so that business has an opportunity. We just spent millions of dollars on our streetscape program, we have a CCTV camera program with Durham Regional Police and our residents and businesses downtown, we have increased our security and bylaw officers, we have increased police patrols to 9,000 extra hours in the downtown core allocated to foot, car and cycle, we patrol our trails and parks and our sidewalks.
Opioid Crisis: We understand that we’ve got a population that is suffering with mental health and addiction, and we will continue to try and navigate the system to help those individuals. Those individuals that are going to break the law, my expectation is they’re arrested and they’re not welcome in our community.
I ask you to go up to Peterborough and tell me what you witness up there, or go to Ottawa or go to Toronto, go see across this country. All of us as mayors are struggling to be able to say how is it that the federal and provincial governments have not taken the appropriate steps to address it?
That’s where my frustration is. We at the local level will do everything we possibly can to make sure it’s safe, that investment happens. But here’s the thing; everybody asks me about the homeless population. Do you know who’s in charge of housing? The region. That’s right – the city doesn’t. Do you know who is in charge of the police? The region. Do you know who’s in charge of health and social services? Not the city, the region.
We have to continue to make our case that these individuals need extraordinary services. That’s why out of the investment, you’re seeing that Oshawa got the largest amount. It wasn’t from us sitting on our hands. It was us making the case that this is a serious issue.
DP: Why was the downtown BIA disbanded?
DC: Because the owners of the businesses in downtown no longer supported the BIA (Business Improvement Association). The business community in the downtown made a decision to disband it. It wasn’t council that did it. It was a vote that was asked by the business owners if they supported the BIA or if they wanted it disbanded. Business owners made a decision to disband the BIA.
DP: Do you still think there is a possibility that the new Lakeridge Hospital could come to Oshawa?
DC: Absolutely. I believe we have five unique attributes that really can meet the needs of healthcare in the future. I still believe that we have the best suited location. This is about making sure that we have a world class healthcare facility that’s available to everybody across the Region of Durham.
We also know that when an exercise like this is undertaken, it can go through three or four different types of governments before $1.5 to $2 billion is invested. Remember we’re going to be responsible, not only at the city, but at the region, for a significant financial investment in that hospital. We’re estimating it’ll be somewhere between $300 million to $400 million which will be requested to support this initiative.
We believe Oshawa was best suited for five attributes including our post-secondary education, seconds away from the airport, lands already serviced, already accessible by public transit, and 110 years of history of healthcare in our community. I think we’ve demonstrated that we can deliver great health care. I believe that the decision is not yet final.
DP: Do we need an airport on the east side of Toronto to take the pressure off Pearson?
DC: As a traveler that uses the Toronto airport, would it be a lot better for me to go from Oshawa to Pickering to get an airplane? Absolutely. I think the airport plays an important part in not only our economy, but moving people around North America, and around the world. If this project moves forward… we absolutely need to make sure that it is future-looking, so agriculture, greenspace, the environment, the airport itself – all these things need to be taken into consideration, and not just a bunch of cement and pavement.
DP: The airport lands have been acquired but why are they just sitting there?
DC: If you look at the airport, it’s to the credit of the environmentalists. They’ve done a great job about lobbying and making sure that their voice is being heard. I think that has played a significant role.
If you look at the business case or if you look at travel patterns, I think that you’ll understand that there is a significant need to move people and products around the world. We’re in a world of just-in-time. I think the business case can be made. I think where the frustration lies is in truly understanding that it’s about protecting what’s important to people, and also understanding that that you still have responsibility to govern.
I think everybody’s been a little gun shy on this whole thing. I mean the federal government had several opportunities – both Conservative and Liberals – to approve this and get shovels in the ground, and they haven’t. It’ll be an interesting period of time.
DP: Like Ajax and Pickering, would Oshawa put paid parking on its waterfront areas?
DC: We don’t do it in Oshawa and I don’t support it. I’m not criticizing other communities, but we just put this destination park in for kids from two to 22, who can use our waterfront. It’s a spectacular space and the one thing that really brings me joy. I was born in the 60s, and a lot of families found time in those days to go to waterfront for picnics. When you go to our waterfront, you see a lot of first-generation Canadians that are there doing the exact same thing. You see how families are coming together and you see how kids are meeting new kids as friends – it really brings back the kind of core principles of community and why it’s important.
We’ve got to create those spaces so those interactions can happen. We’ve got a beautiful waterfront. To start charging people to park is fundamentally something I just don’t support. We can allocate funds necessary to operate a successful waterfront. We can allocate the personnel. It’s really important that this space is available to everyone that comes to visit our great city. I just believe it’s a fundamental right of theirs.
DP: Will we see towers springing up in Oshawa?
DC: It’s funny you say that because this developer is looking at and bought property down the waterfront where they would like to create complete communities. But that’s not on the protected lands like Lakeview East or Lakeview West or Ed Broadbent Park. What we’re looking at is north of Harbour Road. That area would be residential and there’s a deep interest from developers across the province that really would love to be able to develop those lands and create a complete community.
There’s private ownership of some of the lands and there’s a small portion that the city owns. You have to go through the process of making that available for developers, and then it’s open to bidding. It has to be market value as it’s taxpayers’ investment. It’s going to be interesting to see the development of our waterfront and the development of the south end of Oshawa. New developments are coming in. Old developments are being redeveloped. This is a great opportunity for us.
DP: What about affordable housing?
DC: I have been pushing the region on our local housing file to look at some communities saying is this the best design for individuals that are economically challenged? I go back to Regent Park, and I look at the study they did and how they undertook that exercise about bringing in mixed-income communities that had all of the elements, including community centre, green space, places of faith, education, transportation, and jobs. That’s how you create new pathways for individuals. So, that’s what I’m hoping will happen.
DP: With the cost of housing and living skyrocketing, are people, especially newcomers and first-time buyers, losing hope of owning a home?
DC: I spoke to the province about their housing task force. It was a conversation about market affordability and not economically-challenged individuals trying to get housing. I said to the province that I’m disappointed we didn’t take [into account] those that can’t even afford rent. I also said to them please manage peoples’ expectations. Now the premier made a statement saying we’re going to build 150,000 homes. Right now, we built 65,000 here in Ontario. I asked this question – where is the skilled trades coming from, where are the planners coming from, where are the engineers coming from?
As municipalities, how are we going to pay for the expansion of water, sewer, sidewalks and all? You can’t just go like that, and it happens.
Almost 65 per cent of new immigrants come to the GTHA. Then, there is the lack of housing in the pipeline. So, demand is high, prices are high, population is growing. On a local level how do we create communities that have different levels of entry for people to be able to afford?
When I grew up, the first step from your parents’ house was to an apartment where you stayed till you saved up enough you could maybe buy a townhouse. You would save and then go to a semi and then when you were 45, you got to a single. It was that progression. That opportunity right now isn’t existing. I think we have to look at that. We also have to take a look at inter-generational living now. We have an aging population; more kids are moving back home with their parents. It’s very much about caring for elders. It’s also an affordability factor.
I think we have to understand the different levels of housing and look at how do we encourage our developers, how do we have partnerships to create those opportunities, and how do we give people an opportunity to get into it.
That means looking at rental affordability. Then the federal and provincial governments have a role in how to help first-time homebuyers. There have been different initiatives that have helped first time homebuyers get into the market. We’re doing something with Habitat right now. Durham Regional Non-profit Housing is working with them on creating new homeownership opportunities for people that have been economically challenged.
I think there’s enough creative ideas.
DP: How many housing units are in pipeline for downtown Oshawa?
DC: If you take the 325 units at Bond and Mary which is Atria. They spent $130 million there. Then the project on Richmond Street is 675 units and that’s Atria again, so I’m going to say that that project is somewhere close to about $600 million. When you look at it 675 units you’re now looking at what $1,000 a square foot? Then you look at Bond and Kenneth and Division, there’s 100 units there that’s Atria again. You look at the post office with six stories of 120 units there. You look at Athol and Centre, that’s a condominium of about 140 units there, and then you look right across from the TCC (Tribute Communities Centre) there is a lot of interest in residential there.
There’s a lot of units in place that have plans submitted and they’ve gone through the criteria about getting them approved. We’re going to see construction in the downtown core continue to expand and explode. With the GO train [expansion], people will actually be able to see that they can live downtown, shop downtown and be able to get to work if they work outside the area.
That plays into revitalizing the neighborhood. I’m excited.
DP: What’s happening with the GO train to Bowmanville?
DC: I’m glad to see that the premier made the announcement and glad it was in the budget. I’m optimistic that this project is moving forward, and I take the word of the finance minister to heart that it’s been approved by Treasury. RFPs (requests for proposals) and RFQs (requests for quotations) are going out the door as we speak.
But the day that I celebrate is the day that I finally see a shovel in the ground preparing the pre-work, even with the bridges and the rails, all that work that needs to be done. That’s the day I’ll be really, really happy.
DP: Didn’t you say recently that in fall Metrolinx is going to start procurement?
DC: Yes. Metrolinx has got that on their website. There are RFQs and RFPs. They’ve already put out for a construction manager, so they’ve already started. I spoke to the finance minister directly to ask if Treasury had fully approved this project. He told me that it’s 100 per cent approved by Treasury. I have to take his word for it. So, it appears by all indications – both by the provincial government and by Metrolinx – that they’re absolutely moving forward with it.
But again, I can’t wait to see a shovel in the ground. I think that all of us are, as every time we think it’s done, something else happens.
DP: Even though the GO train expansion was in the budget, most of our readers just laughed it off, why?
DC: It’s a credibility issue. My argument with both the premier and the finance minister is you shouldn’t have announced it in the budget. You should have announced it prior to the budget, because people interpret that as an election budget.
It’s the same if I go back to the homeless issue in our downtown. I’ve got a [thick] file, I can talk about all the investments that we made. But it’s the perception. It’s the same on this issue. I have to deliver on this file, and the province has to deliver on the GO file. We all have a stake in this.
When you look at Bowmanville and you look at Kaitlin and the investment that they made, you see that it’s ready to go. You see Courtice, it’s ready to go. You look at Oshawa and you look at Knob Hill Farms, we’re ready to go. We’ve put our secondary plans in place. We work with developers to try to prepare the area. We understand the infrastructure changes that are necessary. We’ve had the conversations with GO Transit about how do these operators transit hubs as healthy environment for residential, commercial, office, green space…
Everybody’s been at the table and brought solutions. Now all we have to do is get the work done.
DP: What would Oshawa look like, say in 2035?
DC: Oh boy, I think you’re gonna see us as a major eastern city. I think you’re going to see our downtown core continue to expand, and see the footprint of our post-secondary education continue to grow.
I think we’re to really see our community change dramatically. When you have a conversation with General Motors you understand that they’re in the tech business now and transportation business, and that’s an exciting thing for us.
What does tomorrow have to offer, especially with the mix that we have? When you look at the foundational pieces that we have – post-secondary world-class education, world-class healthcare, world-class cancer care, world-class automotive and transportation industry, world-class IT – you add on diversity (we have people from over 140 different countries sending their children to our schools). You just have to be excited about these ideas and concepts from around the world that are coming to our city.
I really look at it as one of the most promising moments in the history of our city. I think over the next five years you’re going to see a significant change in our city. Over the next 10 years, I think you’re going to see us on the leading edge, and in 15 years from now we’ll be a model of a modern society – and that’s what my hopes, dreams, aspirations and commitment is.
DP: Any major new projects coming up?
DC: Northwood Business Park will be at the next major announcement. You’re going to see that business park explode.
This year (2022) will be a record year for investment in our city again. Our unemployment rate continues to drop, our participation rate in employment is increasing. That excites me because if you can live here and work here and your kids can go to school here, it really goes to the quality of life here.
But keep a close eye on Northwood Business Park. You’re going to see some exciting announcements coming out of that and you’ll hear these announcements probably in the next few weeks. I can say with certainty that a lot of jobs are coming into that area, which really excites me.