By David F. Rooney
Faced with the threat of a lawsuit by some angry Mackenzie Avenue merchants, Mayor Dave Raven says better communication is the key required to ensure continued and collaborative growth in the city.
That will be especially true in the years to come as the City grapples with sewerage in Clearview Heights, Arrow Heights and what to do about the Illecillewaet Bridge, which is a municipal responsibility, and the Big Eddy Bridge, which is a provincial responsibility.
“The real challenge is communication and most municipalities face that challenge,” he said in an interview Thursday afternoon. “There is no question we could have done a better job at communications with Mackenzie and with Newlands (when the sewer line was run through there). We’re going to try a little different approach with Clearview Heights — we have an advisory committee in place… but better communications is something we have to work at within the confines of our budget.”
The City did advertise the Mackenzie Avenue construction in advance and both Mayor Raven and members of Council “have strong feelings of sympathy for the merchants (along Mackenzie Avenue),” he said.
“The contractor and City staff did put efforts into trying to keep the sidewalks open while keeping the fencing up in order to keep people out of the construction zone,” Raven said. “We did know that the contractor was down there regularly and we do know that City staff were around, whether they talked to each individual merchant was something different.”
Raven said he visited Mackenzie Avenue at least once a day and as often as three of four times a day to see what was happening and he knows that other members of Council also visited the construction zone.
“I think I’m fairly approachable and I was there… to explain what was going on.”
And the project did prove to be more complex than he or anyone else anticipated. Early on a decision was made to install the steam pipes from the co-generation plant and that took an entire week to install and test them. Not installing them at that point did not seem to make any sense to anyone as they would have to be installed at some point and that would have meant ripping up that same stretch of Mackenzie Avenue again.
And, of course, the job was complicated by the delivery of unsuitable bricks. That’s a problem that will still have to be sorted out and, at some point, a decision will have to be made about replacing the faulty ones with new ones and whether to rip up the intersection of Mackenzie and Second to install decorative bricks. But that decision will not be made for some time to come.
“This is an issue between the City and the City’s engineer and the contractor and the supplier,” the mayor said. “It will take some time to get that resolved and so that’s why we decided to fill in Second and just button the whole project down and let the merchants get back to normal.”
But getting back to normal is not going to be as easy as anyone would like. The merchants are angry about a seven per cent increase in business taxes and in what they say is a 20-to-50 per cent loss in business they attribute directly to the project. They are demanding cash compensation to the tune of $10,000 per business. Any failure by the City to deal fairly with them will be answered with a lawsuit, they say.
The Grizzly Plaza expansion itself is not an issue. Any downtown business owner will tell you they support it and believe it will benefit them greatly in the future. They’re angry because they think Council did not effectively communicate with them, especially when it became apparent that the expansion would not be completed by June 22 as originally envisaged.
Raven notes that when the original revitalization program began in the mid-1980s there was a of of hard feelings on the part of merchants and no compensation was demanded or paid at the time.
“I don’t want to prejudge the issue of a lawsuit,” he said, adding that a lawsuit can have unintended consequences.
“Once you start that rolling down the road you don’t know where it’s going to go and you can end up doing a lot more damage than you intended. So I think Council just wants to be a lot more careful about how we approach it.”
Council is likely to discuss this issue when it meets on Tuesday afternoon at 3 p.m. as a Committee of the Whole, Mayor Raven said.
“I hope we can find a common mechanism for resolving this issue that will be acceptable to everybody very quickly,” he said.
What that mechanism or resolution turns out to be remains to be seen. But it will include better communication with the public on the part of the City, Mayor Raven said.