- by Pat Kelly

When I sit at my favorite café on the main street of downtown Owen Sound, I love the streetscape of old buildings and clusters of benches. The public artwork and murals, the hardware store with the tea-pot tree in the window, the knitted art-work in the wool shop, the fabulous cheese store, the cyclists and tourists coming to town for summer always makes me feel more alive in our town full of possibilities.

But because I’ve had to sidestep drug paraphernalia, and to duck and run from guys on bikes, careening out of control down the sidewalk and to maneuver past the more aggressive folks looking for spare change for Timmy’s, I don’t ask my granddaughters who live 2 blocks away to walk over and join me. Their parents won’t let them walk here alone and I don’t want them to witness the landscaping being used as a toilet.

It causes me to wonder what the mayor and council members and our MP and MPP - who all live or work (or both) in the downtown area - think about when they navigate the trip to the café or to city hall. Unlike me, my daughter and her family, few of them are young moms and dads, older women or 12 year old girls, so maybe they don’t see what we see.

In fact, according to the recent report on Community Safety and Wellbeing in the municipalities of Bruce and Grey counties, the majority of our elected officials fit at least some of the attributes of those lucky residents who report above average well-being in Bruce and Grey - men who are 65 years of age or older, have a university or graduate degree and are retired with no children living at home. Not surprisingly, those residents who report below average well-being are generally women who are under the age of 35, who are living on their own.

While our civic leaders may not be talking much about what they see out their downtown office window, they must know that when compared to similar jurisdictions in Ontario, Owen Sound is not performing well on a number of overall indicators of crime and well-being. According to 2018 data published by Statistics Canada, Owen Sound's violent crime severity rate rose to 105.81 for that year. Our Scenic City ranked No. 47 in violent crime severity among 321 communities across Canada with populations over 10,000, and the city's police chief says meth and opiates have played a role. Our rates for ER admissions and traffic accidents due to drugs and alcohol are among the worst in the province. Meanwhile, nearby Meaford was ranked by Stats Can as one of the safest cities in Canada

Crime rates in our small rural city have been getting steadily worse for a number of years, and we have the distinction of being recognized as one of the least safe communities in Canada. Owen Sound’s high school grads are leaving in droves, while overall our population, workforce and economy are not doing as well as neighbouring communities in Collingwood and Saugeen Shores.

Yet, when Owen Sound Mayor Ian Boddy talks about the lagging population and poor economic growth, he isn’t looking out the window to see what the problems are to keeping our young people and attracting new families and new businesses.

Mayor Boddy talks about City Council having had to put growth on the backburner in the past, and that the recent census data on our poor growth rate has promoted the need to task staff with putting together a package that “we would use to attract industry and put together the inventory of industrial lands and all those types of things that we’re lagging behind others that are succeeding, so it must be working for them. They’ve got a plan and they’re working at it.”

Mayor Boddy is speculating that our neighbours are successful because they have a thriving industrial base – but if he looked out his office window, he’d know better.

Manufacturers in Owen Sound and the surrounding area, and major employers from healthcare, tourism, retail sectors have told us time and again why they aren’t moving to Owen Sound – there’s no place for employees to live.

As a recent employer survey from the Meaford Chamber of Commerce found:

  • only 1 in 3 of those surveyed believe that Meaford and the surrounding area can currently house employees for their businesses.
  • 2 in 3 of the businesses surveyed anticipate that they will need to hire in the coming 12-18 months, and a majority of those businesses anticipate needing multiple employees.
  • Needs are diverse, balanced between full-time and part-time and requiring a variety of different types of prospective employees. 63% of roles to be hired are unskilled.

Furthermore, housing is viewed as the top priority in terms of desired infrastructure and employers want living accommodations that fill their workers’ needs.

Clearly, housing is needed not only for the vulnerable people so visible in the downtown area, but for our workforce, young families, seniors, newcomers – everyday people. And that award-winning PJ-toss campaign from City Council that sought to attract high-earners from the GTA looking to work from home during COVID, has driven local middle and lower income folks out of the marketplace – both homeownership and rentals.

(Read Part 2 of this essay here)