Niagara-on-the-Lake councillors have talked about the importance of supporting youth in town, but will they demonstrate that by their actions or are they simply paying lip service to what is considered a priority by many residents?
Lyndsay Gazzard is a parent who is waiting for the answer, and concerned it might not be what she is hoping to hear.
Council is about to undertake the process for devising a strategic plan that sets out priorities for the next four years. The plan has been deferred while councillors sort out a process for hiring a consulting company to help with it.
The previous council, well aware of past struggles with the local school board, the closure of the only high school in NOTL and the only school in the Old Town, set education and youth among its top priorities, Gazzard said.
It was during the last term of council that a Lord Mayor’s Youth Advisory Council was established, and that council followed through with support for Royal Oak Community School, a not-for-profit independent that stepped in to attract and keep families in the Old Town by providing education for their children.
“We needed this for the future of the community, for it to grow and be healthy,” Gazzard said of the support for the Old Town school.
“The previous council had more exposure to school closings. This council hasn’t gone through that.”
While the municipality can’t intervene directly in public education, it can show its intentions to keep youth in town, and to attract young families, she said.
As an example she points to the high skills major program in aviation which was developed through a partnership with the Catholic school board and Niagara District Airport, indicating some momentum toward supporting youth and giving young families a reason to settle in town.
“Does this council consider that a priority? We haven’t seen it yet. They don’t have a great deal of money to hand out. My sense is that things that attract tourism are more important.”
Lord Mayor Betty Disero and Coun. Clare Cameron have already shown support of young people, she said, “and we’re very hopeful we’ll see a strong strategic plan that will as well.”
In the one opportunity given this council to support youth, they turned down funding for a program Royal Oak had requested — not for its day-to-day costs of operations but for an outreach program to bring kids from across the community together during professional development days and March break.
Council gave money to the cadets and The Yellow Door Theatre Project, which is great, she added, but reduced funding to Royal Oak for its outreach program. It also, however, reduced its projected rent of the Town-owned hospital to match last year’s cost to the school.
“We feel they didn’t value what we are trying to do. Tourism is important and a big revenue-driver, but programs for children are equally important.”
While it’s too soon to criticize council, she added, she’s concerned the last council made “significant strides” in prioritizing youth, and this term may not maintain that.
There are many great programs for kids, Gazzard said, and the library does a particularly good job for youngsters, but once they reach the ages of about 12 to 15, there is little for them to do. “That’s when you see the start of them looking to other communities.”
Gazzard drives to St. Catharines three times a week for activities for her daughter which are not available locally, and while she’s there she uses the time to shop and buy groceries, which is taking money out of town.
“And that’s not just me. There are probably 800 to 900 parents doing the same thing, for dance, gymnastics and other activities.”
While Gazzard says she understands the Town struggles with the resources it has, she hopes council won’t rely on volunteer-driven programs to help youth.
Too much focus has been on the over-55s as the main demographic in town, she said, which results in losing young families.
When Cameron stood up for young people during budget discussions, “she got shot down. We’re hoping she and Betty are not the only voice for youth on council.”
People in town want a balance between tourism and the needs of young families, she said.
“The next strategic plan will tell the story.”
Alexcia Cofell, a member of the Lord Mayor’s Youth Advisory Council, said “Lord Mayor Betty,” as she calls her, has already shown her support.
Cofell agrees it’s the teens who struggle — there is little to keep them here, she said, but Disero has assured them the Town is interested in helping them.
Most of the activities teens choose, such as going to movies or the mall, require going outside of NOTL, she said.
But Cofell said she feels confident that if teens can offer practical suggestions for activities in town, council will provide the resources.
Coun. Clare Cameron said she is committed to being a voice for youth, and is looking at the bigger picture for their future. Young people everywhere like the idea of sampling places that are bigger, and they think better, but she wants to ensure NOTL will be the place they come home to, where they can afford to buy houses, and where there are jobs to keep them here.
Supporting youth begins with the obvious, she said — funding organizations in Town which provide opportunities for them. Also important is council becoming aware of and being present at youth activities, such as the annual Remembrance Day service at Crossroads Public School, and keeping those kids in mind as they make decisions that will affect their future.
“We need real and meaningful employment opportunities, we need enough viable commercial space for business to locate and grow, and for young people to start their new businesses.”
Working with the school boards and providing opportunities within town borders must also continue, she said. “The high school closure is still felt as a loss, but the Town can continue to build its relationship with Vineridge Academy,” she said about the international school that has taken over the former public high school building, as well as with the two public boards.
Once the strategic plan is completed for this term of municipal government, every report that comes before councillors will refer to how the information fits with the priorities they have chosen, she said. With youth as a priority, even Official Plan discussions will take their needs into account, to ensure there is zoning that encourages affordable housing.
She agrees with Gazzard that the Town is “stereotyped” as a retirement community, but believes that’s changing — the recent appointment of young people who applied to sit on Town committees is one indication, she said.
“There are young families getting their start in town,” said Cameron.
In developing council’s strategic plan, “we need to be sure we include everybody, all ages and all communities.”
Disero says the Town is already thinking of youth, with some new committees that will embrace not only the young people but all residents.
She’s working with the youth advisory council to get young people “more engaged,” she said, “and to give them a bigger voice.”
The strategic plan needs to be based on keeping the town sustainable, healthy and prosperous for people of all ages, and providing services that meet the needs of residents, including youth.
“And in order to pay for those services, we need a good economic development plan. Residential taxes do not fully cover costs of providing those services to the community. We need a good healthy community, and a strong youth community, to bring in more residents.”
Disero thinks the town has a “development imbalance,” with a tax base which is not growing the way it should be. The Town needs to attract good businesses to bring in good-paying jobs, that will attract and keep young people, she said.
Taylor Hulley is a young man who grew up in NOTL winemaker at Coyote’s Run by day, and as a musician at any bar or event that offers some extra cash by night, he said. He also does some video recording for other musicians, and in the summer, works for his uncle building decks and railings.
It works for him, he said, because the intensity of the wine industry is mostly in the winter, and everything else he does makes his summers busier. He can handle that, and is fortunate to have jobs he enjoys — music will always be his first love, but it would be a struggle to pay the bills if performing on stage were his full-time job.
The almost-32-year-old, a graduate of the closed Virgil Public School and the former Niagara District Secondary School, attended Niagara College for winemaking.
He remembers his teen years in town as pretty idyllic, but then he was into music and part of Roddy Heading’s Beehive, a group to bring kids together around music and art.
Hulley remembers going to see Heading to ask if his band could play in an upcoming concert — Heading used to organize youth to perform in the Simcoe Park bandshell.
Before he knew what had happened, he realized he had agreed to organize Peace in the Park concerts and line up the bands.
Kids who weren’t into music to the same degree loved hanging out in the park with their friends and listening to music, he said.
Heading didn’t want money from the Town, he wanted kids to get involved with fundraising and make their activities self-sustaining, and it was a good feeling to accomplish that, recalls Hulley.
“It had a huge impact on my life. It gave me the feeling you can do whatever you want to do. It was really empowering.”
Heading gave them respect, and taught them independence, he added. “He was really good at that.”
He’d love to see someone pick up the idea of reviving something similar to the Beehive and run with it — he may even consider it himself, he said.
If the Town would provide the bandshell, which is just a rarely used wooden space, he said, the young people could be involved in organizing concerts.
“The store owners might not like it — it wouldn’t fit their image of what they think the town should look like — but kids live here too.”
As someone who loved walking even as a teen, NOTL also provides many locations to enjoy the outdoors, he said, and it’s a great place to live.
Unfortunately, and ironically, since all his work, at the winery and as a musician, is reflective of the industry in NOTL, he can’t afford to live here.
He and his partner, Laurel Minnes, have just bought a four-bedroom house on a large piece of property that even has grapes growing on it, but it’s out on Highway 20 in south Thorold.
“We couldn’t even look in NOTL with the prices here,” he said.
So they are becoming commuters, although they’d much rather live in town.
He believes what is needed most to attract and keep young people is affordable housing, which for his budget is non-existent in his home town.
Even the few townhouses and condos — and there aren’t many — are out of his price range, he said.
“In town, I’m part of this culture, making wine and making music, and all of that is because I was inspired by this place where I grew up. But if you can’t afford the housing prices, you’re out of luck.”