There are two seasons in Gary Sidlar’s world — winter and construction.
Niagara-on-the-Lake’s roads supervisor watches both with great attention. “We’re all about the weather,” he says. “Our great group is always watching the weather.”
Sidlar has been with the Town for 10 years, having jumped at the opportunity to work close to home after a career in various levels of construction. “Our family homestead on Queenston Road, we were out there farming before the racetrack was built, when that street was called Coon Road — it’s Homer Road now,” he says. “Our property was in what is now the side parking lot of the Leon’s furniture store.”
“I remember when you could cross the QEW on a tractor,” he says.
The family grew tender fruit, and young Sidlar’s first jobs were in the vineyards and orchards. The farm — on a different piece of land — is still in the family, although it grows only soybeans now.
As a farm boy, Sidlar would have learned to develop a keen eye for the weather, and he maintains it to this day, watching the storm drains to ensure water is moving.
“We count our blessings.”
Sidlar appears to have many blessings to count. He says “we’re blessed” often — for example, when referring to the town’s beautiful tree canopy, which is part of his jurisdiction. He and his team have had to remove hundreds of ash trees from public property. “The downtown is done, and now we’re moving out into the rural areas,” he says. “We’ve cut down 700 to 800 trees, and are only at the mid-point.”
He says phase one of Niagara-on-the-Green was planted entirely with ash trees. “Even though they were dead it was still hard to take them down. Some areas it really hurts, when you take down three or four 100-foot trees on one person’s property.” Regarding the trees along the Heritage Trail, Sidlar says, “they’re amputated, but they’re still useful as a perch for birds, squirrels, insects and vines. They’re all safe at this point.”
He says the plan is to replant with native species. “We have to watch the environs, sit down and assess what will work under the circumstances, depending on the amount of room for roots, the amount of light, space between other trees. Everybody has their favourite trees, but we have great arborists working with us,” he says, handing his trust over to the experts on his team to choose the right species for the long run.
On that topic — the future — Sidlar says, “we always have the environment in mind. Roads, gravel, ditches — the environment is very important to us. If we don’t pay attention, we’re going to be the big losers. We make sure the waters are flowing, the roads are safe — but we also have to think about the cost to the future.”
Back to his farming roots, Sidlar compares porous road surfaces — a faster-draining type of paving positioned as an ecological option — to the types of soil in town and finds another gift. “We’re blessed with sandy areas, as well as clay. You’ve got peaches in the sandy areas, and grapes in the clay,” he says. “The porous surface is like the sandy areas. The water drains gradually.”
“Porous road surfaces have been around for a number of years,” Sidlar continues. “They allow drainage back into the basin. There are a lot of positives, including a reduced amount of captured water. Unfortunately it’s not cheap, and must be constructed properly. It can be worse than standard asphalt if it’s not installed perfectly. Highways have some porous pavement, and there have been some successes and some failures — it’s not a perfect science yet. Is less hydroplaning worth more money? Some say yes.”
Sidlar names his nemesis. “Water is the enemy of asphalt — you have to get the water out.” He says this has to be considered with every aspect of his work, even cutting grass. “When we’re trimming the road shoulders, we have to re-profile them and cut closely so the water will flow into the ditches.”
He refers to his good fortune again while talking about his dedicated staff. “I’m blessed with the crew I have, who are willing to get up in the middle of the night, who know everyone in town, and who are able to talk with people and smooth things over. I’m lucky.”
“All of us are regularly woken up in the middle of the night, to replace signs (which must be done immediately for safety purposes), and to handle downed trees, wind and snow damage,” he says. “That changes the home life a bit — knowing that when they’re on call there’s no brown pops, or wine with dinner.” He goes on to further praise his team and their dedication, and says, “no one person can do any of this without an amazing team.”
When Sidlar started the job 10 years ago, he consulted with outgoing superintendent Rick Meloen. “Rick was great. A very nice guy, has a lot of knowledge. He came up through the roads department, came through the school of hard knocks. He built a really good team, and some of them are still here. One guy has been here over 35 years, another one for 28. We get a lot of longevity.”
Meloen concurs. “There’s always a sense of pride working for Niagara-on-the-Lake,” he says. “The guys always want to make the roads and sidewalks work.”
Sidlar is grateful to the supportive community in which he finds himself. “We’re blessed with local resources who can help out our mechanic, like Niagara Motors. We keep the wheels rolling.”
“And we’re blessed with some nice projects,” he says. “We’re doing some work on Creek Road — we do a couple of larger construction projects per year.” He describes how the grading of the road on Concession 6 has allowed water to settle on one side more than the other, requiring some repairs, and adds Read Road will be seeing some restoration this summer.
“There are a lot of moving parts, a lot of puzzle pieces,” he says. “We’re waiting on budget information to determine what’s upcoming, and waiting on other projects, determining the impacts on the roads.”
Sidlar and his wife Brenda, a retired pharmaceutical technician, live on Queenston Road, in a house they built on the family land in 1980. They are involved in the Ukrainian church and practice their culture’s customs. They have two adult sons — one works for the Shaw Festival and lives in town, and the other is an urban planner who lives in Milton with his own growing family.
“There aren’t really any negatives about the job, other than the occasional unhappy client,” says Sidlar. “We aim to please as much as we can. An upset resident is not our goal, but that will happen, because we can’t be everything to everyone. We try to make it work for all — I hate to disappoint people.”
His favourite part of the job, he says, is “dealing with the people, seeing the jobs get completed, and feeling that satisfaction.”