Members of the Town’s Wellness Committee, determined to find out what “wellness” means to the residents of Niagara-on-the-Lake, held two public forums last Thursday to do just that.
The results of a survey online and the input from 54 residents who attended the public forums, will inform recommendations the committee will make to council in November, with work expected to begin in the new year, said chair Cindy Grant.
What she hoped to hear at the forum, she said in her introduction, “is no complaints. What we want to hear is ‘this could be improved, and here is an idea of how it could be improved.’”
Lord Mayor Betty Disero, also a member of the new Town committee, MC’d the event, telling those gathered of the importance of three pillars needed to provide a healthy community: a good official plan, a strategic plan, and an economic plan. They all go together, she said. “The healthier the economy is, the better the Town is able to provide community services for residents of all ages.”
She spoke of the need for day care, affordable housing and public transit as components of a healthy community, as well as infrastructure that encourages an active community, such as the Upper Canada Heritage Trail and the Bob Howse Trail, the need for seniors buildings for those who want to downsize, and other needs that could be discovered through communication with the Community Wellness Committee.
The delay in construction of the Crossroads Medical Centre is a concern to many residents, she said, assuring them doctors in the Niagara Medical Clinic in Virgil and in the basement of the former hospital building in NOTL will be able to stay where they are until the new clinic is ready for occupancy.
Committee member Paul Jurbala spoke of the extensive research the committee has done to date. He explained community wellness as referring to a high quality of life, and the desire to have programs and policies in place to support that goal.
He spoke of demographics — not surprisingly, a recent census showed NOTL having the highest percentage of seniors in Niagara — and of some disparity in the community in terms of wealth and marginalization, defined as lower income, which is most predominate in the rural area.
He also suggested one of the areas the committee was concerned about is how to pay more attention to the youth and young adults in the community. The number of young people has remained relatively flat, the question being, “where are they coming from and how do we keep them here?”
With a committee member at each table, residents were asked to address each of eight different categories within its framework: healthy community; community vitality, which includes transportation; culture and leisure; democratic engagement; environment; education; time use; and living standards, which touches on the need for affordable apartments for seniors.
Different amounts of time were spent on each category, depending on the need for improvements — for example, culture and leisure is an area where the committee feels NOTL already does well.
Each table of residents came up with different suggestions, and that information was noted to be combined into a summary that would be sent to those who participated, to give them an opportunity to see what was said and add anything new they felt had been missed.
At one table in the afternoon session were Jurbala, Old Town residents M.J. McGraw and Margret Walker, and Jim Fisher and Yuksel Oren, both of whom live on York Road.
Talking about the need for better transportation and connectivity in the community, it was suggested that although they are costly, more bike lanes or bike paths are needed to encourage safe cycling.“There are so many bikes on the road now. It’s become very dangerous for some people to be on certain roads,” said Fisher, who lives on one of the most dangerous roads for cyclists, with no shoulders to ride on.
McGraw said she’s concerned about seniors being isolated, specifically those in rural areas who don’t drive and don’t have access to transportation. For those seniors, especially some who are receiving palliative care, she said, having a bus to take them around town would be a “huge contribution to a healthier community.”
During a discussion about culture and leisure, several people agreed they are impressed with the wide range of services the library delivers, the number of informal groups who meet for a diverse range of activities and the many educational programs.
With a bus stopping at its doorstep, the library helps get seniors out of the house, one participant remarked. “The ability to learn new things, is huge for mental health. The library is a hub in the community.”
But if you live in the village of St. Davids, “that’s about as far away as you can get,” Fisher added.
Fisher, who lives nearer to Queenston, said residents in his neighbourhood tend to use more services in Niagara Falls, a more convenient drive.
In a discussion about recreational facilities, many mentioned Niagara-on-the-Lake does a great job with its pools, arenas, and parks.
“There are people who would really like an indoor pool,” said Walker. It would be a wonderful thing to have in town, she said, “but in my opinion, it would be at the bottom of the list. It would be expensive to build and maintain.”
Others agreed there are indoor pools not far away in Niagara Falls and St. Catharines.
One of the discussions was about education, “but think broader than schools,” said Jurbala to his group. “Think about lifeline learning and the broader aspects of education.”
McGraw mentioned the former high school used to offer evening courses that were well-attended.
“I’d like to find a way to bring them back. It wouldn’t have to be in a school — they can be held anywhere. The college or university could organize them off-campus. They could be in a church basement.”
If Niagara College or Brock University were invited to offer classes in town, they would do an assessment to see what the community wants, she said. “We can’t rely on Town staff to do the inviting. We’d have to get a group of like-minded people together to organize it.”
In a discussion about the environment, Fisher and Oren, both on the north side of York Road with vineyards behind them, objected to the constant noise from bird bangers, calling them “explosive devices.” For about three months of the year, the propane-powered bird bangers go off from a half-hour before sunrise until a half hour after sunset, said Fisher, suggesting the Town should be looking at alternatives, including netting.
The two men also said there should be some research done on the use of pesticides and how they affect the health of residents living near orchards and vineyards. “No one is talking about the air quality in NOTL from spraying,” said Fisher.
When the conversation moved to affordable housing, Walker said it’s badly needed for seniors who live in the Old Town and want to stay there.
“I would love to see a seniors development that’s affordable,” said Walker. “A lot of Old Town residents don’t want to move to Virgil.”
McGraw suggested a workshop dedicated solely to the topic of affordable housing.
“We need to be looking 10 to 15 years into the future.”
Grant, who walked around the room listening to the conversations at both sessions, said she heard a variety of diverse ideas, as well as some overlapping suggestions.
Noise problems were a common thread, she said, and more than one group spoke of health concerns from agricultural spraying.
That’s an issue for the Town to decide on how to proceed, she said.
There was talk of the need for better communication and awareness — for instance, many residents talking about transportation didn’t know there is a town bus that connects with Glendale, and then to other municipalities.
Also the 211 community information service, a great resource which provides the answers to all kinds of questions, is unknown to many, she said.
One of the recommendations the committee is likely to make to the Town is for something similar to the blue pages in phone books, that would detail the many local services and organizations and contact information. While some of that is available in the Community Awareness booklet published by the Town, it’s not nearly as detailed as it could be, Grant said.
Affordable housing and assisted living needs were also themes that were thoroughly discussed, she said.
While Grant would have liked better attendance, she said, “we were very pleased with the results. The energy in the room was good, the noise level was high, and the people who were there were truly engaged.”