Gary Zalepa believes his ability to set a positive tone and bring people together to work toward a common goal make him the right person to be the next Lord Mayor of Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Zalepa successfully ran against three other candidates for regional council in 2018, wanting to be a strong voice at a time when it was important to improve the public perception and restore trust in the upper-tier level of Niagara government, which had been seriously lacking.
It has been a good four years, he says, with a term under chair Jim Bradley that has demonstrated a large number of regional councillors with varying backgrounds and interests could come together to set a positive plan for Niagara, and work collaboratively to carry it out.
Zalepa wants to do the same for Niagara-on-the-Lake.
The long-time community resident and businessman, with a background of serving on several local boards and standing committees, as well as municipal experience as a two-term town councillor and one term at the region, believes he can be more beneficial to the community if he runs locally.
He feels he can bring what he learned at the region to the town, “focusing on what needs to be done to change the tone of how the mayor and council work together, and to council discussions.”
He has been a coach for minor hockey with kids aged 10 and 11, right up to the major junior-level with 18-year-olds, and both in sports and throughout his career in real estate, he has had that opportunity to “bring people together in a common effort, developing and setting goals and then getting behind them.”
“I’ve been watching the incumbents,” he adds, “and what they’re going to do, and I’m not sure how happy some of them are with their experiences. At the end of four years, people need to feel they’ve had good, healthy conversations.”
This is a time when a particular style of leadership is needed, “with a lot of angst in a world that feels very separated, with harsh, difficult experiences. I think we can have the debates we need in a healthy tone.”
Zalepa was the owner of a real estate brokerage in town for more than 25 years, and is currently the director of strategic growth for Century 21 Canada corporate head office.
He has been considering the possibility of running locally for some time, and is prepared to file his nomination papers this week, he said Sunday.
He plans to continue his career in real estate, and feels confident he can manage both jobs well. At the region he sits on two major committees, housing and budget, both of which take up a lot of time, which has been manageable along with his job, he says.
He repeats the quote, “if you want something done, give it to a busy person,” and says he understands the amount of work that is required, and is being encouraged at work to run for the position.
“I see it as my chance to give back to the town, and I think it’s time. I’m putting it out there as an alternative.”
The role of the lord mayor, he says, “is to be a chief cheerleader to their town,” and to get out in front of the province, advocating for the town and what it needs.
One of the major issues he intends to fight for is “attainable housing,” for people at both ends of the age spectrum — young people who want to work in NOTL, who need rental accommodation, whether it’s apartments, houses or secondary units, and older people who have lived in town all their lives, want to move to something smaller, but end up staying in their homes because it’s the only way they can stay in town. “They don’t have that next step to move to,” he says. “There is a huge supply problem.”
The solution has to start with rentals, and other municipalities are making inroads — NOTL should be doing the same, to allow people of all ages to stay in town. “I have 30 years experience in real estate, and I understand the housing market. It’s not a one-size solution, a single bullet, it has to be a number of solutions, including secondary suites and how they fit in.”
While he sees housing as one important issue, there are several that reach out to the broader community.
“People come here and stay here for a reason. We need to make sure the things we’re doing maintain that sense of place.”
He speaks of using planning documents to accomplish that, such as how buildings in new subdivisions are set on lots, with guidelines that do a better job of determining how the town is going to grow.
“We need to be advocates for the town, and be recognized by other levels of government,” he says. “We also need to be courting businesses for investments that create jobs, better jobs for people who want to live here, and for our kids who want to stay here.”
The town needs more of a balance of tourism and residents, so people feel better about their communities, and that includes economic development, and how it fits in with tourism, says Zalepa. Those discussions require a large number of stakeholders involved, both in the tourism industry and residents, and include looking at tourist accommodations and finding a balance of what is acceptable in residential neighbourhoods.
There are other municipalities in Ontario that have dealt with tourist accommodations, “and we need to look at best practices,” he says, finding the proper balance, and also remembering “when businesses are healthy, that’s good for the community too.”