The City of Fernie at UBCM 2019 in Vancouver. Submitted

Elk Valley mayors reflect on UBCM conference

[With files from Tom Fletcher]

Mayors and councillors from around the Elk Valley made the journey to Vancouver last week to attend the 2019 Union of BC Municipalities conference. They joined municipalities and their representatives from around the province.

The theme of this year’s conference was resiliency and change.

“Big or small, rural or urban, our communities are experiencing change at an unprecedented rate,” reads the description of the conference.

“From climate change to economic pressures, local governments are on the front lines managing the local impact of complex issues… in an uncertain future, local leaders have a duty to learn from each other and from the past and to find new approaches to plan and thrive.”

There were many workshops and clinics throughout the week addressing many things from Reconciliation to Ride-Hailing. Community leaders also heard from several provincial ministers, as well as leader of the opposition Andrew Wilkinson, leader of the Green Party Andrew Weaver and Premier John Horgan.

Communities were honoured for their excellence alongside long-service members.

In a resolutions debate on September 27, delegates considered one off-the-floor resolution with regards to the Rural Dividend Fund. The result of the resolution to reconsider this was endorsed, and the fund was redirected.

This comes after the province announced a $69M lifeline to communities affected by mill closures. Municipalities later found out that twenty-five of this was coming from the redirected rural dividend fund, originally put in place to provide economic diversification to communities 15,000 or smaller.

Many communities around the province count on this fund annually to assist in community projects or upgrades.

Forests Minister Doug Donaldson sent letters to applicants of the rural fund the day the sawmill relief fund was announced, advising them that their grant applications had been ‘suspended until further notice’ to help those hardest hit by a wave of mill closures across the interior.

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Sparwood mayor David Wilks explained they had their hopes pinned on $100,000 of this fund in order to renovate Centennial Square. He joined many other rural B.C. mayors in expressing their disappointment in this decision. This fund, he says, helps support rural towns.

“We will have to find alternate funding opportunities,” he said in an email.

Wilks explained that his biggest takeaway from the 2019 UBCM conference was that the provincial government had, “created a larger divide with rural British Columbia by eliminating the Rural Dividend Fund.”

Wilks says this handicaps smaller communities.

The Sparwood mayor, who said he wasn’t particularity inspired by the conference, did discuss the possibility of a crosswalk at Hwy 43 and Michel Creek Road with the Minister of Transporation, and also spoke about the potential of a traffic light at Hwy 3 and Douglas Fir Road.

Wilks says his biggest focus in Sparwood at the moment is working collaboratively with Teck Resources, “on a number of issues facing our community.”

City of Fernie mayor Ange Qualizza said they were not affected by the recent elimination of the Rural Dividend Fund.

She explained that the preliminary design phase of the Fernie Valley Pathway Project has already been funded through the Rural Dividend Fund, and this announcement has not affected those already committed funds.

“We do not have any applications outstanding with this fund, so this announcement does not put any projects in jeopardy,” she said.

In reflection of the week, Qualizza said she was pleased to see both their forestry resolutions supported by the assembly. Additionally, they attended meetings to discuss forestry, tourism, ultrasound services at the Elk Valley Hospital, affordable housing, traffic calming in West Fernie and their municipal policing unit.

Qualizza said she had a successful week in conversation with the Ministry of Tourism, and through her opportunity with the Resort Collaborative, joined a committee that will focus on collaboration, advocacy, knowledge sharing and how to align with the Strategic Tourism Framework.

This committee is comprised of Qualizza, Mayor McCormick of Kimberley and the CAO’s of Whistler and Ucluelet.

For her, the highlight of the UBCM conference was to see so many climate change resolutions being supported.

“Municipalities need immediate investment in our communities to help local communities reduce our risk from extreme weather, and I hope the focus of the federal election is about supporting local government meeting this challenge,” said Qualizza in an email.

“What resonated with me the most at UBCM this year was how fortunate Fernie is, which doesn’t mean that there isn’t work to be done, but that we are in a really great place.”

Qualizza said their colleagues up north are feeling the immediate and real crisis with mill closures. After she presented on tourism, Qualizza said she was asked in detail how to explore creating tourism projects to help them diversify.

The Fernie mayor also reflected on presentations from Burnaby and Nanaimo on their rapid response to homelessness, and heard from communities challenged with the opioid crisis.

“Local governments are the front line of our communities, and as we continue to be threatened by housing needs, wildfire, flood and collapsing industries we need support from the Province and Federal government,” said Qualizza.

As of press time The Free Press had not received a response from the District of Elkford.

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