2021 State of the Town Address

2020 has been like no other.

Aurora, like every town and city across the world, has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. That impact has been profound and, in some respects, devastating.

For the business community, the ways of doing business have forever changed. Hours changed. Physical environments changed. Delivery channels changed. Consumers and their habits changed.

Some businesses have been able to adapt…Others have been less fortunate…and some will close. The enormity of toll the pandemic has had and continues to have on our community is difficult to put in words. Because, while we may all be in it together – we are not all affected the same way. Each of us has had to deal with our own challenges. The very real suffering of our residents, our business owners, and our community will require years of recovery.

But our community has stood resilient and banded together to support one another — and continues to find ways to support each other and move forward towards a more positive future.

The Aurora Chamber has been an essential support during this difficult time. To the community – and each other.

This is one of the reasons I am so pleased to join you today. To recognize the work of the Chamber, its members and to have the opportunity to speak directly with the business community of Aurora.

I am particularly appreciative because I know it would have been easy to cancel, to say, “We’ll do it next year”.

But this is not just an event. It is an important opportunity for our business community to come together to celebrate our successes and envision what the future could look like – our individual futures and our collective future.

And yes, while this event looks different — I believe it is important to celebrate triumph over challenge.

I say this not to ignore the devastating impact some of our community have suffered or diminish the struggles our business community has seen, but to celebrate our resilience, our strength and diversity.

And we have seen some successes. Despite the pandemic, the Town of Aurora saw approximately 15 new businesses open in 2020, including restaurants, a music and a dance academy, a new hotel, and so many more.

I believe that as we navigate the next stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, and come out the other side – embattled but stronger – the partnerships that we have built and continue to build will be the critical foundation for our economic recovery.

One example of this is the Explore Aurora website, part of the Explore Aurora marketing campaign that is now in its second phase and is sponsored by the Chamber and the Town.

Already we are seeing signs that this campaign is reaping positive rewards, and we expect this to continue even more strongly once the pandemic days are behind us. At the onset of the pandemic, the Town of Aurora partnered with the Aurora Chamber of Commerce to create a task force to help support the local economy and provide assistance to small businesses in Aurora.

The Aurora Business Continuity Task Force brought together business professionals with global, national and local experience to help find creative ways to assist Aurora’s small businesses. This task force continues its work today — under the guidance of the Aurora Economic Development Corporate Board of Directors — and is working to develop recovery programs and initiatives for local businesses.

The recently released, AEDC 5 step action plan for retail recruitment in our Downtown core, is a positive, concrete example of stakeholder led approach to economic revitalization.

To date, the Task Force has supported our business community by keeping them up to date with accurate information on government support and assistance programs. A patio expansion program was established. Our economic development staff have had one on one meetings with our businesses, to help address your specific needs. All this through the power of partnerships. While these are tangible, positive steps that have been undertaken in the last 12 months, there is still more to be done to keep our community flourishing.

As you may be aware, in December, Council approved the 2021 municipal budget.

We began the budget process facing a possible 4.7% increase. However, with everyone working together we were able to reduce the proposed increase; unanimously approving a fiscally responsible tax levy of 1.96%.

I appreciate that during this pandemic and state of emergency that some suggested a 0% tax increase was more appropriate. After all, some residents have lost jobs or seen reduced hours, businesses have closed or are struggling to stay afloat.

And while a 0% tax increase may be the popular political decision – it is not the right thing or fiscally responsible decision. History in Aurora has shown us that “0% tax rates” have resulted in long-term negative effects – with years of escalating tax rates to follow to catch up for the short-term popular decision not to keep taxes in line with inflation.

As a businessperson, you know what it means to balance current priorities with future needs.

Our job was to find the balance between minimizing the financial burden to our residents while ensuring that the reductions will not negatively impact future years. We can’t reduce taxes by cutting services, underfunding the needs of our municipality and jeopardizing the future of our Town.

I believe that we were able to achieve that, and the budget still allows us to be flexible and to provide the services that our residents, and you, our businesses, need. So – with the budget in place, I want to talk now about what we will be doing in 2021.

I mentioned in my address last year that the Town was embarking on a review of its Official Plan. I want to update you now that we are further into the process.

The Official Plan sets out the goals, objectives and policies to manage and direct physical change and its effects on the social, economic, built and natural environment of the municipality.

Creating and promoting a consistent and unique vision for what our downtown is, and can be, is critical to increasing the economic viability of downtown and marketing Aurora as a place where people want to live, work and play.

It will help set the stage for how and where residential growth will occur. It will promote and enhance complete, vibrant and healthy communities and will promote, protect and enhance our heritage and greenspace.

The current Plan is now more than ten years old and the process of reviewing it allows us to shape the story of Aurora for the next five, ten, twenty years.

Where will we grow? Where do we need to encourage business communities to rise up? Where should our natural environment take precedence over the built environment? Where can the two converge to showcase the beauty of our town?

These are all questions which will be answered in the Official Plan, with your help. We have prioritized public engagement as part of this process and have already conducted a number of engagement activities to get the input of residents and businesses alike.

But this process takes time to get right. The revised Official Plan is scheduled to go to Council for adoption by the end of 2022, and so I want to ask that if you haven’t already actively engaged in this process — please do so — it’s important for you as a business leader, for us as a municipality, and for us all as a community.

In the last year, we have seen so many amazing investments in our town.

Piramal Pharma Solutions invested $25 million to expand its Aurora facility with a state-of-the-art API manufacturing wing.

Magna extended its lease to keep its headquarters right here in Aurora – and if you heard my address last year, you will know how strongly I believed that Magna should stay here, and how hard we all worked for this to happen.

We opened a brand-new Holiday Inn Express – the very first hotel opening in Aurora in ten years. In just a few months, we will welcome yet another new hotel – a Microtel. Two hotels in an 18-month span is an enviable vote of confidence in the future of our Town.

St. Andrews College announced the opening of its all-girls school, St. Anne’s.

We have issued development approvals for 32 acres for the Smart Centres on Wellington and Highway 404. These approvals permit:

  • 2 new luxury brand car dealerships (87,000 sq.ft.)
  • 130,000 sq.ft. of commercial self-storage facility
  • 160,000 sq.ft. of retail space
  • 320,000 sq.ft. of office space
  • The extension of Goulding Avenue to Wellington Street

This proposal will create over 1,400 new jobs at build out – a phenomenal boon for our community. Now, part of managing for sustainability and for the future is looking at new builds and additions and how they benefit or detract from our Town.

We heard from our community that this was important to them, and so in November of 2020, Council approved urban design guidelines – the Stable Neighbourhood guidelines – in an effort to provide further guidance for managing new builds and additions in the Regency Acres, Temperance Street, Town Park, and Aurora Heights neighbourhoods. We expect that these guidelines will help us grow, strategically, while respecting the unique character of our stable neighbourhoods.

Not only are we respecting our past, but we are embracing our future. And in doing so, I believe that a vibrant, growing downtown core is essential to an engaged thriving community.

The successful revitalization of our downtown is dependent upon a clear vision for the area and one that is developed in concert with the OP review.

For example, the Promenade Secondary Plan was developed over ten years ago to guide and manage growth in the Yonge and Wellington corridors. And while this plan was a good start, our residents expect us to move beyond aspirational ideas of the original promenade plan — and move towards concrete action; that is why we need an update of the Promenade Plan. It has long been talked about — but this year we will move forward with an update, and begin to move from concept to reality

This year, we have a proposal to undertake the complete transformation of the former Howard Johnson hotel on Yonge Street by fully renovating the interior and re-facing the exterior of the building.

This building has sat for nine years and has been a blight on our downtown. Going forward, the proposal is for a 104-unit, seniors housing facility, specializing in providing care and life assistance to seniors in the community and surrounding area. One of the landmark decisions of 2020 was the decision to approve construction of Library Square. This decision was decades long in the making, and one that I am thrilled to see taking shape.

As I’m sure you know, we broke ground on this $51.9 million project late last year – and we are on schedule, on budget, and anticipating cutting a ribbon late in 2022.

This new facility will become a centrepiece of our downtown, and the downtown will revitalize and grow, around it. This is, to date, the largest project in Aurora’s history, and I am proud that we are all here watching it happen and supporting its success.

And, as part of our desire to reshape our downtown, in late 2020, we went out to the development community for a concept for the redevelopment of Town-owned properties adjacent to Library Square.

We believe that these properties offer a unique opportunity to provide rental housing and additional parking, next to the Library Square project.

While this decision was not unanimous at the Council table, what is unanimous is Council’s commitment to our community and to the betterment of our Town.

Building on the focus on forward planning, I believe in using all the tools available to a municipality to protect our shared vision for the future Aurora. One of those tools available as part of the OP review is a Community Planning Permit Plan. At the beginning of this term, I recommended that we develop a community planning permit plan – a one stop shop for approvals -for the Downtown core.

The community planning permit system (CPPS) is a planning tool that municipalities can use to ensure clarity as we support local priorities such as, community building, developments that support public transit, and greenspace protection — and create certainty and transparency for the community, landowners, and developers.

With a CPPS in place, it helps cut red tape, speeding up the approvals process for key developments in our downtown core; ensuring they meet our vision for Aurora as defined in our OP and soon to be updated Promenade Plan.

I am very much looking forward to moving that idea forward, with the support of our business community and Town staff. But while this permit plan would allow for efficient approval process that is in line with our OP, it is all for naught if we can’t uphold our provincially approved OPs. As you all know, I am a fierce advocate for the right of our municipality to decide if, how, when and where we grow. That is the purpose of our Official Plan. It sets out in clear terms the planning vision we have for our Town. And it is provincially approved.

An unelected, unaccountable body should not be able to overturn Council planning decisions that support the OP; It’s why I fought so hard to reform the OMB. Communities across this province are forced to accept OMB decisions that allow for inappropriate or “over-development “in our communities.

Unfortunately, that victory was short lived.

Though originally envisioned to be an appeals body that recognized local government authority in planning decisions, LPAT’s scope of authority was expanded by the current government. LPAT is now basically the OMB by a different name. And the impacts on our community have been immediate. The recent decision of the Tribunal to block building on the Henderson Forest is being hailed as a victory.

However, that decision was already made by the Aurora Committee of Adjustment and one that all of Council supported. Yet, we had to spend $142,000 of taxpayer money to argue that an unelected Tribunal uphold our municipal decision.

I believe the municipality has the best understanding of what is locally appropriate when working within the Official Plan. It’s time for true reforms of LPAT, reforms that will not be reversed. As part of my belief that positive growth requires good representation, I proposed a new Small Urban GTHA Mayors Group to my fellow Mayor’s in 11 surrounding communities — which now meets regularly to foster discussion and collaboration on issues relevant to our unique context.

This group will be instrumental in helping our community – and those similar and close to us – have a voice and speak for our municipalities when it comes to the big issues.

Recently, we have met with the Premier and the Deputy Premier to discuss how province wide pandemic measures have impacted our business communities and the supports the Province can provide to assist the small urban communities in mitigating those impacts.

As you know, I am a fierce advocate for our local business community, and I will be using my voice at this new table to help shape an economic recovery that meets and exceeds our needs. Before I wrap up, I want to take a moment to recognize some of the folks in the room – as well as those joining us remotely.

Exec Dir of the Chamber Sandra Ferri

Members of the Chamber Board

Members of Council

Our CAO Doug Nadorozny

And the members of our Economic Development Board

And I would like to thank our sponsors, Magna, Bell and TD and the Auroran

I am just one member of a large team pulling together for our town to succeed; and I believe that the successes we have had despite the hardships of the last year show that when you work together, that’s how you get things done for your community.

I am proud of the work that my colleagues and I have done over the last year, with the support of a truly excellent Town staff, and a phenomenal community and stakeholder network.

We’ve all been through a lot this past year and I am confident that as we continue to work together, we have the collective ability to accomplish great things for our future.

Thank you. Stay safe. Stay healthy. And I will see you all very soon.

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