By Chris Pickup

It was no surprise Wednesday’s all candidates night in Caledonia was packed to the rafters.

Caledonia residents are facing massive problems connected with the ongoing development of housing subdivisions and the traffic problems they are exacerbating, the overcrowding at Caledonia Centennial public school, and the fact the Argyle bridge reconstruction has been stalled,. 

And the discontent is palpable on the campaign doorstep.

Facing off were the three mayoral candidates – incumbent Ken Hewitt, David McClung and Lisa Taylor and Council candidates Cheryl Beemer, Dan Lawrence and incumbent Craig Grice. 

Hewitt led off with his usual spiel about the county finances and how much money the county has made with hydro and other investments. Now that’s all well and good, and we’ve heard it a gazillion times over this past year, but who gets to choose where the investment money is spent? 

Should money be spent on an indoor pool and its maintenance when seniors housing is needed?  A suggestion by Cheryl Beemer that Caledonia should aim to develop a long term care facility so its seniors would not have to leave the community was shot down as being too expensive.

Who took the public’s opinion into account during the major projects initiated over the last four years? No-one at the county as far as we can see. Lawrence suggested these things should be put to a referendum.

Biggest giggle of the night was Grice. He was practically thumping his chest as he enumerated everything that had gone on in Caledonia from free skates to free pool (which was actually donated by the Clark family), as being supported by “me and our council.” I was waiting for him to sprout wings and a halo until he mentioned the new firehall and EMS. 

Because sitting right next to him at the table, unacknowledged, was the quiet, forthright and determined woman who brought the first ambulance station to Caledonia along with improved emergency services across Haldimand. It took Cheryl Beemer, a retired nurse who is aiming for Grice’s seat, a dogged eleven years of lobbying to bring that to pass. 

The Argyle Street bridge was top of everyone’s mind, and the first question of the evening. Why is the plan for a new bridge being delayed year after year?

This of course is a provincial matter and everyone agreed that with the change in provincial government the county should push MPP Toby Barrett, with McClung also proposing to bring Doug Ford into the mix. In the meantime he suggested trying to divert as much traffic as possible away from Argyle and onto the bypass to alleviate congestion.

Hewitt noted the elephant in the room is that without an understanding with Six Nations the new bridge won’t happen. He has asked to have county staff as part of the negotiations. 

On the issue of speeding, everyone agreed drivers need to take ownership, obey the signs and slow down. McClung advocated for rumble strips,  speed bumps and radar, and Lawrence agreed, noting “stupid is as stupid does” and speed bumps, although a pain in the butt, were needed around schools.

McClung proved he was able to think outside the box. He noted growth projections won’t necessarily happen, as in the ‘big city’ of Townsend. He envisioned a more user-friendly bypass integrated into the Caledonia streetscape with commercial development and access off Hwy 54 and Six Nations. 

He looked at several intersections in Caledonia where unsynchronized traffic lights were backing up traffic – “easy fixes but somebody will have to take the initiative” – and negotiating for private space for parking behind the Argyle St. North businesses to open up the on-street parking to traffic.

Dan Lawrence wants to adopt a two-term length restriction for councillors, and on-line voting. He is pro-development he says, but feels things should be slowed down until the infrastructure is in place to support it. 

He is also in favour of a bridge at McClung Road, as is Beemer, which brought an outraged squawk from Grice as he warned taxes would go up as much as 62%. 

The need for public transportation is a priority both within Haldimand and to the outside. Hewitt mentioned the possibility of using Uber within the county. Norfolk spent money on a bus but very few people use it, he said. He added the county is looking at a Mount Hope to Caledonia bus.

On the question of affordable housing, Hewitt said the county has no plan to spend local tax dollars on it. McClung said affordable didn’t necessarily mean subsidized. He suggested dropping minimum square footage for single families and changing zoning to allow four storey small apartment buildings with less space, concentrating sprawl and keeping to the centres. Taylor has senior housing as part of her platform as does Beemer. Grice noted the county gives $3 million to social housing. Lawrence said housing prices tend to be market-driven.

With regard to attracting business and industry to the town, hi-speed Internet was on the list. McClung said it would help home-based businesses while Beemer hoped it would attract high tech jobs and skilled workers. “We need to find strategies to attract top talent,” she said. Lawrence noted students go off to college and never come back because there are few well-paying jobs. 

Everyone agreed the town needs to advertise itself as open for business, with Taylor going so far as to hire an expert in sales to market industrial land while still hanging on to the small town ambience. Hewitt would pressure the MTO to extend the bypass to the Lake Erie industrial park. He noted land is cheap here in comparison to other places and if the culture is right, the business will come.

And the inevitable question, will the county sell pot? Lawrence said “absolutely no”. Grice said he didn’t believe the community wants to see it. Beemer would support licensed consumption to ensure our children don’t have access. Hewitt was concerned if we don’t have a legal operation then kids could be getting fentanyl-based marijuana access on the street. Taylor would opt out because not enough studies have been done. McClung drew laughter with his wry remark that anyone who wants marijuana in Haldimand County already has it; however it’s a question of community values and he would follow what the community wants.