By Gagandeep Ghuman
Published: Jan. 6, 2013
In an interview with the Squamish Reporter, Mayor Kirkham said he understands the concern with bourgeoning SODC debt, and is as concerned as any other engaged citizen.
In a hour-long interview, Kirkham also talked about the town’s worrisome image as a bedroom community, the new council’s attempt at streamlining district processses, and his bold, even brash, confidence in Oceanfront project as a game changer in a town on the cusp of slow but radical change.
Q: How did you get interested in politics?
A: Well, It was an evolutionary process, so it wasn’t so much as ‘I want to be a politician’, but it was more about ‘this is my community’ and there are concerns I would like to see addressed. And as I got more involved with the community, I took more responsibility, and here I’m on my second term on council now.
Q. It’s been a year since you were elected Mayor? Do you see yourself as a leader of Squamish?
A: Yes, absolutely. I see myself as being responsible for looking after the interests of the people of Squamish, to ensure that we are moving towards a vision for Squamish. When you are the mayor, you really have a bigger sense of responsibility. You are much more connected with the staff, you are working together with the staff and the council and making sure it’s a cohesive unit.
Q: What is your vision for Squamish?
A: I think I can pretty well use one example that will bring all that vision in one clear picture. That is our Oceanfront project. That is a perfect picture of my vision, the community connecting with the water. That is huge for me, and also the possibility of educational opportunities on the Oceanfront, which is a big part of a healthy community.
Q. What have been this council’s achievements in the last one year?
A: There are all kinds of things. The turf fields, Stan Clarke park, our commitment for community parks, and it’s not sexy stuff but addressing our infrastructure needs, cleaning up the land fill, and of course, taking the Oceanfront to the market place. I’m really pleased with that, and I think that would bring the pieces of economic development together. As far as business processing and customer service attitude is concerned at the district, we have come from the dark ages to the space age. In the past, we have had feedback that hasn’t always been positive.
Q: What is the council doing to change that reputation Squamish has developed as not being business friendly?
A: We are definitely changing things internally and we are putting benchmarking for processing of applications. We initiated the Squamish Service Initiative, and the Core Service Review, and beyond that, it’s recognising that if a developer comes here, it’s not okay to say ‘go talk to them, or I only look at this, go talk to someone else’.
We have shrunk the number of forms, we have developed easy guides, and we are telling people upfront what they need. Now, we are anxious for some feedback.
Q: What is the biggest challenge for the council?
A: The biggest challenge, as you said, is the reputation or the perception that has developed about Squamish, and we need to change that. And that is something you can’t just flick the switch and change. We are making changes within an organisation to address those things, but the next development proposal that comes our way is a test and a learning experience.
Q: How can the district help the local economy and create jobs?
A: Well, not by employing people at the district, but what we can do is that when someone wants to do business in Squamish, we ensure that we are not in the way, or we are able to provide best services we possibly can and provide some surety. We have also asked staff to come up with an incentive package, whether it is reduced DCC, tax incentives, etc. I mean there is no benefit in throwing a bunch of incentives if they are not going to work. So we are looking at the possibility of incentives in downtown and possibly in the business park first.
Q: Why don’t we go out there and actively seek investor and businesses to relocate here?
A: Yes, we need to go there, but my personal view is that if you are out there marketing to the world that Squamish is a great place and reality is that it isn’t, then you are wasting time and energy.
We need to get our house in order, so the reception a business gets in this organisation is top notch and we need to make sure existing business are doing well. But I agree we need that (marketing of Squamish) and it’s coming.
Q: Do you think we are a bedroom community?
A: Well, that is an interesting phrase. We are a small town, and we are looking at growth and the more we grow, more businesses will be here, and they will be looking for a bigger source of employees, and so there is no doubt that we will grow.
Q: You still didn’t say if you think we are a bedroom community?
A: That is what I’m getting to. What will drive the growth here is people recognising that this is a fantastic place to live. People are going to come here because it’s a great place to live and it’s an easy commute to Vancouver.
Bedroom community has a very negative connotation to it. Real estate developments create lot of jobs and growth, but as a community, I think we need some balance. So, we also need businesses and industry, and if a bedroom community is all we are, then yes, that in itself is not great.
Q: People are worried about SODC debt.
A: Well I understand the concern about SODC debt, and I’m concerned about it too. But, I have no doubt we will be able to pay the debt.
It’s a significant debt for the community, but for perspective, the district sold some land in the business park for $8 million. We should look at the benefits Oceanfront project is going to bring to the community. We were handed a contaminated site and we were all excited for getting it for $3. We are moving through a process and it takes time and money.
Q: We still don’t have a welcome sign to Squamish?
A: It’s a long time to not have a sign and I’m not thrilled with the holdup, but it’s also important to have a character and a theme to it and not just simply the words. The committee that is working on it said we are better off doing it right.
Q: Do we have a policy where the district review developments, and see if they have worked for our town?
A: I’m not sure there is a specific policy which looks at individual developments, other than the ongoing OCP reviews. We will be initiating an OCP review, and we can look at where we are going with land development.
Q: Do we have a possibility of a commuter bus to Vancouver, or revive the bus to Whistler?
A: I guess I don’t need to tell you how complex that whole process is. I think that is a big piece of our growth potential, our corridor transport, more so to Vancouver than to Whistler. It’s kind of beyond Squamish but we will be the big beneficiaries so we need to be the driving force. What excites me is the possibility of a fast ferry to the city, and I think it’s possible.
Q: A lot of the council meetings this year are ending up behind closed doors?
A: We are covered by legislation, dealing with land issues, dealing with human resources, employees issues, so those are the only thing that are closed door agendas. But we also list things in regular council meetings that come out of camera.
Q: People in our community feel we need to have open access to the blind channel ?
A: Yes, global economic situation hit us hard, so there were investors who were ready to move ahead, and then they got smacked with the economic situation. We are seeing renewed interest, and it’s critical that there is public access for blind channel. It’s big part of stimulating the area.