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My Column Archive from The StarPhoenix

A bit of this and that

None of these really need a full blog post but for those that care and for those that don’t…

A New Project

I am starting a book that I hope to have done by the end of the year.  I have a full Moleskine of things that I have left out of my The StarPhoenix columns, thoughts that I haven’t shared on The Saskatoon Afternoon Show with David Kirton (or talked about after we got off the air), or are just ideas that I have been working on and haven’t done anything with.  Basically I am just trying to figure out Saskatoon and along with it, the ethos of Saskatchewan that makes us do things the way we do.

For many years Steven Johnson has been one of my favourite authors.  Instead of writing books about what he knows, he writes about what he does not understand and in the process of learning about a subject, he brings you along for the ride.  I hope to do the same thing.  Look for it 2015.

Sports and Politics

I read a great bio of Michael Grange who said he wanted to write about foreign affairs but he was offered a sports job.  I love writing about local and social issues but if Grantland calls, I am leaving it all behind (I’m kidding but the Grantland podcasts look like so much fun).  To pass the time between now and when Bill Simmons discovers me, I am now talking sports with David Kirton and Justin Blackwell on Wednesdays at 5:15 on the CKOM Saskatoon Afternoon roundtable.  David joked about it a few weeks ago that we should just talk sports and since then we have had quite a few roundtables with sports.  The response has been cool but I was at McNally Robinson the other day and a stranger comes up to me and says out of the blue, “You know, I really hate what Pete Carroll did at USC too.”  I looked at him and he said, “I attended Oregon” and shook my hand.  I can now check, “Call out Pete Carroll for cheating” off my bucket list.  

A Year in Saskatoon

I have been writing an OurYXE Neighbourhood Guide each week.  Every Wednesday and Sunday, I sit down and research what is good, bad, and interesting about a neighbourhood.  It’s been an incredible amount of fun exploring some of Saskatoon’s most loved (and unloved) neighbourhoods.  I have been discovering a lot of history and out of the way places to check out in each of them.  Part of the project is making sure we have some good photography for each neighbourhood which means I have been out a lot with a couple of cameras and my new 50mm f/1.8 lens.  While the cold hasn’t been a lot of fun to shoot photos in, seeing parts of Saskatoon again for the first time has been excellent.

Along with the photos, I have been shooting a lot of video.  I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it but I had been thinking of a montage of a year in the life of Saskatoon.  Something that showed the bitter cold of winter and the incredible warmth of fun we have in the summer.  Saskatoon isn’t all good and it definitely isn’t all bad.

I wasn’t really sure what I wanted it to look like.  Many of the videos I had seen had been time lapses and I have about 5000 time lapse photos taken, I was initially been thinking of doing something with time lapse. It’s fun and amazing but i miss the emotion of just video.

 If it is as half as interesting as this video by Andy Clancy, I’ll be very happy.

Saskatoon has some great places to film but I want more than that, I want to see if I can find the kind of street life and community vibrancy in Saskatoon.  If you have ideas for where me and my DSLR need to be, let me know.  As I chase some city scenes, hopefully I will find some stories for the book, Saskatoon Afternoon’s roundtable, and my columns.  Oh yeah, there will be some fun stuff for my blog as well.

Now if only it would warm up outside.

Column:Mobile services effective option

My column in today’s The StarPhoenix

My ears perk up whenever I hear Coun. Pat Lorje talk about the concentration of social service agencies in Saskatoon, because it is a very hard problem to fix once it has developed.
Social services tend to be located in poor areas of the city because that is where the need is. For many people, that is the end of the debate, but it’s more complicated than that. Those agencies are located there because of need and because real estate is cheap.
Despite the rhetoric of government, most see social services as an overhead cost, and if money can be saved by locating an agency in a less expensive part of town they will do it, nine times out of 10. For agencies not funded by the government, it is seen as a good stewardship of donations and resources to pay as little as possible for rent or a mortgage.
In Saskatchewan, the need is somewhat artificial because for years the province’s rental supplement has been geared toward accommodation that’s close to supports and services. It provides an incentive for people to live close to social agencies and concentrates poverty.
Once a critical mass of social agencies gets concentrated in one part of town, they tend to drive out other businesses and decrease property values even more. For people who depend on those services, it makes more sense to move to where cost of living is lower and close to where the services are provided. Of course, then you have more social service needs.
It’s an endless cycle that can do a lot of damage to the economic districts of some communities.
An interesting trend in a variety of cities over the last couple of years has been the creation of mobile social services, which are offered all across a city or region. Often these take the form of converted school buses or motorhomes, and provide such things as medical services (i.e. the Saskatoon Health Region’s health bus), as well as mobile showers in San Francisco and even a grocery store that’s driven to areas that do not have easy access to healthy food.
It’s not an new idea.
Libraries were doing this long before it was hip and trendy. I know many people who grew up in Saskatoon who can tell you when the Bookmobile came to their neighbourhood, and exactly where it stopped. It was by no means revolutionary, but it was part of community life.
Today we have the health bus. It doesn’t replace a hospital, but provides many services that one can access without going to a hospital. Being mobile, it can adjust its routes and schedule to meet people’s needs.
The advantages of mobility is that it allows the provision of services to neighbourhoods that need them, but aren’t within walking distance from the main location of a social agency. When many service agencies located in Riversdale, the area had some of the lowest rent and family incomes in Saskatoon. Redevelopment in Riversdale has significantly changed the neighbourhood.
The next place that could see big changes is Pleasant Hill, where the Junction development is slated to proceed. The impact that has seen real estate prices soar elsewhere is yet to be seen here, but the potential exists for affordable housing to move far away from the core and needed services.
There is a reason why studies in many cities show homeless people and those in extreme poverty will walk up to 20 kilometres a day to obtain food and shelter services. Even in Saskatoon, some of the most affordable living areas have almost no access to social services. Either rent eats up one’s food money and you can access services, or you have affordable rent and no access. For many it is a loselose situation.
Using outside-the-box ideas to use buses, local schools or faith-based organizations to deliver needed social services allows agencies and the government to meet needs inexpensively, while having a minimal impact on a local community.
Not only are the startup funds needed for such programs relatively small – one community recently made a significant dent in its food desert with a $100,000 bus – but it is temporary. If a grocery store comes in and wants to build in the neighbourhood it can, and the bus rolls out to another section of town. It can create markets, not kill them.
Without a long-term investment in a property, these programs can also be suited to economic conditions.
Saskatoon is changing.
With that comes the need for the province and city to adapt to how they deliver services in a way that helps people and minimizes the impact on the neighbourhoods where they live.
© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

Column: War on drugs wrong approach

Today’s column for The StarPhoenix

Unlike politicians who are riding high in the polls, I have never used pot, or any other illegal drug for that matter. That puts me out of touch with voters both north and south of the border, which more or less is the story of my life.

I am in good shape locally, as Saskatoon has the highest percentage of arrests for pot possession in the country. In Halifax you have an 82 per cent chance of being let off by the police if you are caught with a small amount of marijuana, while in Saskatoon you have an 82 per cent chance of being charged. You are 35 per cent more likely to be charged if you are in possession of some pot in Saskatoon than anywhere else in Canada.

It’s hard to disagree with the Saskatoon Police Service. The service is open about having a zero (well, 12 per cent) tolerance for illegal drug possession. Pot is an illegal substance, and police are doing what they are sworn to do, which is to uphold the law. The added bonus is that it also keeps the chip and snack aisle at my local convenience store

safe from being plundered.

Drug policy in North America historically has been that we want to punish those who have illegal drugs. Police officers make the arrests and the courts decide on punishment, which often is probation or a fine for small amounts. Larger quantities of drugs often are connected to trafficking and offenders are treated more severely.

Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government attempted to take a different approach, which was to decriminalize the possession of marijuana. You would be fined, but not charged with a felony offence for possessing small amounts. That notion died when Paul Martin’s quest for power forced out Chrétien.

The tough-on-crime Conservatives have cracked down even more on drugrelated offences including possession, and introduced mandatory minimum sentences. More people are sent to jail, but with the reduction of funding to Corrections Canada, drug treatment behind bars is even harder to get. If the goal is rehabilitation and a reduction in drug use, the government’s approach isn’t working.

While Colorado and Washington have received a lot of attention for doing what Chrétien failed to do in decriminalizing marijuana, there is an interesting example that we should look at. Portugal has decriminalized all drugs.

In 2001, the Portuguese government was faced with a rising number of drug abuse-related deaths. Instead of cracking down further on drug use, which had proven ineffective, it decriminalized not just marijuana but even heroin, cocaine, LSD and other Schedule 1 drugs.

By focusing on treatment and prevention rather then jailing people it hoped to reduce the number of deaths and sexually transmitted infections. However, the laws related to selling drugs were unchanged. Law enforcement would come after drug dealers, but addicts were allowed to have a small amount of drugs in their possession – defined as enough for 10 days.

By changing the focus to prevention and treatment, overdoses related to drugs fell by more than half. STIs declined by 75 per cent. Drug use fell as well, with more people able to seek treatment without fearing criminal penalties.

The War on Drugs has shown that jail time isn’t an effective deterrent to drug use. The United States government has published several studies that show the approach has never worked, and made drug dealing more profitable. While the supply of drugs ebbed and flowed, use remained about the same.

The risk of STIs and other societal issues that come with drug use haven’t been a deterrent, either. Saskatoon has the highest rate of drug possession charges in Canada, yet the province also is known internationally for its high incidence rate of HIV and STIs.

After decades of the futile war on drugs, do we think that cracking down even more will work? A growing chorus of leading political figures are calling for a better solution to combat drug use and addictions.

Former UN secretary general KofiAnnan, former U.S. secretary of state George Schultz, a veteran of the war on drugs, and even embattled New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who made a name for himself as a criminal prosecutor, are calling for approaches ranging from regulation to decriminalization. Even the Canadian Association of Police Chiefs is calling for the option to issue tickets for pot possession instead of laying charges for minor pot possession.

If our goal is to reduce drug use and its consequences, then we should be taking steps toward that end. The way to win the war on drugs is to stop waging it and have Ottawa look at alternatives that actually work.

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

Column: City must go beyond status quo

My column in today’s The StarPhoenix

I would love to shut the door on 2013 and move on, but there are always loose threads as you move into a new year.

Some things just never get dealt with and can linger for years, such as replacing our maligned Traffic Bridge that’s been sitting idle since 2010, slowly falling apart. Actually, it has been falling apart for longer than that, but we ran out of cheap repair options in 2010 and had to close it. The bridge’s collapse was said to be imminent.

It didn’t collapse as predicted, and the decision was taken in 2012 to remove an eastern span, which would have been a far more useful tourist draw if Evel Knievel were still around. Eventually city council tried to pressure the provincial government into paying for both a replacement Traffic Bridge and the north commuter bridge.

The province looked at the cost of two bridges and its shrinking bank account, and declined. The result is that we enter 2014 in the same position as we were in back in 2010, dreaming of bridges that no one else cares about.

Even as a public we have stopped caring. The intense rage we had at being stuck in traffic for 10 minutes each day because both the Idylwyld Bridge and the Traffic Bridge were out of commission has passed. We quickly moved back to our default mode of not acknowledging failed projects, hoping they will just go away or resolve themselves.

Chances are that the Traffic Bridge issue will not resolve itself, and we will have to go it alone. The thought so far is that we replace the old bridge with a wider version of it. The status quo wins again.

If we were to look around, we would see that other options have been very successful elsewhere. We could build an iconic pedestrian bridge on the existing piers to connect downtown and River Landing to the east side of the Meewasin Trail system and, more importantly, to the Broadway Business District.

Pedestrian bridges aren’t unique. Minneapolis has them. Calgary has the Peace Bridge. Montreal has a great one connected to its flood-control gates. Even the town of Outlook has one.

The Peace Bridge was controversial when it was installed but has since become a landmark in Calgary. It draws people from all over, and joins together two of Calgary’s vibrant communities. You could realistically see the same thing happening here with the South Downtown and Broadway Avenue.

Critics of a pedestrian bridge point out that there are sidewalks on the bridges. However, if you have ever tried to walk or ride on our bridges, it is less than a pleasant experience. These walkways are rarely swept, they are full of gravel, and they place you right up against traffic. Other cities have bridge sidewalks as well, but people flock to their pedestrian bridges.

There is a reason for it.

People are drawn to a space that is scaled and built for them.

Research from other cities has shown there are business reasons for a pedestrian bridge. Pedestrians and cyclists spend more money when out and about, especially at stores that provide bike racks. Whether it is stopping into a shop or grabbing a coffee for the walk home, the money spent locally is good for all of us.

Creating a pedestrian bridge on the old Traffic Bridge piers also would give Saskatoon an amazing prairie plaza.

Anyone who has been down in River Landing or across the river when the fireworks festival takes place understands how exciting it is to have a place where thousands of us can gather. There are the fireworks, water taxis, concerts and the buzz of tens of thousands of people coming together. Linking those two areas would allow for more events, but more importantly, it would be an important link across the river for more than just motor vehicles.

Instead of settling for the status quo, Saskatoon must think outside the box. Hold a design competition for a pedestrian replacement for the Traffic Bridge and see what happens. Put a $15 million price tag on it. Local design group OPEN has already drawn up a pedestrian bridge idea that features separate access points for bikes and pedestrians, a public space, a community garden and a zip line.

I think we would be amazed at the ideas that would come forward.

We talk about wanting to be a world-class city. Worldclass cities are not that by population size alone. They are cities with great dreams for themselves, which are expressed by great public spaces. Building a great pedestrian bridge downtown would be a good way to start.

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

Column: Making Winters Work

My column in today’s The StarPhoenix

A well-travelled friend once told me that Saskatoon and northern Saskatchewan were the greatest places on Earth to be in the summer and the world’s worst places to live in the winter.

How much I agree with him depends on the wind chill.

Winters here are long and dreary, and they last from October until May some years. Not only does the snow linger, for many of us, the winter mindset dominates our thinking on all sorts of policies and decisions even during the heat of summer.

We argue about new ideas for the city all of the time. “We can’t have bike lanes because it snows half the year.” “The winter is too long to waste money on a pedestrian bridge.” “Money on parks is wasted because they never get used in the winter.”

There is much we don’t do because of this white stuff – even when we are complaining about the heat in the summer.

Other cities aren’t held captive to winter in the same way.

Many Nordic cities with far worse winters than ours have excellent bike infrastructure and keep the trails cleared year-round.

Edmonton struck a committee last year to help manage winters better.

I am not sure if I agree with the approach that Winnipeg and Calgary have taken with elevated walkways, but I was able to walk all over Winnipeg in -40 C temperatures with only a light jacket.

A report prepared for the Minneapolis-St. Paul region mentioned that nine of the 10 happiest American states are ones that feature cold winters, and listed examples of cities that do winter really well.

In Germany, Austria, and France, people look forward to outdoor holiday markets where they can find a festive atmosphere along with holiday decorations, seasonal gifts, and warm food and drink.

New York City has imported the idea and has set up massive outdoor markets across Manhattan. Before you scoff at the idea, look at the large crowds that come out in any weather to Wintershines. People will come if you give them reason to do so.

December is easy, but we have to make February tolerable. Winnipeg is doing an excellent job. The city pays a lot more for winter snow and not only can you drive around, the sidewalks are cleared. Imagine being able to drive and get around on foot. It can happen.

Winnipeg has also installed heated bus shelters at a growing number of stops. Even in -40 C with a brutal wind, I was able to take off my tuque, gloves, and unzip my jacket while waiting for a bus.

The city has slowly added winter warming shacks as attractions along its rivers. It started as a local idea, and now gets international attention from architects and designers. Those shacks get you out of the wind and give you an excuse to brave the elements.

No matter the weather, thousands of people are having fun all winter long.

Adding a few warming huts each year would make a cold and windy Saskatoon riverfront a lot more tolerable. It would also help connect the different business districts which are spread out because of our river.

Holiday seasonal markets would also be perfect in the Saskatoon Farmers Market. Who knows? It could even one day expand into something other than a weekend destination.

The first step is not warming huts or outdoor markets, however – it is to convince council to get serious about residential snow removal. And our business improvement districts must get serious about keeping sidewalks clear.

Then it relies on everyone figuring out ways to make winters more enjoyable.

Maybe it’s a restaurant opening its deck on milder days, or community associations holding outdoor parties in the winter, like they do in the summer.

It requires the city looking at ways of making our parks winter-friendly, perhaps with more fire pits, or ensuring bike lanes are cleared all season long.

It’s bus shelters that actually do keep us warm. Once we figure out how to shed the shackles of a cold winter and enjoy it, we will find out that even our summer months can get better.

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

Column: Prison no place for mentally ill

Today’s column in The StarPhoenix

Of the 15,400 people in federal prisons last year, 610 of them were women. This number has grown about 40 per cent in the last five years and the number of aboriginal women in prison has increased by 80 per cent during the last decade.

These are just some of more interesting numbers that the federal Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers makes in this 2012 annual report. Perhaps the most shocking stories are about how women with mental health are treated while in prison.

A little more than a third of women in prison have been found to have mental health issues. The report says prisoners diagnosed with a mental illness are typically afflicted by more than one disorder and often a substance abuse problem on top of that. These are people who need a lot of mental health assistance.

At conferences during the years I have heard speakers say that some function at a childlike level. Not only do they have no concept of their crimes, but they can’t function at even a basic level in society. For their inability to survive in society, we toss them in prison.

Many imprisoned women have behavioural problems and according to Corrections Canada’s inspector, they are being treated as security problems rather than humans struggling with mental health issues.

The report lays out offenders who hurt themselves typically are isolated, have pepper spray used against them and are moved to more secure parts of the prison. In the case of our own regional psychiatric facility, Corrections Canada put them into Canada’s first padded jail cell when what they really need is treatment.

It is hard not to make a connection between poor mental health care in prison and the rate of suicide in prisons. The report states that in the last five years, the amount of self harm – including suicide attempts – have more than doubled. Women offenders have a very high proportion of attempted suicides.

The report found that when a person tried to commit suicide, that person was punished rather than given needed help. This, of course, creates more suicide attempts, which brings about even more sanctions. It’s a ridiculous cycle.

After reading the report, one is left with the conclusion that mental health issues in prison are still treated as behavioural issues, rather than illnesses. A prisoner who breaks his or her leg or develops cancer is treated. If the prisoner is schizophrenic and suffers from depression, it is a behaviour issue and punishment is handed out.

The numbers show that the system is failing women with mental health issues and we are using prisons as the institution of last resort. One could draw a comparison to the insane asylums of years gone by where many of those who had mental health problems were locked up and forgotten.

Outside of the ethical issues of why we continue to treat people this way, there is another reason to get this fixed now. Those struggling inside of the jail will eventually get out and move back into our communities. We want them to get the best treatment they can inside of prisons so that can reintegrate back into society when they are released.

That doesn’t always happen. Protocols are ignored, medication isn’t released with the offender and if that person had psychiatric help inside the prison, he or she is released with no treatment plan. When the warrants expire, all help (if any was received) is terminated. It’s a recipe for failure.

We forget that failing to help offenders hurts us all.

Canadians don’t pay a lot of attention toward corrections at either the federal or provincial level, but we should. An 80 per cent increase in the numbers of aboriginal women entering our prisons says that something has gone wrong in the last decade. The fact that 69 per cent of the women entering our federal correctional system have mental health problems says that we are failing them.

The Harper government loves to talk about being tough on crime. I am not going to take them seriously until they start improving the conditions of those they put behind bars. Prison should be a place where we start to rehabilitate those who are behind bars, not release them in worse shape than they entered.

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

Interview with Gerald Bauman of 650 CKOM on poverty in Saskatoon

I sat down with Gerald Bauman on the Brent Loucks Show and we talked about 2nd Avenue and 22nd Street, poverty, and crime in Saskatoon

Listen here.

Saskatoon needs downtown drop-in centre

My column in The StarPhoenix

Saskatoon has been in an uproar over the suggestion the city spend $40,000 to remove the benches in the vicinity of the McDonald’s restaurant on Second Avenue and 22nd Street because people are loitering there all day.

Police officers and business owners with whom I have spoken have real concerns about the street corner. I have seen a couple of drug deals take place there, and there have been reports of violence and harassment of passersby.

Both the police and the Community Support Officers have done some good work to try to manage the problem. Over many lunch hours I have seen a police officer standing there. When the McDonald’s on Second Avenue becomes a police beat, it may be time to do something.

The problem with removing the benches is that it doesn’t accomplish what it is intended to do. I have gone into that McDonald’s over many lunches (Don’t tell my wife. She sent me to work with a salad). The staff is courteous and polite, and McDonald’s provides free coffee refills and sells a lot of soda for $1.

The combination of a friendly staff, free coffee, cheap soda and a centralized location where people can come to meet their friends have turned the restaurant into a downtown drop-in centre. I know people who come from miles away to meet their friends there daily. I am pretty sure that is not the business plan McDonald’s intended.

When you toss in the low fence in the neighbouring parking lot, the location lends itself to loitering. The solution isn’t to remove the benches, or to legislate behaviour. Other cities have learned it doesn’t work. Toronto has given out hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines to the poor and homeless. Numerous American cities have banned people from sitting on the sidewalks. Denver has made it illegal to be homeless by banning urban camping.

It’s the wrong approach. When you have nothing, what is the deterrent effect of a fine? Toronto’s inability to collect any of those fines shows that its policy is a huge failure.

The solution is to deal with the real issue. There are people in Saskatoon who are so far below the poverty line that to them, simple poverty looks like a welcome step up. Many are getting less in social assistance for rent than what their rent costs. Part of their rent has to come out of their living allowance – money that is supposed to be for food.

When people have very little, they at least want to be around their friends. These groups self-organize and find a place to meet. In this case it has become the downtown restaurant. Getting rid of the benches or even the entire McDonald’s won’t change that. They will organize and find somewhere else to meet.

Do we get rid of the benches on 21st Street or shut down the food court at the Midtown Plaza next?

Other growing cities have adopted drop-in centres. It’s not a new concept, as we have had them for youth and teens for decades. This needs to happen downtown for adults. An agency needs to step up and work with the city and downtown neighbours to create a space where people want to come, and at the same time works for neighbouring businesses. It isn’t easy, but as I have seen in visiting great drop-ins from coast to coast, it is possible to find that balance.

It takes a place where people can be warm on cold days, cool on hot days, and have something to drink, a bite to eat, and even some Internet access. From what we have learned in Saskatoon, cheap pop, coffee and hamburgers seem to be the formula people want. Just make sure they have a chance to meet their friends there.

Saskatoon has a downtown full of energy. People want to work, socialize and play there. We all want to be where the action is, regardless of our income. Other cities have learned that drop-in services need to be downtown, because that is where the people are going to congregate.

While this is a local problem, it’s also a reflection of provincial policies. Social Services needs to move beyond merely writing cheques and realize that it has a role to play in issues like this in cities and towns across Saskatchewan.

It was encouraging to see city council’s planning and operations committee look beyond the easy solution and realize there are much more complicated factors at play. Let’s see if council and the provincial government have the political will to address them.

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

Column: Feds must step up for housing

My column in yesterday’s The StarPhoenix (not breaking a lot of news around here today)

In late March, the international aid organization World Vision released a report titled Poverty at Your Doorsteps, which looked at poverty in five major Canadian cities to see how they recovered after the recent global recession.

The report observes a growing economic disparity between the rich and poor in Canada. Poverty is becoming increasingly concentrated among singles, young adults, aboriginal people, recent immigrants and persons with disabilities. These findings have been documented in other national and local reports, including Saskatoon’s own housing business plan.

To compare cities is difficult, as they all have different economic contexts. Even cities as close geographically as Hamilton and Toronto have different fundamentals that drive growth and shape their employment.

However, despite their differences, there is a common thread in each of the five cities. It’s the lack of affordable housing – something that we struggle with in Saskatoon, as well.

According to Statistics Canada, incomes in Saskatoon have grown on average by $12,000 per household since 2006, which is above the national average. The problem for many is that the average house price in our city has risen to around $340,000 during that time, or by more than $150,000.

The statistics are medians that don’t tell the whole story, but it is a trend that affects many people.

Those who work outside the skilled trades or the resource sector have had a tough time, as their wages have not grown at the same rate. Not surprisingly, the Saskatoon Food Bank reported in 2011 that it had 64,930 hamper requests from families, representing 87,963 adults and 64,908 children. The rent has to come from somewhere.

What’s most frustrating is that this problem exists because of the prosperity. It’s not a failure of economic policies but the result of good ones. The better our economy performs, the greater the number of people who move here and the higher the real estate prices rise. More people are left behind because of skyrocketing rents.

If city hall prognosticators are correct in their growth forecasts, and Saskatoon grows to be a city of a half million people in the next 30 years, the lack of affordable housing is a problem that won’t go away.

Despite housing traditionally being a provincial responsibility, the city is doing a lot on this front. It provides housing grants to help people afford their first house, offers grants for affordable housing units across the spectrum of needs, and has gifted parcels of land for projects.

Saskatoon does more than any other city in Canada to make housing affordable. We are a model for all other municipalities, but still aren’t getting ahead. Waiting lists for affordable housing continue to grow.

It’s tough to determine how effective the city’s efforts have been, but compared to Regina whose apartment vacancy rate in 2012 was a minuscule 0.6 per cent rather than Saskatoon’s really low rate of 3.1 per cent, those efforts can be termed successful.

There is a limit to what a city or province can do. Canada is one of few developed countries that doesn’t have a national housing strategy.

Our federal government played a role in national housing policy since the Second World War. For good and for bad, it played a large role in urban affairs and housing into the 1980s. However, since the end of the Trudeau government in 1984, no government has really wanted to tackle housing in Canada.

By the time 1993 came along, the feds got out of housing altogether to focus on the deficit, and left the responsibility with the provinces and cities.

The loss wasn’t felt immediately. The glut of rental properties in most cities had both the units and the rates to absorb new tenants. It’s hard to believe that in the 1980s one could rent an apartment in Saskatoon and get one or two rent-free months each year. Those days are long gone.

With population growth and widening economic disparity, it is time for another national housing strategy that can support local needs while avoiding some of the mistakes of the past. Saskatoon and the province have made some significant progress, but this is a national issue.

The gap between wages and rent is growing. Unaffordable rents and huge mortgages are not a strategy and, until we have one, the problem won’t be solved. The best way to help the working poor get ahead is to provide them with affordable shelter. To make this happen is going to take all three levels of government.

It’s time for Ottawa to step up again.

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

Column: Heavy Prices Paid for Low Taxes

My column in today’s The StarPhoenix

If you happened to have watched the discussions during last week’s city council meeting about snow removal and business taxes in Saskatoon, you would have left with a clear impression: The city is having a hard time paying for basic services.

Lost in the rhetoric over how hard city crews work and how bad was the winter is a simple fact. Council voted against residential snow removal last fall, which created this mess in the first place. Even last week there were news stories about impassable streets.

The reason that councillors voted against residential snow removal was to keep property taxes as low as possible. As the city has proudly proclaimed for years, Saskatoon has the lowest property taxes in Canada among cities of a similar size.

That’s great if you hate taxes. But it’s bad news if you have to pay for things. With taxes this low, you will always have problems with paying for essential services.

If we are going to be the city of the lowest taxes, we will be the city of no snow removal, constant potholes and inferior public transit, because all of those services cost money. We have to cut costs somewhere, and we have cut them on snow removal and on road repair.

We underfund our road maintenance by more than $12 million a year, and that is just to keep our streets at their current levels. To actually repair and upgrade them would cost much more. Instead of paving roads, we patch them, which allows for moisture penetration. With the freeze-thaw cycle that faces Saskatoon regularly, our streets will continue to fail.

To its credit, council has increased spending on road repair, so by 2020 we will have almost reached the levels needed to keep our streets at 2012 levels. By that time the city will need even more money for road repairs, even if the streets are gravel.

Of course we can raise taxes. However, the problem is that once you go on and on about how low your taxes are, it’s really difficult to back away from that. We can talk all we want about wanting to be a world-class city, but you never judge a government by what it says so much as where it spends its money. In Saskatoon’s case, it’s not enough even to maintain our essential services.

There are two ways to deal with this.

One is to cut back more services and get out of a lot of what the city does, such as affordable housing, building parks and funding art galleries. The focus will be solely on roads, snow removal, emergency services and utilities such as garbage pickup.

This approach provides a great value for those that don’t need social services or amenities. They get lower taxes with no noticeable impact on their life in the city. It’s a blueprint that a lot of American cities have adopted. The problem is that no one wants to live or work in those cities once the boom is over.

The other option is to do what Edmonton’s city council just did. It adopted a report titled, The Way We Prosper, which made it clear that the old way using low taxes to attract business isn’t working.

Competitive taxes are important, but they are only a piece of the puzzle. Issues such as building a livable city and integrating Edmonton’s economic development agencies in a better way were listed as higher priorities.

Cities grow because of external market forces. More important than low taxes are the commodity prices that are driving our economy. If these prices bottom out, there is little that low tax rates will do to keep or attract businesses.

On the flip side, companies and people aren’t coming to Saskatoon because of low taxes on properties and businesses. They are coming because Saskatoon is a gateway to a whole lot of prosperity.

For all of Saskatoon’s aspirations of becoming a world-class city, we aren’t even raising enough money to maintain the city we have. Pat Hyde, manager of the city’s public works branch, announced last week that this will be the worst year ever for potholes.

When you don’t bring in enough money to maintain and clear streets, it’s going to be this bad for a lot of years.

There is a reason why our taxes are so low compared to other cities. Those cities know they can’t maintain their assets and provide services at the tax rates the city is charging.

This paper has called for an alternative to property taxes to fund civic services. Until that happens, we need to start charging more unless we want to see a further deterioration in the state of Saskatoon’s infrastructure. It’s a bill that needs to be paid sometime. As much as we hate it, it will require the payment of higher taxes.

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

Who pays for SREDA?

The mayor is off on a trade mission to China.  SREDA points out that they are paying for the mayor’s portion of the trip which is true. 

SREDA and the Mayor’s press release fail to point out that the major portion of SREDA’s funding comes from…. wait for it… the City of Saskatoon.  It includes three members of city council on its board of directors as a result.

To be honest, I don’t care of the city pays for Mayor Atchison’s trip to China or not.  He’s a good salesperson and networker and will do a good job in representing the City of Saskatoon and it’s business interests but it bugs me that we play these games instead of coming out and just saying what is going on.  Taxpayers are paying for part of the trip.

Of course in the process of answering Jennifer Quesnel’s questions about the trip, SREDA CEO said this.  Someone needs to let SREDA know that as a partially taxpayer funded organization, people are going to care how that money is spent.

Does growth pay for growth?

Excellent article by Charles Hamilton in The StarPhoenix

It’s a question cities throughout Western Canada have been grappling with for decades: does new development pay for itself ? Does the city spend more money servicing new neighbourhoods than it collects from the developers who buy the lots and build houses?

A new report released by Saskatoon civic administrators that says not all costs of new suburban development are paid for by the service rates charged to developers is stirring up the debate.

“Most of the direct services – most of the capital costs to build a neighbourhood – are included in the overall developers’ fees, but there are a number things that are not covered like leisure centres and fire halls and other things,” said Randy Grauer, Saskatoon’s acting city manager.

Some cities, such as Calgary, have decided to dramatically increase development levies. Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi says it’s an attempt to recoup the real cost of growth.

Some planners in Saskatoon say the same model should be considered here as the city’s population continues to grow at a rapid pace.

“The city has been encouraging developers to go develop on the outskirts, and now we are paying for it because we cannot afford to maintain the infrastructure,” said Avi Akkerman, a professor of regional and urban planning at the University of Saskatchewan.

“Everything that is associated with it is unsustainable.”

Of course developers disagree

“The new areas are paying a large portion of the tax burden,” said local developer Ron Olson, a former president the Canadian Home Builders Association. “The new areas are subsidizing the older neighbourhoods.”

Olson said city planners have to be careful not to “drink the Kool-Aid on this densification.” Restricting development on the outer edges of the city will only force young families to move outside the city – to places like Warman and Martensville – where they can find more housing choices.

“Calgary is a prime example of what we are talking about. The mayor has decided that new growth and suburban growth is a bad thing, and that kind of policy is regressive. You will have a bunch of satellites around Calgary, and those satellites are because young people want to live in single family homes,” Olson said.

Actually I would challenge Ron Olson’s assertions about Calgary.  I would suggest that the Calgary satellite communities have everything to do with house price than a desire to live in single family homes.  The farther you are away from Calgary (or Saskatoon), the less access you have to amenities and then less you have to pay for housing.

Of course the other point is that it isn’t about housing, it is about the cities ability to pay for sprawling infrastructure.  It’s weird but some still see libertarian values as something that needs to be met, even in the city.

Column: Save church as gift to future

My column in today’s The StarPhoenix

More than 100,000 churches and parishes across North America have closed their doors over the past decade. Entire denominations have disappeared or have had to merge to survive.

Despite being part of the Bible belt, Saskatoon, too, has been affected by the cultural shift away from Christianity, and we see in the decline the eventual closure of Third Avenue United Church.

The church been a part of the fabric of Saskatoon for almost a century. Its English Gothic architecture has been acclaimed since it was built. At the time, University of Saskatchewan president Walter Murray called the new building, “The first permanent home of religion in Saskatoon.”

Most churches have a life cycle. They are started, grow, mature and then die. With populations shifting to the suburbs, the lack of parking and the changing role of faith in our communities, many churches in downtown areas are struggling to survive.

There are very few examples of a local church being vibrant on its centennial, because many don’t make it that long. In most cases, tears are shed, stories told and the church is closed and sold. That money is invested in new churches and in projects the denomination see as desirable.

That is the path taken by the River Bend Presbytery. Selling the Third Avenue Church will give it the money to invest elsewhere.

The problem is that the loss of the downtown church would be a net loss to Saskatoon. This isn’t just another building. The Third Avenue United Church has legendary acoustical properties and rivals theatres across Canada as a great performance space.

Its capacity fills a niche in Saskatoon as it is larger than the Broadway and Roxy theatres, while at 1,100 seats, it’s smaller than TCU Place. It adds to the city without competing with other performance spaces.

The Third Avenue Centre, a non-profit group that wants to turn the church into a performing arts centre, has made a proposal to the congregation and the presbytery.

The congregation approved the proposal, but the presbytery disagreed and instructed church officials to send it back on to the market for other bids.

As other cities have taught us, when such facilities hit the open market, they can be lost to the community forever. Some communities have learned the lesson and are converting similar buildings to concert halls and performance spaces because of the value they offer a city.

The market for old cathedrals is traditionally soft.

Organizations can buy and convert them for far less than building a replacement.

Once the Third Avenue church is lost, we will never be able to replace it. There is a reason we don’t build facilities like it anymore: It’s too expensive. Its stonework alone would cost approximately $39 million to replace.

Councillor Darren Hill told The StarPhoenix, “I don’t think it’s the city’s position to get involved in the decision making of the presbytery. That is not our role. But if there is the opportunity to strengthen a bid or a proposal to protect the integrity of the church as a performing arts centre, that’s where we need to come in.”

While Hill is calling on the city to intervene, an even better solution would be for Saskatoon’s corporate and philanthropic community to step up and invest in the next century of performing arts in Saskatoon. It would be a timeless investment in both the arts and in Saskatoon as a whole.

Looking at similar and older cathedrals across Eastern Canada, the United States and Europe, there are countless generations of use left in the Third Avenue building if we are willing to invest in it before it is too late.

Saskatoon would not be alone in doing this. Several cities across Canada have stepped in to transform old churches into performance spaces. Some have allowed the congregation to continue to meet in the space – a solution that would work well here.

As builders and trustees of Third Avenue United Church for a century, it makes sense to give congregation members a home as it moves into its next phase of life as a building.

The congregation got us this far. Now it’s up to us as a city to step up and figure out what’s next. We had the vision to add a world-class art gallery downtown.

Now we need to figure out where a world-class concert hall fits in. This opportunity presents itself only once and, if we seize it, the result will be enjoyed by generations to come.

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

The Revenge of the Nerdist

The StarPhoenix talks about one of my favourite podcasts, Nerdist.

Nerdist – which itself has expanded from its humble origins to include a premium content YouTube channel, podcast offshoots and a cross-platform newsletter, Nerdist News – is a logical extension of a not-so-radical concept: A talk show about nerd culture hosted by and featuring people who actually know what they’re talking about.

Nerdist podcast topics draw on everything and everyone from MythBusters star Adam Savage to Clerks and Silent Bob filmmaker, Comic Book Men TV impresario and unapologetic fan-boy Kevin Smith.

Nerdist Podcast ranked No. 3 in a recent Rolling Stone list of the 10 best comedy podcasts of the moment. Guests over the years – Nerdist Podcast bowed in February 2010 – have ranged from comics maestro Stan Lee and TV actors Jeri Ryan and Drew Carey to rocker Ozzy Osbourne and cast members from Doctor Who, Community and Star Trek: The Next Generation, among other similarly styled shows.

Hardwick considers himself a Doctor Who evangelist, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Nerdist’s TV debut coincides with the return of Doctor Who’s seventh season in the U.S. and Canada later this month.

Hardwick fell into Nerdist Podcast almost by accident. He was a struggling standup comic at the time. He had a hard time finding bookings and filing comedy clubs. No one knew who he was, or what his comedy involved. Podcasting seemed a natural way to spread the word.

“Podcasting is a survival mechanism,” Hardwick explained, earlier this year in Los Angeles. “As starting comedians, we need a way to express ourselves in public in a way that tells them this is who we are, this is what we’re about, these are the things we want to talk about. Podcasts have become the comedy albums of today.

“When I was a kid, you’d listen to the same comedy album 20, 30, 50 times. Today, we’re spoiled as consumers. We’re like, ‘More! More!’ Podcasts provide that for people. They’re like a nonstop comedy album.”

What have we done?

From The StarPhoenix’s blog.  A note from the giant icicle before it was torn down.  Luckily Jeremy Warren was there to get the story.

You must know a few things before they hack me apart and I melt into your memories. First, stop calling me an icicle. I’m more of an ice wall, no? You’ve seen the photos by now. My elegant curves run from the top of the apartment to the ground. I hang for no one.

Second, WHY? Why must you destroy me? There are more perilous icicles hovering above Saskatoon sidewalks and apartments, and yet it’s my ice on the firing line. I blame the media spotlight. Its hot glare is not good for my kind.

One afternoon I’m at home — in my case it’s just a wall but it’s still home — and a reporter comes around, lets neighbours talk garbage about me and then publishes a story accusing me of threatening innocent citizens. Did I get an interview? I was not asked for my side of the story. I got the cold shoulder.
But that’s how we are treated, my frozen friends and I. How many of you have snapped an icicle hanging from your windows and trucks? Those are our children cut down in their prime. This is ice-ism.

I am not an old soul, but my young ice age has provided some insight into this world. Stuck to the same spot for months, I can’t help but notice the best and worst of you. I watched a young couple fight on the street, a blizzard of pent up resentment blowing between them. I watched two teens rush to the aid of an old man who slipped on the icy sidewalk. A microcosm of humanity has passed before me and I came to love you. Now you’re all left cold to my pleas of mercy.

I will likely die today. Think of me when you slip on your skates. Think of me when you drop a few ice cubes in your warm cola. I did nothing wrong and I am being punished. Justice is blind and maybe that’s why she moves at a such a glacial pace.