Inspired Community Conversation

My office was jam packed last Friday. Over the course of the two-hour Community Drop In about 40 people came through. Most stayed for the whole time. I was wowed, as I have been since I started doing these drop ins, by the wisdom, compassion, generosity and hard work of Victorians.

Here’s how it goes: People pile in, pour themselves a cup of coffee or tea, slap on a name tag and find a seat. First thing I do is ask, “What’s the agenda?” the agenda is set by the people who come.

Everyone introduces themselves and says why they came, then we go through the agenda. I keep things moving so every topic gets covered. I track action items so nothing gets dropped and I can do the follow up work I say I’ll do. People share ideas and ways to get connected on the whiteboard.

At 1pm promptly I run off to wherever I’m going next and people stay as long as they need to exchange information and connect with each other.

Some Highlights from Last Friday’s Community Drop In

A Pedestrian Mall is Not A Closed Street
There has been much talk about Government Street lately. Much of the talk has been about storefront vacancies and closing it to cars. The discussion on Friday was not about closing Government Street, but rather, about opening it up. Members from the Greater Victoria Placemaking Network and Walk On Victoria talked about their plans to work with the Downtown Victoria Business Association and Government Street Merchants to ‘place make’ Government Street. To open it up to more people this summer. I said that I’d be happy to help move their proposal forward once it is developed, with input from everyone affected.

Homeless in a Park
A woman came to talk with me about how distressed she was by homeless people sleeping in a park near her house. And the people there who were homeless said they were distressed because they had nowhere safe to sleep. No one even had to connect the dots. She spoke. Then they spoke. And a hush fell over the rest of us as they quickly developed a shared understanding that they had a common problem.

Then the generous and wise group set to work coming up with solutions. Someone from the Greater Victoria Placemaking Network suggested engaging the Reserve Constables from the Police Department – who just had some training in this regard – to convene a conversation between the nearby homeowners and the people camping in the park to find some shared solutions. I said I’d make sure everyone gets connected. Someone else suggested that maybe City Hall needs to designate a permanent place for people to camp and provide facilities. I said I’d raise this with Council. Ben Isitt has also proposed this. One of the people who is currently homeless said it’s really hard if you’re sick and you just want to stay in bed and get well and you have to take your tent down at 7am. A third person – a homeless veteran – suggested that the armouries could easily sleep 350 people and that they should be asked to open their doors.

Small Business Struggles
A young entrepreneur wants to open a restaurant. He came just to let me know about the struggles he’s having, especially because rents are so high. The place he was looking at is 800 square feet. The base rent is $35 per square foot. The triple net (which a commercial landlord in attendance explained to the group was “all expenses related to the building, including property taxes”) is $17 per square foot, $11 of which is for property taxes. That’s more than he can afford to get his business off the ground. Everyone jumped in with names of building owners he could talk with, and ideas about how to help young start ups, including checking out the Young Entrepreneurs Society. Prosperity through Economic Development is one of the proposed objectives for Council’s Strategic Plan and is something that I would like to lead.

The Oath I Never Took
The final moment of the inspired conversation was when a First Nations woman, who had sat quietly for the most part stood up at the end to present a shawl to me that she had made. She had made it to thank me for not taking an Oath to the Queen but rather for focusing my efforts and attention on the people, and on her people. She explained that the design is a beaver with a rising sun. Her uncle said to her, “But a beaver is not a symbol for our people.”

She said she knew at that moment, when her uncle said this, that she was making the shawl for me – the beaver is a symbol of Canada, the sun, a symbol of her people, the First Nations and Canada working towards reconciliation. She said she had faith in me, that I have the courage that it takes to make the changes that are needed. There was no longer a dry eye in the room.

Join Us
I hold these Community Conversations every two weeks. Different people come every time. The schedule is here. When I started them in January I had no idea what would happen. Community is happening. Connection is happening. Happiness and belonging and the road to prosperity are happening. People are coming together, and leaving with more than they came with whether it’s a new connection, a new idea or a commitment to take some kind of action, big or small, that will make Victoria better.

Accountability and Public Participation

City Hall needs to do a better job of spending your dollars, and we need to involve you in the process. As your mayor, I will ask for your input and I will listen to you to help shape the City and its future.

Learn more about my record of accountability during my term on council:
http://focusonline.ca/?q=node/793

See more videos at https://www.youtube.com/user/VotingHelps

How a boarded up building became the heart of a community: The Cornerstone Story

I was talking with a downtown business owner yesterday evening. She, like many, is concerned about the increased number of vacancies downtown over the past few years. We see this every day in the for lease signs that have become all too common in downtown storefronts. “We need to do downtown what you did in Fernwood,” she said to me. And she pointed to the creativity, innovation and bold action that me and others at Fernwood NRG took to address a big vacancy in the heart of our village centre and to revitalize the neighbourhood.  

It was early 2005. Fernwood Square, which had once been filled with patrons from the Thin Edge of the Wedge spilling into it, had become eerily quiet. The George and Dragon Pub once a lively neighbourhood gathering place across the street had fewer customers with each passing day. Worst of all, City officials had boarded up the building at the corner of Fernwood and Gladstone and declared it unsafe for habitation.

At the time, I was vice-chair of the board of the Fernwood Neighbourhood Resource Group (Fernwood NRG). I’d gotten involved in the neighbourhood a year earlier because I wanted to put my community building skills to work in the place I lived.

Fernwood NRG’s Executive Director had a bold idea. She proposed that Fernwood NRG buy and revitalize the boarded up building. Until that point Fernwood NRG mostly ran childcare and senior’s programs. But there was a desperate need to create vibrancy in the heart of our neighbourhood. And, if not us, then who?

In August 2005, after complex negotiations and very creative financing (not even our local credit union would give us a mortgage so we ended up negotiating a high-interest mortgage with the seller) the Cornerstone Building came into neighbourhood hands.

It was with ruthless clarity of vision and hard work that a small non-profit turned a derelict building into the beating heart of our neighbourhood. While negotiations were underway to purchase the building, the board of directors put together a business plan. Did we lease the primo corner unit to someone else or open a café ourselves? Did we strata the building and sell off condos on the top floor or did we fill a gap of much-needed affordable housing?

We had a long-term vision. And we also had the passion, dedication, gifts and skills of our neighbours. Working hard together we created the Cornerstone building as a thriving social enterprise, beginning with the popular Cornerstone Café.

It’s an innovative model – Fernwood NRG sells great coffee and food and re-invests the profits in its programs that serve neighbourhood residents. The café was only the beginning of a promising trend for the village centre. Fernwood NRG also signed a long-term lease with Stage restaurant, catering to Belfry Theatre patrons. In addition, the building now houses The Yoga Den and Studio 1313, Canada’s first social-enterprise hair salon.

Upstairs four families moved into the three-bedroom affordable housing units. Between 2004 and 2006, the residential vacancy rate in Victoria was 0.5 per cent, the lowest of all Canada’s metropolitan areas, while the average rent for three-bedroom apartments was $1,126 per month. Fernwood NRG’s Cornerstone Building didn’t just generate revenue for the neighbourhood. It also filled a core social need.

This growth and vibrancy spread beyond the Cornerstone. Across the street, the George and Dragon changed hands, was renovated and opened as the Fernwood Inn. It’s now a lively neighbourhood gathering place. And there’s a colourful local market, Aubergine Grocery, next door.

Today, the heart of Fernwood stands as an example of bold vision coupled with hard work and collaboration. Just take a walk through and you can feel it. Victoria, too, has all the talent it needs to overcome any challenges we face. All that is needed is a deep understanding of the issues, bold leadership, a willingness to think outside the box, and a City Hall that fosters and supports new ideas.

To read more Fernwood NRG and the Cornerstone project, head here

Shape Your Future Victoria

Last fall, Victoria West residents of McCaskill Street and surrounds gathered to cut the ribbon on the beautiful mural depicted here. This group of neighbours came together and turned a bramble-covered, graffiti-laden concrete wall into a thing of beauty. How did they do it? Meeting neighbours they didn’t know, food, drink, conversation, collaboration. And a Shape Your Future Victoria grant! Do you want to bring your neighbours together and do a project in your neighbourhood? The 2014 Shape Your Future Grant Application Deadline is March 31st 2014

 

 

So I did some research, wrote a report and made a motion. And voila! Council passed it unanimously. The Parks Recreation and Culture Department created the new grant guidelines and application form, the residents of McCaskill street and surrounds applied for and got the first every Shape Your Future Victoria grant. For a very small sum of money, on the City’s part, and a many hours of labouring love, Victoria got great new public art. And in the process, neighbours got to know each other.