Thirteen of sixteen council hopefuls jostled for the spotlight at Northern United Place on Thursday, during a forum hosted by the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce.
The 2.5-hour-long affair had candidates answer business-related questions from the chamber and members of the audience.
The forum, which was live-streamed on Facebook, covered, among other issues, tourism, property taxes, and the potential relocation of dog mushers in Kam Lake. It was the first opportunity for the candidates to introduce themselves to the public at large.
Candidates Dane Mason, Edwin Castillo and Cynthia Mufandaedza were absent.
CKLB morning show Josh Campbell was the most animated in the group who did attend.
Campbell got especially fired up over a question asked by street outreach program co-ordinator Lydia Bardak.
“For the sake of tourism, local history and reconciliation,” asked Bardak, what would the candidates do to secure permanent tenure for the dog mushing community in the Kam Lake area?
Last fall city council granted the Dog Trotters Association a two-year extension to their lease in Kam Lake, with the hope that in that time, they will all agree on a long-term home for the sled dogs.
Campbell said ensuring the dog trotters can stay in Kam Lake is the main plank of his platform.
“I’m disgusted with how the previous council dealt with this matter,” he said.
“You elect us to make a decision and I’ll do that. So I stand totally, 110 per cent behind the Dog Trotters Association.”
Terry Testart, who has worked on the administrative side of municipal government for various communities in the NWT, supports allowing dog mushers to stay in Kam Lake.
Testart said the issue boils down to the city not sticking to its General Plan, the 50-year strategy for growth and development.
“If I was elected to council, one of the main things I would do is bring consistency to the General Plan, (and) make regulations so that people do what they say that they’re going to do with a lot,” he said.
Yellowknife is underfunded by the territorial government each year to the tune of $11.4 million, said the chamber of commerce.
A question on how candidates would close this funding gap was particularly difficult for most to answer.
“With the exception of threatening and saying, ‘you better pay us or I’m going to beat you up,’” incumbent Steve Payne said council must continue to lobby the GNWT for the much-needed cash.
“We call them out, make them feel bad, but really, I have no idea how to get that $11.4 million,” he said.
Elect new MLAs, says candidate
Mark Bogan said council could encourage all Yellowknifers to elect new MLAs.
Julian Morse, also an incumbent, said it is not impossible to wrangle money out of the territory.
Rather than lobby for the full amount, said Morse, the city could push to have its funding increased incrementally.
“We need to recognize too that the territorial government is also facing a crunch … and what happens to the territorial government’s finances affects people in the city just as much as anyone else,” he said.
“It certainly won’t do us any good if the territory bankrupts itself giving us money.”
In answer to a question about the candidates’ budget priorities, John Dalton, a Catholic school board trustee and former city councillor, said the city needs to re-examine which services could be paid for by the territory or other communities.
For example, he said, “we wrote off $300,000 in ambulance services and a lot of that ambulance services were for people from outside and not Yellowknife residents.”
Coun. Niels Konge, who is running for third consecutive term on council, when asked for his views on property tax increases, said if residents believe they can get a brand new aquatic centre without seeing their taxes go up, “we’ve got our heads in the sand.”
Konge, who is chair of the Aquatic Centre Advisory Committee and proponent of the proposed new pool, said by adjusting user fees charged at all the city’s recreational facilities, “reorganizing departments and seeing if we can get some efficiencies,” council can keep tax hikes at a minimum.
Robin Williams, a partner at Roy’s Audio Video, said if the city hopes to attract new investment to town, it should revise business licensing procedures and support start-ups and the sharing economy.
Williams added property owners should be encouraged to renovate their spaces to make them appealing to today’s businesses, “or sell them and allow bigger players to come in, or local players to come in.”
Stacie Smith, the owner of Flowers North, said the reason there are so many vacant retail spaces downtown is because those spots are “dated, for one, and they cost a horrendous amount of money to rent.”
She said it is incumbent upon the city to negotiate a subsidy with property owners that would allow new businesses to move in at a reduced rent while they get their shops up and running.
Rommel Silverio, a registered nurse and sitting city councillor, said he would support increasing the police and bylaw enforcement presence on the streets, “so people feel safe.”
Silverio believes the safer people feel, the more attractive Yellowknife will be to new investors.
He added that the city would benefit from a business incubator, an idea that’s also been proffered by mayoral candidate Adrian Bell and council hopeful Dane Mason.
When asked by an audience member to make a business case for green spaces in the city, William Gomes, a budget analyst in the GNWT, said, “I would like to stay green in my mind and heart,” but that the city is tight for cash and must consider on the annual costs parks and trails incur in upkeep.
On tourism, Shauna Morgan, who is seeking re-election, said not all visitors opt for guided tours, and that the city must cater to those who prefer a “choose-your-own-adventure” experience.
“We can gain many more tourism revenues if we get people exploring on their own, browsing, shopping, going to restaurants,” she said.
Chris Gillander, a financial planner, said tourists want to spend more money in Yellowknife, “but we don’t have anywhere for them to be spending money.”
Gillander suggested making it easier for storefront businesses and homes to coexist on the same property, and gave Gaia Interactive Clinic as an example.
This setup creates less risk for new businesses.
“Have one mortgage, have one asset, at the end of the day if the company doesn’t get off the ground … they’re still not out the rent the would have had in that commercial lease,” he said.
The next candidates forum will be hosted by Alternatives North tonight at 7 p.m. at Northern United Place.