Lessons learned from COVID-19

Cathy Dobson

Two Sarnia politicians say city council has learned important lessons about priorities and spending from the pandemic.

But Coun. Brian White and Coun. Bill Dennis don’t necessarily agree on what that means as the city recovers.

Council’s job right now is to adjust to the “new normal” and figure out how to help get the economy back on track while keeping people healthy, said White.

He said he supports stimulating the economy and creating local jobs with municipal borrowing for infrastructure improvements of city roads and buildings.

Brian White

“The amount of money we’ve put into capital projects over the last couple of years has slightly improved,” he said.

“(But) we have a lot of assets in this community that have aged-out or are in desperate need of major overhaul.”

White said the cost of construction will only increase as time goes on, “far greater than the interest rates that are available to us.”

The pandemic presents an opportunity to try to retrain some people and “emerge as a modern city with solid infrastructure, walkable communities, smart road design, that attract further investment,” White said.

But Dennis disagreed that this is a time to take on debt in order to spend. He took considerable time to caution against borrowing just because interest rates are low.

“These interest rates aren’t going to be low forever and I’m very concerned about the well drying up,” he said.

Dennis said the pandemic hit the city’s coffers with a $2.6 million loss, as of mid-July. At the same time, service cutbacks and a hiring freeze saved the city $2.9 million, leaving a projected surplus of about $350,000 at this point.

“We have been very prudent about keeping ahead of the game financially,” said Dennis.

While the municipal ledger looks healthy, local business has taken a serious hit, he said.

A Chamber of Commerce survey found 34% of local businesses were forced to temporarily close since the pandemic began and 46% were impacted significantly or very significantly.

To help businesses survive in these tough times, Dennis urged residents to shop local.

Bill Dennis

City hall needs to “cut more red tape” for business and “roll out the red carpet” for anyone interested in locating to Sarnia.

Dennis pointed out that Sarnia has “a lot going for us” as the city begins to open up. He listed a couple of highrise proposals, a new Catholic school and a new subdivision, and a deal that should kickstart redevelopment of the former Bayside Centre site, as positive signs that the local economy is strengthening.

Soil testing is being done at the corner of Christina and London roads, Dennis added.

“That apartment (building) is going to be started in the not-too-distant future.” He also alluded to an upcoming announcement that “the community will be extremely happy about” but did not offer details.

Both men pointed to the outpouring of support, donations and kindness to those in need during the lockdown.

“When this is over, we should never forget the lessons this has taught us,” Dennis said. “…in the past, maybe, we took things for granted.”

White said the pandemic has put an unprecedented focus on park use and the physical and mental health benefits of outdoor recreational facilities.

Sarnia’s extensive waterfront and parkland are an enormous asset that have improved the community’s quality of life during the pandemic.

“People are really flocking to our parks system right now,” and council should invest more money there, he said.

The pandemic has also brought new focus on community and looking after each other, White added.

“That’s where the real opportunities are…as we move forward together, we’re going to be looking for stronger ways to support each other.”

“The future in Sarnia is quite bright coming out of COVID,” White said. “It’s a challenge for all of us… and there are answers we just don’t have yet.”

Couns. White and Dennis were guest speakers at a recent Golden K Kiwanis meeting held on Zoom.