For the first time in nine years the Town of Ponoka has a mayoral race.
Councillors Rick Bonnett and Doug Gill are facing off to take the head seat and fill it for the next four years. Ponoka News spoke to each mayoral candidate to see how they answered questions directly related to the town and its future.
Topics from equal representation on the Ponoka Ag Event Centre Society (PAECS) to the business hours bylaw was discussed and each weighed in with their thoughts.
Business hours bylaw
The latter — which restricts liquor sales to 10 p.m., except during the Ponoka Stampede — brought heated discussion from liquor storeowners. Council passed the bylaw by a narrow 4-3 vote. Bonnett voted in favour of the bylaw.
“I still think there still needs to be some more time to figure out if it’s actually working or not,” said Bonnett.
Speaking with Ponoka RCMP officers, Bonnett has heard police officers say there has been a decrease in crime after 10 p.m. If council decided to repeal the vote, he would support it. But he voted in favour of the bylaw because it is something different although it is too early to tell if the bylaw has worked. “It’s about assault, it’s about robberies…There’s a ton of domestic violence. It’s a community safe(ty) issue.”
“I still haven’t seen any liquor stores close though. So they don’t have enough time yet either,” he added.
Gill voted against the bylaw because he did not feel there was a proper purpose to vote in favour of it. “The reason for passing it kept changing. We couldn’t nail down that.”
He did not feel there was enough public opinion against the bylaw as there were two open houses and not many people spoke in favour of it.
“I believe in a safe community and everything that goes along with it but is that what is making our community unsafe?” Gill asked.
Attracting businesses to Ponoka
Offering tax breaks to new businesses is one way Bonnett suggests the town can attract companies. The challenge in that is the benefit goes to the property owner rather than the business. “We’ve gotta be able to sit down with property owners…As well as business owners to make something come about.”
He does not claim to have all the answers but wants to start open discussion on the issue. However, a business can only be successful if people shop there.
“If people don’t go there and shop and utilize it…That store isn’t going to be there,” said Bonnett.
Council, business and property owners, the Chamber of Commerce and the economic development board should all work together to improve the Town of Ponoka, says Gill. But “we can’t expect tourists to come down and spend our dollars here if we’re not prepared to do that ourselves.”
He suggests these groups’ efforts should be recognized as they are busy through the year promoting Ponoka.
The recent proposed land sale with Cervus Equipment was another close vote with council. Bonnett voted in favour of the proposal as he saw added benefits to the town with families moving here to work. He did not prefer the sale price at $137,000 per acre, from $180,000 per acre, but feels there is a long-term investment in having the dealership expand.
“To me it looked at it as an expansion of a business and another way of attracting other businesses,” stated Bonnett.
Gill voted against the proposal as he believes a decision was already made on the proposal. “I don’t really think it would have made a difference.”
The Town of Ponoka is committed to paving the road, which he estimates at $1 million. Despite his vote, Gill feels this will benefit the town if the sale is finalized and council all felt the same way.
“One thing we agreed on as council is Cervus stays in Ponoka,” stated Gill.
Recreation and taxes
When it comes to raising taxes Bonnett suggests councillors must consider every option, including wants and needs for recreation, during budget discussions. He does not favour a tax increase but “I do think that people don’t mind more taxes for better services.”
There is also a demand for recreation in the Town of Ponoka and Bonnett waiting for the provincial government to provide for large community expansions is unrealistic. “We’re going to have to mortgage some money.”
Bonnett also suggests the town must work together with other organizations such as Ponoka County and Wolf Creek School Board to leverage provincial funding.
There appears to be a demand for increased recreation in Ponoka but users don’t necessarily want to bear the burden of full cost.
“Increasing recreation and keeping the taxes low should not be used in the same sentence,” stated Gill.
He has heard the need for a multiplex to house indoor soccer and other amenities and suggests the town build it in stage to reduce costs.
“You want new facilities. How much are you going to want your tax increase? It’s a fine line. User fees and taxes going out, there’s only one pocket it’s coming out of,” says Gill.
Rather than increase Ponoka’s debt, Gill suggests the town could set collaborative agreements with other organizations such as Wolf Creek School Board to use their recreation buildings. Provincial grants are being reduced to pay for flooding in the south of the province, he says. “I would be hesitant to commit to that and not be able to sustain it.”
Capital costs are only one aspect of a multiplex and the town would be on the hook for operational costs as well, he added. Gill does feel the town can attract more residents to the town with recreation as long as residents are aware taxes may rise.
Town staffing needs
Administration’s role and town staff was also discussed. Bonnett feels the town in understaffed in the jobs needing to be done. “I believe we’re understaffed in many positions.”
Town staff are faced with heavy workloads, suggests Gill. He feels there are ways to improve performance from employees “but there also needs to be recognition about how important they are.”
Workers are on the front lines for town issues, it is not council’s job to manage workers rather for directors to worry about, explained Gill. He does think directors are not paid enough. “When you look around us at other communities in central Alberta, we are low. It’s hard to attract staff and retain them.”
He credits CAO Brad Watson for having strong experience in Alberta and acknowledged that people have expectations over what his job entails.
“Brad is what he is. His heart is in this community,” said Gill.
Working with the Ponoka Stampede and Exhibition Association
Some say the Ponoka Stampede and Exhibition Association is a group that is concerned only with themselves but both Bonnett and Gill believe the organization does a positive job at bringing people to the community. Bonnett wants to take advantage of the large influx of people during Stampede week.
“We’ve got to take the leadership role as the town, I believe, and actually get some organizations and groups together,” suggests Bonnett.
We’ve got to do a better job of marketing the town,” he added.
Gill wants to see an event at the Stampede Grounds every month such as heavy tractor pulls, ice sculpting and snowmobile racing in the winter. “There’s so many ways we can involve the public.”
He appreciates the work the Stampede Association does getting people to Ponoka.
Bringing more people to the downtown core can be done with different ideas.
“I’d like to see a festival down here every weekend,” said Bonnett.
He believes residents must change how they feel about the downtown area and if more people shop there, it will be more attractive to shoppers.
Gill suggests a historical tour of the historical buildings could be hosted. “Start small.”
Working with the Calnash Ag Event Centre
The question of equal representation on PAECS was posed and Bonnett suggests the town must collaborate with PAECS but also with Ponoka County and other organizations. However, the town may not have the experience to run the Calnash Ag Event Centre. “I don’t think we can offer a lot on the agricultural side. That should be run by a board.”
“It needs to be up-and-running on its own now,” Bonnett added.
For Gill, equal representation is a governance model the town and PAECS need to deal with. He says the building is attracting customers from around North America and both must promote it. “We need to capitalize on that.”
Gill wants to see the building grow and says if he has to let go of the idea of equal representation then he will deal with the issue later.
An open forum for town candidates, including Gill and Bonnett is set for Oct. 10 at 7 p.m. at the Kinsmen Community Centre.