Top Ten Ways to Make Norfolk County Awesome
Municipal elections can be boring, but this year in Norfolk County there were some compelling storylines. Consider the set-up: the most recent Norfolk County Council lacked diversity, to say the least – nine white men, no women, and definitely trending older. The Mayor, sixty-five-year-old Charlie Luke, had been in the top job for only four years, but had been entrenched on municipal council in the community for over three decades. Suddenly, the old guard was confronted with a new wave, including a thirty-seven-year-old Mayoral candidate, Kristal Chopp, who was running for public office for the first time. There were also a number of younger candidates running in the various wards around the County, and several women. Beyond these concrete details, there was just a palpable sense of frustration in the community, a perception that Norfolk County could do better, and perhaps a little shake-up was required.
Significantly, a non-partisan group called Folkin’ Vote, led by several local women, emerged in advance of the election to help organize all-candidates meetings and gather information from the candidates in order to share information with voters. The Folkin’ Vote team held a launch event at Burning Kiln Winery on Thursday, September 6th. One of the organizers, Meika Matthews, spoke about the formation and goals of Folkin’ Vote, and played some videos featuring community members asking people to engage and participate in the municipal election. Many of the candidates were in the room. In one interesting moment, while everyone in attendance watched one of the videos, Mayor Charlie Luke and Ward Five Councillor Peter Black stood at the back of the room engaged in a private conversation. At the time, we wondered whether this was a real-life illustration of two long-time politicians perhaps not quite tuning into the local zeitgeist. As it turns out, both Luke and Black lost in the election. See the two photos below – one, a photo of the event space during the Folkin’ Vote launch at Burning Kiln; the other, a photo of Luke and Black chatting while everyone else watched a video.
While all this build-up to the election was interesting, voter turnout did not really increase. There were 47,513 eligible voters in Norfolk County in 2014, and 41.7% cast a ballot for Mayor; in 2018, there were 48,696 eligible voters, and 41.3% voted for one of the Mayoral candidates. Around the County, the turnout ranged from a dismal 26.9% in Ward 2 (Langton and area), where Rogers Geysens was re-elected, to a stunning 61.6% in Ward 6 (Port Dover and area) where newcomer Amy Martin was elected by a wide margin. Perhaps the strong response in Ward 6 can be explained by the combination of some long-festering local issues and an inspiring candidate.
Regardless of voter turnout numbers, the campaign certainly had a different dynamic than in previous years, and the results were transformative for the community. Kristal Chopp was elected Mayor by a decisive margin. Five first-time candidates were elected. There will be three women on the nine-person Council. Simply put, change happened, and young people in particular have some reason to be excited for the future. We recognize, of course, that municipal government representatives can only do so much, but a smart, progressive Council can certainly promote a vibrant local economy and culture. We started thinking about how the new Mayor and Council could help enhance Norfolk County. The community has so much potential!
So, here is our list of ‘Top Ten Ways That the New Mayor and Council Can Make Norfolk County Awesome!’ Some of these ideas would come with a hefty price tag, but others are very affordable and easy to achieve. We hope that everyone loves one or two of the ideas on the list, and we know of course that each reader will hate a few of the ideas, too … but hey, we’re getting the conversation rolling! Let us know that you think … here is our list:
Get serious about downtown revitalization, and for Folk’s sake, please do not talk only about community improvement plans and enhancements to building façades! Great things, sure, but hardly enough – if you want sustainable change, you have to revolutionize the culture of the downtowns … dig deep and look at the strengths of Norfolk County and be innovative! How about flexing the zoning to allow for rooftop gardens, greenhouses, and indoor growing in downtown areas? Take this a step further and connect this to tourism … transform the downtowns into modern urban gardens … start calling Simcoe ‘Food City’ and literally bring life and niche farming to the downtown! Tour companies could take visitors on walking tours through indoor and rooftop growing operations and urban greenhouses and wind up at local restaurants that feature dishes that include food grown in the city … this can also give local food a winter twist!
Waterford … does everyone see what we see in this place? Basically, Waterford feels like Stratford but without all the stuff … why not make a genuine effort to bring this place to life? Food trucks by the trail in the summer … build permanent outdoor shelters for the lovely farm market … invest in a proper stage and amphitheatre by the water and establish an annual ‘Waterford Folk Festival’ in the summer (seriously, how does Norfolk County not have a Folk Festival?) Buy some solar-powered boats for Shadow Lake, provide a couple summer jobs for students, and watch the place take off.
3. Continue to build the ‘Carnival’ event for off-shore workers in the summer in Simcoe and amplify this into a cultural event for the whole province … if Norfolk is ‘Ontario’s Garden’, then build an event around ‘Ontario’s Gardeners’ … more music, more food, and commission artists to paint murals around the City depicting the work that goes on in the surrounding agricultural community and the people that do that work. This is unique to Norfolk, and unique matters. Anyone who knows agriculture recognizes the importance of off-shore labour in the twenty-first century, and this seems like an amazing opportunity to embrace and elevate the multiculturalism that comes as a result. Few other communities have this kind of capacity.
4. Delhi … this one is simple, folks! If the community was content once upon a time with being ‘The Heart of Tobacco Country’, then transform this into ‘The Heart of Cannabis Country’! Dig into the unique culture of marijuana, encourage private retail shops and cafés, and establish a central plaza somewhere in the town where people can host events that celebrate marijuana and related arts and culture … pot is legal now, so why not embrace change and get ahead of the curve? Hold a contest to vote on a new nickname for the community, build the brand, and get running! There are a few producers in the region that might be willing even to contribute toward this kind of responsible cultural development. Hopefully a few ‘Bud & Breakfasts’ will pop up in the countryside!
5. Recreation facilities … why is this even a debate? Norfolk County has some of the worst recreation facilities in the province, and definitely deserves better. Take it up a notch! There is really no excuse … you have an MPP who is in government with a majority, and an experienced MP who knows how to get things done. Figure out the funding formula and lean on some of the successful local farmers and business owners in the area to make a fundraising push. Build in phases, but provide a vision now … because you know, ‘without vision, the people perish’ … so, start with some conceptual plans, post those to social media, and let everyone comment! And yes, the recreation facilities might eventually be in a central ‘Hub’ that will be a bit of a drive for some people, especially in winter, but this is hardly a burden compared to driving year-round in congested cities.
6. Opportunities for youth … adults can talk all day and night about ‘attracting and retaining youth’, but the kids know the score … finish high school and get out of Norfolk County if you can! And hey, there is nothing wrong with that … everyone should want to get an education and explore the world a little bit. In order to provide opportunities for young people in Norfolk County, the decision-makers are going to have to be innovative. We will offer three teasers: first, work with Fanshawe on the ‘Community Hub’ and figure out a way to house international students effectively; second, establish a ‘Centre for Food Innovation’ and build a business entrepreneurship program around design thinking, new food products, and marketing; and third, fund some co-working spaces for young entrepreneurs in Norfolk County … there should be one each in Waterford, Simcoe, Port Dover, Delhi, and what the heck, Port Rowan maybe? Bring the artists and techies out of their basements, throw everyone together, put on some music and build the culture.
7. Port Dover … holy jeepers, talk about potential! Build, build, build! More houses, more condos, clean up Misner Dam and Silver Lake, send Amy Martin, the new Ward 6 Councillor, to every tourism and hospitality conference on earth and transform Port Dover into the next centre for the celebration of beer, wine, and cider in Ontario. Most significantly, establish some winter events, and the quirkier the better! January could be ‘Beer in the Winter Month’, February could be ‘Wine in the Winter Month’, and March could be ‘Cider in the Winter Month’ … use these opportunities to pump up local products and tie in signature events, like a professional wrestling viewing party in January (beer and the Royal Rumble), a literary festival around Valentine’s Day in February (wine and authors), and a music festival in March (cider in multiple venues and at house concerts). Partner with local hotels and bed and breakfast joints, but most importantly, elevate and feature the best Airbnb lodgings in the community.
8. Back to downtown redevelopment for a moment, and Simcoe specifically … do you know who we rarely see in downtown Simcoe? Kids! That’s because the downtown can be pretty darn sketchy. Still, there are some lovely parts around which to build, including the Library and the parklands. Why not add a couple of splash pads right in the centre of things as part of a multi-site adventure park for kids, complete with zip-lines and rock-climbing and maybe some outdoor community gardens managed by kids in the summers? Partner with developers, demolish some old buildings if necessary, but get kids into the heart of downtown. Once that happens, the place will feel brighter!
9. Here is a cool concept drawn from the Facebook campus in Menlo Park, California … what if each downtown area in Norfolk could feature a funded pop-up shop? Establish a brand and a distinctive look … start with one in, say, Port Dover, and gauge the response. Here is the key: reach outside of the community for entrepreneurs! Invite start-up businesses from Brantford, Hamilton, Guelph, Waterloo, London and everywhere in-between to set up for a week or a weekend and test the local market. This provides endless social media content, and provides a great way to connect with people from outside the community. If one or two of these entrepreneurs decides to locate in the community, that’s a big win! And we mean this is the kindest way, but Norfolk County can be pretty insular … there is a lot of Norfolk talking to Norfolk on social media … and this would be a way to open up and add more stars to the constellation of people promoting Norfolk County.
10. Okay, while we have offered up several ideas for how to make Norfolk County awesome, we want to finish up by listing some of the things that we love about the place already. First, consider the fact that Norfolk County has an official doughnut, the Apple Cider Doughnut from The Apple Place in Simcoe! Seriously, how many communities have an official doughnut? Second, the wineries … Burning Kiln, Inasphere, Frisky Beaver, Bonnieheath Estate and more … these are lovely places to visit, and more and more people are discovering the locations by touring with Ride the Bine or just road-tripping. Third, the breweries! New Limburg, Ramblin’ Road, and goodness, Charlotteville Brewing Company is just a cool spot … the owners, Melanie Doerksen and Tim Wilson, have done a really wonderful job making the property come to life. Hometown Brewing Company has helped put Norfolk on the map, and will be adding a bricks-and-mortar brewery at Long Point Eco-Adventures in 2019. Fifth, how about some of the hidden gems around the County, like La Salette Historic Church and Community Hall, the Quance Dam in Delhi, or the Black Bridge in Waterford? Sixth, we would like to give a shout-out to the local arts community, including the Lighthouse Festival Theatre in Port Dover, all the independent artists represented on the Norfolk Studio Tour, and particularly the team at the Waterford Old Town Hall, where there is always a special effort made to raise the bar and bring in shows that challenge audiences. Last but certainly not least, the agricultural community … Norfolk County boasts the most diverse production zone in Canada, and is actually the number one grower of pumpkins, ginseng, asparagus, peppers and tart cherries in the country. Drive along the backroads and play a little bit of ‘guess the crop’ … visitors from the cities come through and are often amazed by the mix. So, there are lots of good things happening … time to tell the story more effectively and to a wider audience!
We will wrap up this article on a hopeful note just by saying that the new Mayor and Council can make Norfolk County awesome by ultimately lodging the community in the imagination of people in Ontario and beyond by building a community brand … there is Niagara, there is Prince Edward County, and now, there needs to be Norfolk County.
We are looking forward to the next four years!