Interview: Joe Preston, Mayor of St. Thomas

Interview: Joe Preston, Mayor of St. Thomas

Joe Preston was elected Mayor of St. Thomas in the October 22nd municipal election with a total of 3,731 votes, defeating the incumbent, Heather Jackson (3,189 votes) and two other challengers, Steve Wookey (2949 votes) and Malichi Malé (338 votes). With four candidates in the running, there was not going to be a landslide, but the margin of victory was still decisive. Preston will now lead a City Council with nine members, including himself as the Mayor plus eight City Councillors (this is an increase of one Council member compared to the previous term).

Preston is certainly accustomed to public life. He served as the Member of Parliament for the local riding of Elgin-Middlesex-London from 2004 to 2015, sitting in the House of Commons in Ottawa as a Conservative. This included many years in government under the leadership of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Now, Preston has the opportunity to explore political life in the municipal environment, where there are, of course, no formal ties to political parties. During the campaign, he cast himself as a consensus-builder, a leader who wants to say ‘yes’ to new initiatives and work with businesses, community organizations, and volunteers to do ‘more together’ and elevate the community. He has an experienced group to collaborate with on Council, including two former Mayors of St. Thomas, Steve Peters and Jeff Kohler.

It is significant as well that Preston enjoys strong relationships with the local Member of Provincial Parliament, Jeff Yurek, who is also the Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry in the Progressive Conservative government at Queen’s Park, as well as the current Member of Parliament, Karen Vecchio, who once-upon-a-time worked as Executive Assistant to Preston before stepping into political life herself. Given these connections, citizens in St. Thomas and Elgin-Middlesex-London can reasonably expect to see strong results over the next few years.  

Only five days after his victory at the polls, Joe Preston stopped by Streamliners Espresso Bar in downtown St. Thomas to chat with Jenn Klassen and Alex Popen, two of the teenage journalists on staff at young & free press, as well as owner and editor Andrew Gunn. With his typical mix of humour and insight, Preston answered several questions, and the answer to one in particular stood out. Right now, St. Thomas is in the somewhat unique position of having a considerable amount of vacant land in the downtown core, as well as some interesting open properties elsewhere in the community. We asked Preston how he intended to engage landowners and developers to unlock the potential of these parcels.

“Already started,” Preston responded with a smile, really starting to lean into the interview. “Look, through the campaign we talked a lot about a housing shortage in St. Thomas, and that’s just an easy way to say that, ‘if there was more, more people would move here; if there was more, more people could move to a better apartment, more affordable, all of that.’ We’ve got some in-fill opportunities that most communities don’t have. We’ve got vacant land in the downtown part of our community. We’ve also got vacant land in some other really unique places, like out Barwick Street, that whole railway land there. If we can get developers – and I don’t just mean the house-builder part of the developers, I mean the people that own the property and would like to make a good living off selling or doing something with it – motivated to move forward, motivated to start filling those spaces with housing for people, we’re a lot better off. If you look at our downtown, we’ve got a beautiful swath of property called the ‘Railway Lands’ that runs right through our downtown. Now, can that be some housing, some park, some trails, some commercial? Yes, it can. It can be all of those things, but there has got to be a reason for the person who owns it, the developer, to say ‘yes, I can take advantage of the commercial opportunity now. The timing is right. We can do it.’ The City may have to step in, from an incentive point-of-view, from a prodding point-of-view, from a deregulation point-of-view, to say, ‘yes, let’s do it, let’s work together on it.’ Whether it’s because it’s brownfield, because it has some contaminant, we can work together with them on that; if it’s because the access points aren’t where they need to be, yes, the City can work with them on that. Development charges are quite high on larger projects. Maybe we can work together on some of that, too. We’re going to drag some of these people kicking and screaming toward our future of St. Thomas. They’ll like it when we’re done, but we may have to do a little prodding to get this done.”

Jenn Klassen of  young & free press  listens to the new Mayor of St. Thomas, Joe Preston, explain his vision for the future of the community.

Jenn Klassen of young & free press listens to the new Mayor of St. Thomas, Joe Preston, explain his vision for the future of the community.

Following on this theme of pushing a bit harder to make things happen, Preston noted that one of the main reasons that he decided to run was just his sense that more could be done to help the community grow, and really St. Thomas needed a strong cheerleader to generate and sustain positive momentum. We asked him to explain his motivations for wanting to be Mayor.

“Well first of all, it was the timing,” he explained. “The election comes every four years. I had retired from federal politics almost exactly three years ago, and had gone on and thrown myself into some new businesses and looking at my hometown. I had become re-involved in my hometown after having been really away for twelve years in Ottawa most of the time, and started to notice, we can do better. Are we growing? Yes, we’re growing. Are there new jobs? Yes, there is. Is there new commercial life? Yes, there is. Are we fixing up our downtown? Yes, we are. But we can do better! I’ve said it a number of times – I want to be the cheerleader. I want to be the ‘leader’ part of cheerleader to get people to keep talking about how great St. Thomas can be. I don’t know the first thing about running a backhoe, or where the water lines are, and I don’t necessarily want to learn that. I want to learn that we have water lines, that we have good safe water, that we have good power, we have all the stuff we need to be a better community, including fibre optics for our future community. I just noticed that somebody needed to stand up and cheer a little bit and say, ‘we can do better! We can do this! We can move it faster!’ Let’s quit saying no to great community organizations that want to have something special in our community, and start saying, ‘how can we make this happen?’”

One special project that many in St. Thomas have been hoping might come together is reconnecting the former London & Port Stanley railway line and reintroducing passenger train service through St. Thomas, if only to take riders from London and St. Thomas down to the beach in Port Stanley on weekends in the summer. The logic of this for St. Thomas revolves around the potential for increased tourism. After all, it would be cool for residents of St. Thomas and visitors to be able to hop on the train down to Port Stanley and not have to worry about driving and parking in Port Stanley. During the campaign, Preston stated that this was his ‘dream project’. With his former Conservative Party colleague Ed Holder now the Mayor of London, would it be possible for the two to have a conversation about re-establishing the railway link?

Well, he and I spoke about that this week,” Preston informed us. “There are a lot of barriers to that project. It was my dream project. It is my dream project. More than one person has brought together to me, even this week, some facts and figures of what it might take. Look, we’ve got to work with CN, too, to make this work. It’s their rails, right? So, to let you know, I’m not sworn in yet and I’ve already spent a fairly proportionate amount of my time as Mayor-Elect looking at exactly my dream project. It will always be there. I hope it can come to one hundred percent reality. We need to have some sort of increased transportation between here and London. That may happen before this dream project, but I just see that as being it, or could be it. So, until someone tells me, ‘absolutely not, Joe, quit talking about it, it can’t happen’, I’m going to keep saying, ‘what about reconnecting that rail line and starting to use it again? What if it’s only Sunday afternoons?’ As I said, incremental – a little bit of a good project becomes a little bit bigger of a good project; at some point, I may not be dreaming!”

Currently, there is a section of track missing in the London & Port Stanley Terminal Railway line. The photo above highlights the southern point of the missing section, just south of Kains Street in St. Thomas. In 2017, the City of St. Thomas received funding from the federal government to complete the track, part of the ‘Canada 150’ program, but the project has been delayed, apparently the result of setbacks in negotiations with CN Railway.

Currently, there is a section of track missing in the London & Port Stanley Terminal Railway line. The photo above highlights the southern point of the missing section, just south of Kains Street in St. Thomas. In 2017, the City of St. Thomas received funding from the federal government to complete the track, part of the ‘Canada 150’ program, but the project has been delayed, apparently the result of setbacks in negotiations with CN Railway.

As always, our young & free press team is interested in opportunities for local youth. We asked Preston how he plans to involve young people in the political process in St. Thomas, now that he is the Mayor and has the opportunity to introduce new ways to involve students and recent graduates. We have included the transcript of this portion of the interview here below. Please note that we have lightly edited the transcript to improve readability.

Y&FP: Looking at the Council that has been elected for your term, what is something that pleases you about it and what is something that concerns you?

JP: Well, I’ll start with what pleases me. It is a group of people with incredibly diverse strengths. Some of the people who were on the last Council, which I think got some very great things done for St. Thomas, they are coming forward and they will be able to tell us what they already were thinking of going forward. Then, you add to it people like Steve Peters, who brings a great past, present, but also, he has been out doing things, too, so he’s bringing forward what he thinks will also work. Jim Herbert is a new councillor, and it’s always good to have somebody there for this reason – everyone will always say, ‘I know, I know’ – but Jim is new and we are going to have to take our time and explain and discuss each thing, and including me, because I’m new, too! So, that gives me the excuse – ‘well, for the sake of Jim, could you please explain …?’ Right? Sometimes we skip over the nuances of how this really, truly does work.

How am I concerned? Well, it’s bigger than it was the last time. I’m always about decisions are far better focussed with smaller groups, but we’ll see how this dynamic works. We’ve never had eight on council and one Mayor. We’ll see how that works.

Y&FP: From the perspective of teenagers and young adults, one could argue that this is an older group elected to Council …

JP: Absolutely …

Y&FP: … this may be a consequence of not enough people voting, but at the same time, City Council does not want to widen the generation gap in St. Thomas. What are you going to do to connect with the youth of St. Thomas?

JP: Well, I’ve already suggested that, as the Mayor, as the head cheerleader in St. Thomas, I want to put together volunteer groups and more volunteerism. I think that’s a good entry point for most people. Even some of the people that ran this time, the first thing that they did in our community was get out there and volunteer and be active in the community, and then decide, ‘okay, the next step is Council.’ It worked out for me as a former Member of Parliament. I was very active in the community, did a lot of volunteer work, and thought the next step then is government. So, that’s the best way I can see to involve more youth in the decision-making process, from a volunteerism and activism point-of-view in our community.

You know, we just have to listen. I have to apologize for being 63 years old, I guess, but I act much younger than that from time to time! But it is about associating yourself with the people who have the information and taking the information. If we would like more youth involved, then we better have more youth involved and hear them – not just have them involved, but have them involved and hear them. If we would like more women involved in politics, then we better have them involved and also listen to what the differences are, whether it is quality-of-life issues or whatever else it might be. If we would like more seniors involved, then we better do the same thing. I think we have to up our game across the board, but you’ve hit on one that is pretty high. I think we can take it better into the schools. I attend every school that I’m asked to, to speak to classes, to do whatever else we can, and there is always at least one or two very ‘surprised’ moments in that visit – “I didn’t know you guys did that, I didn’t know that happened!”

Well, I understand the teaching of civics, the teaching of governance, but getting it from someone who is doing it is a far better way. I challenge myself and all of my Council to get out there and do exactly that, too.

Y&FP: Karen Vecchio right now is attempting to establish a Youth Council for the riding. Would that be something that the City could consider? We ask the question because last year we did put together a ‘Shadow City Council’ of youth – our colleague here, Maddie King, was the Mayor, and it was an interesting process. Is that something that could be done?

JP: Yes, and will be. I know that Karen has already started this from a riding-wide point-of-view. I know that Jeff Yurek has attended also. Why reinvent the wheel? We can steal the good parts and leave out the bad parts and work together. Whatever we think will work, there is no bad idea in this – let’s tread quickly toward more involvement, even if it’s just talking.

Like I said, I’m following a couple Facebook groups now about why was the voter turnout so low. The civic knowledge out there needs to improve if we are going to expect people to be involved in civic government. I hope to do a Mayor’s Blog on what happens each week. I hope to do a bunch of these things. Let’s hope that I do have time and can do all of these things, because I think the more information we get out there, it’s good. There’s far too much in politics, specifically in party politics, where “well, I better not say it, it could be used against me later on.” I’m of the absolute opposite opinion – I’m going to say it now; if I do find out that I’ve changed my mind, I will stand up and say, “by the way, I’ve changed my mind with further knowledge, with some information that’s come to me, I now believe this.” And what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with that level of honesty, rather than entrenching yourself into a decision that’s never going to change? So, back to youth – yes is the answer.

For video clips from our interview with Joe Preston, check out our Instagram page:

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