With the Rural Ontario Municipal Association Annual Conference underway, municipal leaders from across the province are participating in various delegations hosted by Ontario ministers to add the voices of their constituents to the mind of the province.
This year's conference theme is "Breaking New Ground," which is meant to capture ROMA's top priorities such as attainable housing and economic growth. But for the Atikokan and Pickle Lake, the theme holds an extra piece of significance.
Atikokan Mayor Rob Ferguson previously attended the conference during past terms as a councillors. This year, he is attending as mayor.
This will be the first ROMA conference for Pickle Lake Mayor James Dalzell. Dalzell is no strange to the mayor seat in Pickle Lake serving the town from 1985 until 2000, long before the association was established.
Ferguson is excited to get the chance to meet all the new municipal leaders from across the province, as well as, some of the familiar faces he knows from his term as councillor.
Furthermore, the opportunity to shake hands with provincial leadership is a way to leave an impression.
“It’s a good segue for me to introduce myself and meet people as the replacement of Dennis Brown and get my face out there,” said Ferguson.
“I am still pretty new to all this stuff,” Dalzell said. “I can go in there and say 23 years ago we did this.”
Dalzell’s priorities for ROMA are to address water infrastructure, police costing, housing, and staff shortages. Find the mayor’s seat challenging since a long absence in municipal politics. He finds that Pickle Lake has changed significantly over the last 23 years.
Pickle Lake's water tower is in need of servicing, new housing has not been available since Dalzell’s last term in office, the cost of policing the area is putting considerable pressure on the municipal budget, and retaining staff in both the public and private sectors is a serious cause for concern.
“We are really short-staffed right now,” said Dalzell. “We are doing interviews like crazy.”
As for Ferguson, he emphasizes the need to protect the Atikokan economy.
“I want to talk with Todd Smith from the Ministry of Energy regarding the extension for the Atikokan Generating Station,” said Ferguson.
The Atikokan Generating Station is a major economic stable and one of the largest employers in the town.
Currently, Atikokan Generating Station and Ontario Power Generation are negotiating with the Independent Electricity System Operator on a new power purchasing agreement as directed by the ministry of energy.
“I just want to make sure he understands the importance of the generating station in Atikokan, as well as, the benefits the generating station has for the province as a whole,” said Ferguson.
Another priority Ferguson wants to address is housing. Rural communities need to expand their population to expand their tax base. As most youths are leaving rural communities to find new opportunities in larger urban centres that have available dwellings, rural areas need to incentivize their youths to live in their hometowns.
Ferguson is looking forward to discussing housing development with the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Steve Clark.
“One of the main obstacles is suitable housing for people to come in and have a place to live in Atikokan, so we want to make sure that that’s top of mind with him. There are some opportunities in Atikokan and we want to make sure we are at the table for anything that comes up that would help us resolve that situation,” Ferguson explains.