Sunday, July 28, 2013

Some Thoughts on City Slogans

A story on the front page of Saturday's local paper posed the question: Does Prince Albert need a new slogan?  This had been initiated by the thoughts of one of my fellow councillors, who suggested that a new brand, or slogan for the city is needed, preferably one that doesn't include the phrase Gateway to the North, since that might suggest that this is a place for passing through, not staying.

The previous council changed the city slogan just a couple of years ago, from Gateway to the North to Beautiful Gateway City, and a new sign (costing thousands of dollars) with that slogan was put up by the Tourism Centre at the south end of town.

I didn't agree with that change, partly because beautiful is a subjective term,so that what I consider beautiful and what you consider beautiful are probably different.  And really, a city that is beautiful shouldn't have to make a point of telling people that.  I also didn't agree because spending time talking about a slogan is making the mistake of putting image before substance - having a catchy slogan has nothing to do with good governance.  Sometimes with the previous council, it seemed that every year a new slogan was floated, and sank quickly without leaving a trace - remember Proud to be PA?  How about You Can't Spell Paradise Without PA?  PA - Positive Attitude?  I would hate to see council spending any more time or money on efforts to dream up a new slogan, with the idea that an attempt to rebrand our city will attract more people here.

And really, slogans are meant for advertising campaigns - in fact, one definition of slogan is that it is a brief attention-getting phrase used in advertising and promotion.  Think Disneyland (The Happiest Place on Earth) or Nike (Just Do It) or WalMart (Save money. Live better.) or Survivor (Outwit. Outlast. Outplay.)  All memorable, I'll agree.  And all created by professionals who sell things for a living, not by a bunch of city politicians, or through community involvement.

Most people asked by the local paper thought that the previous slogan, Gateway to the North, worked just fine - short, descriptive, and to the point.  Changing it to something that conveys the idea that Prince Albert is a destination isn't going to make that happen.  In my travels, I can't think of a single place that I go to because of the town's slogan - it's because there are things there that I want to do.  I don't know what Stratford's slogan is, but I do know that there's a Shakespearean Festival there,  I don't know what Toronto or Vancouver use for a slogan, but I do know that going to either of those two cities will give me lots to do.

City council can't make the city into what we hope it could be just by talking.  Our role is to put the guidelines in place to allow things to happen - bylaws, zones, taxation policies - and hope that these guidelines enable and encourage growth, not restrict it.  Our responsibilities of maintaining infrastructure and ensuring public safety are also key to making the city an attractive place to live.  That's where we need to focus our energies, recognizing that there are no quick fixes, and that most of our problems aren't solved just by throwing tax payers' dollars in a general direction.

Changing our slogan - not even close to the top of the priority list, in my opinion.

"There is a tendency to try to dumb everything down and turn everything into a one-paragraph press release or even less, just a slogan." - Malcolm Turnbull

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Slowing Down in Summer

Last Monday was our last council meeting until the middle of August.  We've been doing this for several years now - one council meeting in July, and one in August, with an Executive meeting in each month the week before the council meeting.

There are some positives to this.  For those who prefer to vacation in the summer, it provides a couple of blocks of time when a three week absence won't result in missing any meetings.  It also gives some relief to administrative staff who attend council meetings - they too can take time off, or at least have a shorter than usual day on Mondays when a meeting is cancelled.

But city business still goes on.  In fact, for most of our staff, who either work outdoors or manage those who do, this is their busy time, and summer vacations are not something that they can take for granted.  Things have changed - just as shopping is now a seven day a week option, vacations are no longer limited to the summer, and perhaps council operations need to recognize that taking it easy during the summer may not be affordable any more.  Maybe we need to keep working year-round, even if it means that if you take summer holidays, you may not get that perfect attendance award.  But council as a whole may be able to get more done.

Perhaps we need to take the opportunity in summer to focus on the important, but not necessarily urgent, matters.  Perhaps getting together to brainstorm solutions for some of our chronic issues might be a good use of our time.

For example, in talking with some of our staff about the focused paving projects that we're doing this year, to try to catch up with the backlog from past years of neglect, they've had some good ideas about how the process could be made more efficient.  There are a lot of steps that have to happen from start to finish when repairing a street, but some of the steps, like boulevard repair, may not happen in the same year, or even within a couple of years, as the main work.  We should explore the options out there for removing those gaps, and work with staff so that those ideas with the most promise get a trial run, rather than just have things continue to be done the way they've always been done.

Another chronic issue that is probably the one that is raised with me most often, is dealing with boarded up properties.  This seems to be more of an issue in the summer, perhaps because that's often when those with nowhere else to live will move into these places, even without the basic utilities of power and running water.  You can imagine how unpleasant a place like this would be to have in your neighbourhood, and it's not uncommon for fires to occur in these situations, endangering both the temporary inhabitants and the surrounding homes.  We need to find a faster way of getting these properties either back up to code and habitable, or taken down, and I would welcome the opportunity to discuss possible solutions with council and staff.

This council is trying to operate differently from previous councils - working more efficiently, and spending taxpayers' dollars more effectively.  Maybe it's time we looked at our meeting schedule, and even at the way we approach our discussions about problems, differently too.  I'm not advocating that we forget that it's summer - I enjoy the longer days and the more relaxed feeling that everyone seems to have (and I appreciate not having to wear a suit to council meetings), but I think that, even though it's summer, we still need to continue looking at our problems, and finding solutions.  And just as the best ideas often come when you're relaxed, not trying to meet deadlines, maybe we'll come up with solutions for some long-standing problems.

"Summer's lease hath all too short a date." - William Shakespeare

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Water, Water Everywhere

Along with the mayor, Councillor Miller and the fire chief, I toured Little Red River Park on Friday, and was able to see first-hand the damage that the extra water released into the system has caused.  It's surprising how the landscape has been permanently changed, along with the various man-made structures in the park, and there's no doubt that it's going to be quite some time before this favourite spot for hiking, picnics and running is usable again.

In all the various water-logged issues that we've been swamped with this year (deep apologies for the pun), there are some things to be grateful for.  The rise in the North Saskatchewan last weekend was much lower than predicted, and personally I thought that being prepared for the worst while hoping for the best was the responsible way to go.  We should also be grateful that the province picked up the bills for flood preparation, including taking care of the sand-bagging around the Cosmo Lodge.  Costs to the city have been minimal.

The evacuation of Cumberland House, while it proved not to be necessary, was another case of being safe rather than sorry.  And a couple of community events for the evacuees that were open to everyone was a nice bonus - we don't have enough opportunities for getting out in the summer within the city - not everyone can head out to the lake on a warm summer evening.

If there's one concern that rises out of the situation not being as bad as was predicted, it's that there might be a sense of complacency the next time there are flood warnings, so people might slack off in their preparations.  From what I've learned from the province, they're constantly working to improve their predictive models, using information from what actually happens with increased water flows, so I'm sure that  this year's data will be built into their models and the confidence in the predictions will improve.

The silver lining of the devastation to Little Red is the chance to rebuild based on what we've learned, so that we're better prepared for next time.  For example, the asphalt paths right next to the river that are now gone - maybe we shouldn't be investing money in that sort of infrastructure that's so close to the water.  We'll be able to take advantage of new knowledge about structural improvements when replacing or repairing the various crossing structures so that they might be able to better withstand the next flood.  Because water being what it is, there will be a next time.

Let's just hope that next time, we're as well-prepared as we were this time.

"Nothing is softer or more flexible that water, yet nothing can resist it."  Lao Tzu