Surrey, B.C. is creating a new high density downtown near the terminus of the Skytrain line. Photo courtesy of Surrey.com
As part of our ongoing series titled The New Surrey: Fact or Fiction, we sat down with Mayor Dianne Watts last week for an interview. The Mayor was not only engaging, she also demonstrated why she is arguably considered the most powerful civic leader in the region.
We were particularly impressed that she is planning to demonstrate some real leadership on the economic development front by convening a meeting of all Metro Vancouver mayors in the coming months.
Mayor Watts has been instrumental in kick starting the renewal of Surrey over the last few years and based on this interview, she is just getting started. The following is a transcript of our interview:
Q. Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson recently criticized suburban mayors for not pulling their own weight when it comes to policing the region. Do you have any reaction to his comments?
A. Plain and simple he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Here is the thing. Each community is very different from each other. We have our resources allocated to work within our community. Do we need more police officers? Absolutely.
However, we don’t have a Downtown Eastside to police. We don’t have a union contract that says you need two police officers in each squad car. We are flexible. If you want two police officers you get two police officers, if you don’t need them, you don’t get them. We don’t have a recruiting centre within Surrey as we share that resource with Regina. Unlike Vancouver, we don’t have an anti-terrorism unit. We don’t have a large marketing and communications department.
There are a lot of things that are very different. Until Mayor Robertson fully understands what that means, I think it's really unfair to make those broad brush statements.
Because all of the RCMP detachments don’t have to have all that administrative infrastructure in every single municipality we end up sharing resources. That’s what makes it different. So to say that because we don’t have as many police officers as Vancouver we are not pulling our weight is really an unfair statement. Quite frankly it's offensive not only to us as mayors but to the policing community to suggest they are not doing their job.
Q. Can you list what you believe to be two common misconceptions about Surrey?
A. We’re a city of 461,000 people and we continue to grow by about 1000 people per month. I think that this is the first misconception. People view Surrey as being Whalley. In fact, that is such a small piece of it. We go from the Fraser River down to the border. From Crescent Beach to Langley. It’s a huge area.
The second misconception is about really about Whalley itself. It’s not to say we don’t have issues to deal with, but we don’t have a Downtown Eastside. We have an area that is probably about two blocks long that is a problem area in Whalley. Our homelessness issue...when they did the count for the region's homeless, Surrey has the smallest increase. The counts were really low because we have such an aggressive homeless and outreach program. I think again you need to put this in context. If you’ve got the lowest numbers in the region obviously you are doing something right.
In addition, there are a lot of families that reside in Whalley and raise their children. We have Whalley little league that has gone to the World Series. We have so many other great stories that never get told because its always overshadowed by this misconception.
Q. What role do you see Surrey playing on the regional and national front?
A. In terms of how Surrey is situated within the region, especially when you look south of the Fraser, you have Fraser River docks. You have the second largest border crossing in the country. You have a significant amount of businesses and industry.
We have the largest base of industrial land available in the region. Forty-six percent of vacant industrial land is in Surrey. In terms of economic development there are some significant roles we can play. You just need to do them in the right way.
It’s important there is another voice in the region other than Vancouver. Because there is some significant things happening south of the Fraser. You have Abbotsford Airport which is a huge economic generator. You have our border crossing with billion of dollars of goods coming across each year. You look at Delta with Boundary Bay airport which is one of the busiest private airports in the country and they are looking to make that into an executive jet centre.
There is a number of things happening within the regional context which is not centered around Vancouver. I also want to be clear as well this is not about competing with Vancouver it's about supporting the roles that we have with each other. You know, Vancouver is a beautiful city and it always will be. This is not about competing, it’s about supporting each other to be the best that we can be.
Q. The Metro Vancouver region does not have an economic development strategy. Are you planning on doing anything to help develop one?
A. What we’re working on right now is a six point economic investment action plan which we announced a few weeks ago. One piece in there was that we were setting up an economic development advisory council for the City of Surrey. It has representation from across the economic sector.
We have the Business Council of BC with Michael Levy, and developer Michael Geller on board. We have a number of people from across the region that can bring forward some significant financial experts to that advisory committee.
From there what we’ll be doing is reaching out. We hope to have a forum over the next couple of months that will include the mayors of the other cities in terms of how we can work collectively together.
The issue of a regional economic development strategy has been tried and stopped and tried and stopped over the last number of years. I think when we’re dealing with the economic times we’re in right now it is important to have the experts at the table along with the mayors to have a look at what that means for all of us at a regional level.
Q. You recently announced a series of measures to kickstart Surrey's economy. Some of your critics, including other Metro Vancouver mayors have said this is a race to the bottom and your proposed cut to development fees will end up costing residential taxpayers in the pocketbook. Is this true?
A. Absolutely not. I don’t think this is a race to the bottom. Nor do I think that residential taxpayers will carry the brunt of it. When you have the times we have right now investors are not investing. They are standing on the sidelines waiting to see what’s going to happen with the economy.
So basically any of the projects that were in the concept stage or were in process have come to a stand still. So we’re not getting that revenue anyway. If we can bring forward a package that will assist them to move forward with their investment than it’s a benefit to us. And it’s a benefit for residential taxpayers because they are getting nothing now.
We know that the business tax base subsidizes residential taxes. When you have a vibrant business community you have lower taxes not higher taxes for residents. You have the ability to build additional facilities and you have a healthy community that is getting to work.
You realize whether you are in the manufacturing industry or retail industry people have lost their jobs. So you have to move forward with creating jobs. With our capital program we have expanded that and will create 4000 jobs over the next three years. That’s significant especially to people who have lost their jobs in the construction industry. You have the trades, the general contractors. We as government have a duty to make sure we are putting our projects forward but also allowing the private sector to move forward when they otherwise wouldn’t.
Q You have been critical of TransLink for not providing good transit for communities south of the Fraser River. Do you believe they are listening to your concerns and are they beginning to act upon them?
A. I’ll answer that two fold. Yes, they are beginning to address them, but they have no money to pay for them. Because over the past number of years we’ve all contributed through the residential tax base to have a really good transportation system north of the Fraser. That was okay because it was the right thing to do. Well now it’s time to do the same thing south of the Fraser and there is no money. That is really the double edged sword. So we really have to look at the Provincial and the Federal governments and make sure they are coming to the table with sustainable revenue sources instead of pulling back their funding.
Q. There has been a lot of talk about the "new Surrey" lately. Do you believe that the "new Surrey" is just in concept stage, or is it beginning to emerge?
A. I would say that it is certainly emerging. Whenever we begin to build a second metro core and create a city from the ground up it is an exiting time. And it’s a wonderful time because you don’t get that opportunity very often.
We’ve been moving forward for the past number of years and just really beginning to create and identify who we are as a city, It’s beginning to emerge. We still have a lot of work ahead of us and we are up for the challenge and ready to move forward.
Q. The Olympic Games are less than a year away. How do you think the Games will impact Surrey and the region?
A. I have absolutely no doubt that the Olympics will benefit the entire region with a focus on Whistler and Vancouver. The billions of dollars they will see from economic spin off will be significant and that will flow out to other areas in the region.
But I think it is important that we come together and support that opportunity. I was in both Torino and Beijing and it is a phenomenal opportunity. When the Olympics come to the Lower Mainland people will really get a taste of what that means because it is really hard to explain it in words. I believe it is going to be absolutely significant for this area.