Meet Adrian Bell, one of the four candidates running for mayor of Yellowknife in this election.
Bell grew up in Yellowknife and served two terms on city council before announcing his bid for mayor earlier this year.
Why are you running?
“I’ve been on council for two terms, I’m very passionate about this city, I have been for a very long time. I grew up here, I’ve been a small business owner in the city for a long time, and m experience on council has been very fulfilling. I’ve had the opportunity I think to make a difference and move files forward, I’ve learned how to be effective at that position. And so when I see an opportunity to turn a part-time job into a full-time job and work a little more closely with council administration on some bigger files that are coming down the pipe, I fell compelled to jump at that opportunity.”
What is your platform? What would you do if elected mayor?
“Well, we’ve got some challenges ahead, but I believe that with the right vision and the right leadership that we can not only weather those challenges but come out on top and truly flourish. Some of the challenges coming our way are economic, you know we have some of the nearby diamond mines entering the late stages of their lives. So we’re going to be entering into an economic transition. Now we do have some opportunities, there’s no doubt about it, but in preparing for a transition like that, it’s important that we first work to reduce the cost of living, as well as the cost of doing business. And then we have to work during that period of time as well, in advance of these coming challenges, we have to work to diversify the economy and to boost the economy. And we don’t have much control over mining exploration in the NWT or mine development, but we do have some ability to influence other sectors. Tourism is a big one, tourism has been taking off, everybody can see that but I think the city hasn’t really gotten involved in trying to see what it can do to boost tourism. And a big part of that will be improving our downtown so the tourist experiences are a little more positive. That’ll make a difference for residents as well, but also working to support the arts sector and arts and culture entrepreneurs. Because there’s a feeling, and I think this is accurate, that we need more product, more things for tourists to do when they’re here. And so that’s not going to come from business owners like myself, it’s going to come from artists. So that’s who we need to support. It also comes from festivals, so I really think we need to get behind the profession of event and festival organizations and coordination, find ways to support that profession so that we can build local capacity and really take some of our local festivals to the next level. Certainly, give them the stability that they deserve, but also to try to get more festivals off the round to really put us on the map. So those are some of the areas with respect to tourism where I would focus. I think it’s very important as well that we learn to truly use our leverage as the capital city and the location where 48 per cent of the territorial voters in the NWT reside, to get behind the polytechnic university proposal. To really say, look that has to happen here, the current model is not working. We like what we’re hearing out of the Aurora College Foundational Review, let’s get behind it and let’s partner, do what we have to, do what we can, to help with that. I also think that an important part of the economy an important sector is just these small businesses, entrepreneurs, those risk takers who will find other areas for us to diversify into and give the tourists the content that they need. Really getting behind those small businesses and the entrepreneurs with mentorship programs or with innovation centers which is something that we’ve seen all over the world. Right next door in Whitehorse they’re doing really good work, providing entrepreneurs with the support that they need to make it a little bit easier to try new things and to be experimental in business. So those are the first two planks of my platform; reducing the cost of living but also boosting and diversifying the economy.
The third plank is about increasing the effectiveness of city council. Now for a lot of years, I would hear concerns, and I myself had concerns, about who was really driving the bus at city hall. It seemed like council was never really able to overcome some of the longstanding problems even though, you know, councillors had been made aware of them for many years. And I think part of the problem is council stopped doing, it stopped filling its role as the developer and evaluator of the policies and strategies and standards that guide city hall. Council’s really just stopped doing that work. So there’s a lot of, first of all redefining those roles and responsibilities and saying here’s what the council’s job is, here’s what the mayor’s job is, and here’s what the senior administrative officer’s job is. Be absolutely clear so that council can resume that role of developing and evaluating policy and setting the course of city hall. That’s step number one of becoming more effective. And then also I think it’s having leadership, someone with the experience of collaborating with council colleagues and moving files forward. And that’s something that I’ve been very active at for the last six years, and I think that’s something that differentiates me from the other candidates for mayor. I’ve had that experience of working with my colleagues very closely, building support for initiatives that I’ve proposed, or that they’ve proposed. But taking good ideas, building consensus around them or support for them and then getting them implemented. And that’s something that takes initiative and it takes practice and something that I feel I’ve been very effective at. Those are the types of things that I think can make council more effective, that’s the more boring stuff for your listeners for sure, but without working hard to become more effective, to refine those tools of being effective, we can’t really do great work on reducing the cost of living or economic development. So we really have to have those tools in place, it’s boring but it’s important.”
So how would you as mayor work to reduce the cost of living in Yellowknife?
“Well, I’ve got 11 or 12 ideas on my platform at adrianbell.ca. The ones that have the most potential surround electricity. So we have the franchise agreement for power distribution coming up for renewal in 2019. That’s an opportunity that the last council didn’t have to try to get at this issue. And we’ve seen Hay River do, what appears to be good work, in inviting in the Northwest Territories Power Corporation to compete for the contract in an attempt to just get a better rate. I mean it’s still working through the process, but NTCP won the bid, presumably that’s going to result in a cost savings. I mean I’m hearing rumours of pretty substantial cost savings for the people of Hay River, so that’s a model that we’re fortunate to have been able to sit on the sidelines and watch. We now need to take the lessons learned from that model and apply them. And whether it ends up being a private sector or public sector distributor of power, we need a competitive situation, we need to invite competition and use that to get our power rates down. We also need to use our lobbying ability and our leverage to get behind an expansion of the Taltson Hydroelectric system with a transmission line to Yellowknife or near Yellowknife. That would make a huge difference for our residents in terms of accessing cheaper power. I think the estimates were that you could bring power to Yellowknife for something in the neighbourhood of 13 cents a kilowatt hour. And I think we’re paying 33 right now, so you can imagine what kind of difference that would make. It would also make a huge difference to any mines that are close to economic and need just a bit of an advantage on bringing their costs down, and it would also have a huge impact for reducing our carbon footprint. The carbon footprint of the NWT especially given future mining developments if we can have them on hydro instead of diesel, that’s a huge difference maker. So those are some of the big opportunities. There are also areas where the city has been kind of overlapping into GNWT territory and we refer to that as mandate creep. We’ve got to make sure that we’re not duplicating GWNT services, you know we’ve got to keep a very close eye on that. Land pricing – I think that we’ve been holding back not only new development of detached homes but development of affordable housing, high-density, residential apartments things like that, through some of our policies, including our land pricing policies. So we need to take a close look at that and see what we can do. A big part of this and something that I feel I would be very good at is recruitment and retention o residents and businesses and investors. I’ve got a business background, I’m an entrepreneur, I get very excited at the prospect of going out and finding investors, residents, businesses, bringing them to town and doing the things we have to do to keep them here. Because as we grow, our funding situation improves, so that’s going to be a huge focus for me and that’s one of the things I’m most excited about. Getting out there and selling people and businesses on Yellowknife and making a big difference. The other key area… is the underfunding situation from the GNWT. They did a study about five years ago where they themselves determined that they’re underfunding us by $11 million in infrastructure funding. And our entire capital budget is $26 million, so if you think about that, that’s a third of our capital budget. So if we could find a way to come to some arrangement where they make up that shortfall, where they try to speed up any real timeline, I haven’t even seen a timeline for erasing that gap. But if we could change that it would make a huge difference and it would effectively stop us from subsidizing smaller communities or communities outside of Yellowknife. Hay River is in the same boat and I think Inuvik is probably too, so we’ve got some allies there and we have to work with them and say look, we understand that costs are high everywhere but let’s be fair. We have x amount of infrastructure and you’re only giving us y amount of dollars, it’s not fair, let’s be equitable here.”
Attracting investors to Yellowknife, I’m sure part of making Yellowknife more appealing to them is addressing the downtown experience. So what would you do in your time in office to improve that?
“I’ve done a lot of work on the downtown. The downtown is the reason that I first got interested in municipal politics, having been a downtown business owner for many years. And about a year ago I wrote the first cut of our city council downtown vision. So we’ve got, I’m not sure how many recommendations, but probably about 30 in there for things that we think we can do. It’s not just one thing that you have to do, it’s 30, and you’ve got to try them all, you’ve got to get working on some stuff. Now some of the things we’re moving forward with already and we’ve had the SOS van program that’s been successful, I brought forward a proposal for a homelessness employment program that seems to be doing very well. In this coming year, it’s already submitted for budget approval, I’ll be sponsoring a downtown ambassador program. And these folks would be a combination of social worker, tourist outreach worker and would have some ability to work with the business community and to make sure that people who are using the downtown are doing it safely, and are creating an environment that is welcoming to all users of the downtown. It’s a very effective program in cities like Victoria, Kelowna and Winnipeg who have some of the similar problems that we have. Another big piece of the puzzle is attracting residential development to the downtown because we need more owners, we need more renters, we need more eyes on the street, more stakeholders, full-time stakeholders. We also have opportunities there as well to address the carbon footprint of our community. If we’re building in the downtown where people are close to work, that’s an exciting opportunity. We had some modest incentives that we had put together, we’ve got to actually get serious about those incentives. We’ve had a consultant recently give us some great advice on how to do that, so we need to move forward with city council’s downtown vision. And try to attract downtown, residential development, more hotels to the downtown, and that will make a difference for people right across the city. There are people who leave town because they’re concerned about our downtown and our lack of progress on these issues. And there may be others who don’t move here because of those problems. And there are also tourists who go back home and when they’re telling stories about Yellowknife, they might not be the most favourable. So the downtown has an impact across the city, and it also has an impact on reducing the tax burden for areas outside of the downtown. So although all of our business community and all of our residential areas are important, none of them has greater potential to bring down everyone’s tax bill than the downtown. Because we can build additional density down here, it’s already zoned for greater density and that’s without added infrastructure, the infrastructure’s already in place. So it would bring down your tax bills on Finlayson Drive and on Borden Drive and in Old Town. So these are some of the opportunities when it comes to the downtown and ones that I will certainly work towards.”
So you’re in favour of the NCPU or Northern Canada Polytechnic University and the recommendations in the Aurora College Report. The city has already officially endorsed them, but the Town of Fort Smith, where it’s currently headquartered, has said that it does not and it thinks the report is based on poor methodology. So how would you negotiate that, moving forward with the recommendations in the report?
“Certainly, my job is not to comment on the strengths and weaknesses of other communities, but I’ve read the Foundational Review Report, and it was very honest and frank that the current model was broken. We know anecdotally that a lot of students and a lot of workers here don’t really look forward to the prospect of going to Fort Smith for a variety of reasons. If they have a choice between Edmonton. Calgary, Vancouver, they quite often opt for those locations because it provides them with more of a student experience. And most importantly with credentials at the end that are a little more valued. So one way or the other, things have to change here in the North. Because the degree-granting programs or the diploma-granting programs that we have, although some of them are very strong, some of them are a little bit lacking. So to be able to really get at that problem, we have to take a different approach. And it seems from the report that the consultant and, by the sounds of it, the GNWT believe that the best chance is to try to locate something in Yellowknife. When you’re spending $47 million a year on a college and you’re just not getting the outcomes you want, it’s time to go back to formula. Figure out what’s not working and say look, okay while there are some programs that might make sense in Fort Smith, there are others that will never truly flourish unless they’re in Yellowknife. You could throw good money after bad here and keep funding programs that are broken. So I think the important thing is to take a look at Yellowknife, what Yellowknife can bring to the table in terms of student experience, in terms of housing, exposure to industry, all of those other things that the Foundational Review highlighted as assets or advantages that Yellowknife has.”
Some are concerned that moving those headquarters here is yet another example of centralization, moving things to Yellowknife and out of communities. Do you think that’s a concern, or do you think it’s better to have these services all in one place?
“Well, if you could imagine building a hospital like the one we just did in a remote community, and the astronomical costs associated with that and the questionable benefits of doing it there… I mean we’re a capital city, we have the population base, we have an ability to do things at a lower cost in some areas for sure. So the bottom line is, although decentralization is a noble goal, and building capacity in the communities is important, it makes more sense with certain types of services than for others.”
Bell says the healthcare licensing program out of Inuvik is one such example of a program that works.
“But when you’re talking about something that relies on attracting not just local students but international students, then why would you put that in a spot where they’re telling you that they’re not comfortable spending four years there.”
“Well, I guess you’re probably wondering what differentiates me from other candidates and I know that that’s something that’ll be on people’s minds. And for me, it’s a matter of style. My approach is very active, I don’t wait for administration to bring proposals to council, I bring proposals forward. Both my own and from residents and I help councillors bring their proposals forward and work on helping city council direct city hall. I’ve also been very active in the community. Whether it’s through festivals or other volunteer work, I’ve worked hard to try to contribute and it allows me to get a sense of what the community’s needs are. I’ve got a website I’m very active on and through social media and I don’t just mean in the month prior to an election, I mean for the last six years. Trying to put information out there and help inform people, give them more details about city issues than they might otherwise get. So those are three important areas of differentiation, and I’ve put my track record up on my website and I’m talking about that and I hope people go take a look at that. And when they’re making decisions about the state of Yellowknife right now and the challenges ahead, they need to try to match the track record and assets or characteristics of a mayor with the challenges ahead of us. Try to determine what is the style that’s going to give us the best results and clearly I think my approach is what we need right now in Yellowknife.”