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Mayor Provenzano on challenges, goals and what makes him proud

He answers five questions on a year rife with challenges and ripe with opportunities to shine
20141201 Christian Provenzano KA
FILE PHOTO: Mayor Christian Provenzano. Kenneth Armstrong/SooToday

What have been some of the greatest challenges that you’ve faced as a leader in 2017?

I don't think I can isolate a significant challenge that belongs just to 2017.

A lot of the challenges that we have faced have been continuous throughout the Council term. The community has had to deal with a lot of economic instability over the entirety of this Council's term. Algoma, Tenaris and the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation are all large employers and important parts of our economy. We have had to manage and address the OLG modernization project, the downturn in oil prices that effected Tenaris and the fallout in the steel industry. The Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act process that Algoma has been involved in since November, 2015, has introduced a lot of economic anxiety and insecurity.

On a positive note, we have now managed through a large part of this broad economic challenge. The OLG is no longer looking to sell its lottery operations and while we will see some changes at its office in Sault Ste. Marie, I am confident that we will at least maintain, and possibly grow, the full time equivalent head count here. Thankfully, Tenaris is back to a healthy level of production and hiring and I am hopeful that we will see an end to the Algoma CCAA process in the new year. Once we do, significant capital reinvestment in the steel mill will follow which will give our local economy a much needed boost in 2018.

It has been a challenge managing and budgeting through these economic circumstances and making sure that we maintain positive and forward looking perspectives. I think we have done that and I point to the Community Adjustment Committee report as one example and the economic development realignment as another. 

In the midst of these challenges community leaders got together, sought input and started a healthy discussion about where we are and where we need to go as a community. I was glad to be a part of that discussion and I intend on continuing it. The truth and reality is that we are in the midst of a tremendous amount of social and economic change. As community leaders we have to find the balance between addressing the immediate issues and looking toward and building for our future. I am confident that we are finding that balance and doing both competently.

What are your short and long term goals for economic development in the new year? 

You are going to notice that I refer to community development when we are discussing economic development. 

It is important to recognize, as we now are, that community development and economic development are not divisible. We have some socioeconomic and labour market challenges that negatively impact our local economy. It will be very hard to improve our local economy without addressing some of our social and demographic challenges. We have been and will continue to make the necessary changes at City Hall and with some of our partners to take this more holistic approach.

With that noted, some of the short term goals that come to mind:

  • to have the new Memorandums of Understanding for both the Sault Ste. Marie Innovation Centre and the Sault Ste. Marie Economic Development Corporation before Council in January,  
  • to put a solid, thoughtful and credible document together for the NorOnt submission due February 2.,
  • to complete the funding requests for the community adjustment committee's work by February and to staff up the teams that will be working on some of those projects,
  • to assemble the community roundtable and to put some sector experts on study recommendation teams that will, hopefully, develop great community based initiatives in the health care, education and energy/environment sectors.

In addition, we want to develop a compelling smart cities submission and a team is now considering how to do that. I think we also have to engage with our local businesses and assess whether they are getting the supports they need to grow and be successful. Coun. [Paul] Christian has recently proposed we develop a survey to do this and I think the team at the City, the EDC and SSMIC, can work together to be able to do something by summer. I put forward a motion last year which was supported by Council that will see us, with staff, set aside time early this year to discuss the tax ratios and the tax burden. I think it is important that we have a productive and open discussion about how the City apportions its taxes across the respective tax classes and that we put together a plan to ensure that apportionment is fair and reasonable.

On a longer term basis, I circle back to my initial comment. We have to be mindful of and work on our socioeconomic and demographic challenges. When I meet with businesses and employers, and I do often, they ask me the same question: does your community have the human resource I need?  

A lot of things drive business but nothing more than access to skill and labour. If we aren't developing the employees and workforce of today and tomorrow, the businesses of today and tomorrow will not stay here, grow here or open up shop here. The municipality doesn't have a lot of levers but it is responsible for the community as a whole. It can take a leadership role and act as a facilitator that brings other parties together for the betterment of the larger community. I think we are seeing the municipality accept and grow into that role and I am hopeful that the work we are beginning now will continue on to develop in this respect.

You penned a letter to city council members this past year asking them to focus on a ‘positive path forward’ during a time of apparent negativity. What’s the response been from council since then?

I think that the letter was received in the good faith spirit that it was written and sent.  It is important to recognize that the letter was largely precipitated by conversations that I was having with city councillors and concerns some of them communicated to me, that I shared, that as leaders in the community we should be mindful of being positive and work to be positive. To put it simply, it was a call to lead by example.

I am not going to reiterate all of the work I outlined in the letter. I do sincerely believe that the city councillors have been productive and have driven a lot of good and important work and I didn't want council, as a whole, to lose sight of that.

The letter was not intended to discourage constructive debate or criticism. I think a deliberative body, such as a city council, works best when the members of that body are direct and honest with one another, and about their opinions and perspectives. Effective deliberative bodies are also driven by fact and, from my perspective, so are good decisions.  Amidst our challenges, we have a lot we can choose to be positive about and I was, and still do, encourage that choice.

How will Essar Steel’s insolvency proceedings impact The City of Sault Ste. Marie, fiscally speaking, in 2018 and beyond?

Considering that this process has been ongoing since 2015, I believe that the worst of this should be behind us and the remaining outstanding issues are resolvable in the near term. I think the completion of the legal process is in community's best interest and achievable. Once it is behind us, and in my opinion it can be by the end of the first quarter of the new year, we will see a lot of investment in the steel mill which will give our local economy an immediate boost. I think we will also see the return of some more consumer confidence which will also help the local economy but we need the process to draw to a conclusion and for that to happen some of the stakeholders have to settle their outstanding issues. I am hopeful that they can and they will.

What local initiatives, events, etc. from the past year have made you proud to be a Saultite?

There have been a number of really nice moments this past year. We have seen Saultites support each other, achieve provincial and national success, start businesses or become industry leaders in their business. As an example, just take a look at what the Village Media team is doing in the digital media industry.  It is really impressive and it is nice to see that type of initiative and ingenuity coming from Sault Ste. Marie.

The ground breaking of the Anishinabek Discovery Centre is another great initiative from this year. Sharing in and seeing these moments have made me very proud of the community throughout the year but if I was to isolate one thing, it is the kindness that the community at large showed to our newcomers, specifically the Syrian refugees. Just a couple weeks ago I was invited by one of the Syrian newcomers to a lunch celebrating his family's one year anniversary in Sault Ste. Marie. I was really touched to be invited as I had never met this man or his family and I attended. At the lunch I met him, his wife, his two daughters, his son and his baby boy who was born here in Sault Ste. Marie. I also met a number of the Saultites who have supported the family since their arrival in Sault Ste. Marie. When I listened to the family speak about their experience arriving in and being received by our community, and hearing them call our community home, I was very proud to be a Saultite.

I was moved by the kindness, strength and openness that met this family when they arrived in Sault Ste. Marie. The volunteers in our community and the caregivers that supported our newcomers really showed us the best of what our community has to offer. They are role models and examples that I appreciate and respect and I thank them for their kindness and their commitment to building a better, stronger and more inclusive community.