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‘There's a feistiness to the community:’ Q&A with Esquimalt mayor Barb Desjardins

Mayor Desjardins weighs in on the changes and challenges ahead for Esquimalt

By Brishti Basu
December 27, 2022
Latest News
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

‘There's a feistiness to the community:’ Q&A with Esquimalt mayor Barb Desjardins

Mayor Desjardins weighs in on the changes and challenges ahead for Esquimalt

By Brishti Basu
Dec 27, 2022
Photo: Provided / Barb Desjardins
Photo: Provided / Barb Desjardins
Latest News
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

‘There's a feistiness to the community:’ Q&A with Esquimalt mayor Barb Desjardins

Mayor Desjardins weighs in on the changes and challenges ahead for Esquimalt

By Brishti Basu
December 27, 2022
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‘There's a feistiness to the community:’ Q&A with Esquimalt mayor Barb Desjardins
Photo: Provided / Barb Desjardins

As the year comes to an end and the region’s new municipal councils get their bearings, we caught up with Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins. Re-elected in October for a fifth term, Desjardins has spent 14 years as head of the township, making her the longest serving mayor in the region.

A lot of change is on the horizon for Esquimalt over the next four years, with a new active transportation plan, ongoing development, steps to attract more doctors to the area, and perhaps a whole new policing agreement separate from the joint agreement it currently has with Victoria.

In this Q&A, Desjardins lays out her impressions of what Esquimaltonians are looking for in their community and how council must strike a balance between growth and preservation.

What lessons are you carrying with you from your previous terms to guide you through the next four years?

Patience and collaboration. In other words, just making sure that new members of council are getting all the supports that they need in terms of knowing where to go for material or you know, being there to answer questions as they have them.

Good things take time. That was the hardest lesson to learn because I came from my own business. You made decisions and you lived by them and they sort of happened quickly. Government doesn't do that.

You’ve got three new councillors and three old ones with you this term. What’s it like working together? Has the dynamic changed at council?

The dynamic has changed but it's a great council, and I would say the same thing of the last council as well. The people of Esquimalt did a great job in terms of looking at the skill sets that were out there and choosing the right people.

The great thing going forward is that nobody ran against what was happening in Esquimalt, against what council was doing. They ran to continue to make Esquimalt even better. Everybody comes to it with a slightly different skill set and way of wanting to do that, but there was no animosity to overcome and that is always a good thing. When you're all working to go in the same direction, you may try and get there in different ways but ultimately, it's all for a better Esquimalt.

In more than a decade of hearing from Esquimaltonians, what is your impression of your constituents? How have the population demographics and their needs changed with time?

Esquimalt is like a small town. We have residents that have lived here all their lives, and we certainly have a lot of residents that have lived here an awful long time. There's a really strong sense of pride, about Esquimalt, its history, and there's a feistiness to the community.

We also have a part of our population that is—the word “transient” maybe indicates too short term—but we have turnover by people who work at the [naval] base who may be posted in different places. We are now very much a sought-after place by people coming from Vancouver. So we're getting a new dynamic of younger families as well that maybe have lived in more of a city-setting, like Vancouver, and they're loving the vibe of Esquimalt, the growth that's occurring, the opportunities that are here.

Is there a reluctance to accept population growth from people who have been there for a long time?

There certainly was when I began. That is less so now.

Esquimalt, we all said, was the best kept secret. People that lived here made sure it was a secret because they were concerned about change, but they've been seeing some of the change occurring and that it's added a vibrancy.

The changes that are happening in terms of having different people moving here has allowed our arts and culture events to just blossom, and we're now becoming a destination for others to come into our community as well.

It’s less of a push and pull now than it was before, but we have to be really careful because what we have—and new residents identify this all the time, residents who've been here a long time already know it—[is] a real sense of community and that is, for me, the most important thing to preserve and use as a lens for decision making.

Yes, your community can change and grow, but how do you hang on to that sense of community? So far we're doing okay with it. People come in and they start volunteering and they become part of the community.

One of the issues that keeps coming up in conjunction with new developments is active transportation. How do you balance people’s calls for more parking spaces with Esquimalt’s goal of building an active transportation network that will move people away from cars altogether?

The reality is we're never going to move everyone away from cars completely. But what we have is a growing community that wants to use different modes of active transportation.

In fact, our community already has a significant number of people, or or has had a significant number of people, that walk or take transit or cycle for all their activities of daily living, including work. Some of that comes from people's concern around climate change and climate adaptation. But a lot of it comes from the fact that they realized that we’re central to everything in this region. We are compact in ourselves. And we really have the opportunity to connect to major cycling corridors, as well as ensure that people can get around our community, so we're working to support that.

That is a change that's hard for those who drive and we're cognizant of that, but there is a growing sense of excitement around the changes we're making. It's one of the reasons we chose—and certainly I supported—a quick build solution.

We're getting some feedback from people that are not as comfortable with it. But all you have to do is walk along Tillicum Road now to understand the need for the safety of the active transportation that we're going to provide.

There’ve already been several conversations at Esquimalt council about healthcare and attracting physicians at Esquimalt council; do you anticipate council approving—or requiring—more developments to be like 899 Esquimalt Road in the near future?

*Note: 899 Esquimalt is a building in which developers have set aside space in the building for a primary care clinic.

We're always looking for ways that we can attract medical professionals, whether that is looking at providing space for offices or whether it's looking at how do we attract them to live here [and]  therefore work here; improve the affordability improve their ability to get their kids to daycare so they can work in our community. We’re looking at all of those solutions.

Every developer that is coming to Esquimalt, we’re looking at, ‘Is there something you could offer in terms of making it easier so that we can attract these professionals to live in and stay and work in Esquimalt?’

We know what the health of our community is, so we we have a sense of what we might need to make that change

Now that there have been some meetings over the last couple of months, what do you think will be the biggest priorities for Esquimalt council over the next four years?

We want to resolve our policing situation. That’s top priority.

But we’re also just in the middle of our strategic planning, so what I can say is that there’s a sense that during the last term, there was a lot of work done around climate action strategy, climate mitigation strategy, the Active Transportation strategy, the roadmap to economic development, and all of these are ready to roll out.

This council has been looking at how we are going to take those and and put them into action. Economic development is also something that everyone is looking at. Now that we are creating new commercial space, we need to attract great tenants to know what a great place this is for their business. So economic development is going to be a strong part of this Council's mandate as well.

Can you elaborate on resolving the policing situation? What are the next steps?

The last council hired a consultant to go out and look at what other kinds of police service models are there, and that report will come back mid-year, or perhaps a bit before mid-year. What that will do is help us to outline the costs and the options that we have for alternatives to the situation we have.

We have gone to the province, they’ve given us the guidelines of what we would need to provide them with in order for them to consider changing our police model, and ultimately undoing the order in council that binds us together with the City of Victoria under an amalgamated force.

What do you anticipate being the biggest challenge?

Right now we have a lot of construction going on, and I guess part of the concern is with the economy the way it is, that that should continue. Certainly it’s creating a lot of angst in the community.

The region itself, our affordability, is reducing our ability to attract great people who we want to set up businesses, so it’s circular. It's not something that we're going to solve ourselves in terms of affordability, and some of it is post-COVID supply chain and inflation related. Everything has a cycle.

I think it’s [about] how we're going to be able to create the economic vibe to continue going forward in this challenging situation of inflation and affordability.

Is there anything more you wanted to add?

I think it’s an exciting time for Esquimalt. We’ve been coming into our own. We are recognized as a place to consider living in the region, both for affordability but also for our amenities and parks. That’s only going to continue the more people are aware of our community.

The intangible sense of community is also a big part of that. Preserving that going into 2023 is exciting times. Looking forward to working with this council and the community  on all of the exciting projects we have.

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