2023 State of the Region Address Transcript

Check against delivery
Good afternoon – I am pleased to be here with you again for my fifth State of the Region address as Regional Chair.

I want to start by thanking the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce, as well as the sponsors at Pen Financial Credit Union, for once again partnering to put on this event.
I also want to acknowledge the elected officials who are joining us here today. While all of you are deserving of recognition, the format of today’s event will not allow me to name all of you individually. Instead, I would ask that all of the elected officials in the room please stand to be acknowledged.
Finally, I also want to thank those of you joining us in the room today. The State of the Region is among the most important speeches I give in any year and it is a rare privilege to have the opportunity to communicate directly with so many chamber members, as well as community leaders from across Niagara.
Make no mistake: without your leadership, innovation and tenacity our community would not be as strong as it is today.

For this State of the Region, I want to paint of picture of the region being at a crossroads – a time of great opportunity, but not without its share of risks and challenges. A time where the decisions that we collectively make today will have a lasting legacy for years to come.
On one hand, we find ourselves in a growingly complex world where our communities, residents and businesses are subject to more external pressures than ever before.
We are at the mercy of countless geo-political influences, the whims of senior levels of government, climate change and shifting trends on everything from social justice to where and how we work.
But on the other hand, Niagara has a truly unique opportunity.
For the first time in a long while I see our community coalescing around a small, focused set of issues that we all want to tackle together.
When the public, private and non-profit sectors can all agree on what the challenges are before us I see it as an opportunity to make meaningful change for the entire community.
I know that the Niagara Region cannot realize a vision of an “optimal Niagara” alone. It is my sincere desire to move forward together.
Together with each of our 12 local municipalities.
Together with our post secondary institutions and hospital systems.   
Together with our partners at the provincial and federal governments.
Together with a number of not-for-profit organizations across the Region.
And finally, together with Niagara’s business leaders, many of whom are here in the room.
Addressing the Region's Budget
But before we can really start to talk about tomorrow, we need to think about where Niagara is today.
I want to address the so-called “elephant in the room” and offer some brief comments on the Region’s 2023 budget.
Yes, council did approve a necessary but substantial increase, but I want to state something very plainly: there was no new spending in the 2023 regional budget that is being paid for by local taxes, save and except for Council putting two new ambulances on the road to ensure our residents can get the care they need. I think we would all agree that this is an investment that we cannot do without.
But to tell the full story of the 2023 budget we have to look at the external forces at play like global inflation, the loss of Development Charge revenue through Bill 23, and the lingering costs of COVID-19 on our operations. 

This budget also had to replenish reserves that were used to offset tax increases during the pandemic. As responsible stewards of the public purse council needed to ensure our reserves remain healthy. 
We also have to pay for the decisions we made to provide $55 million for the new hospitals in West and South Niagara. This funding, while not a core responsibility of the Region, will continue to have a measurable impact on our budget for years to come.
I will not gloss over the truth: the next few budgets are likely to continue to be challenging. But as Regional Chair I look forward to working with you to help make the investments we need to grow better together.

Economic Update
But the State of the Region goes far beyond our budget. Over the last year alone there have been many remarkable stories of economic growth in our community that are worth celebrating.
Just last Thursday we got word that Niagara’s unemployment rate had dropped to 4% with us adding 600 new jobs in March. Historically, this is one of the lowest rates we have seen in quite some time, and it shows we are performing better than the national average. These numbers demonstrate we are certainly on the right path.
Most recently, GM announced a significant investment in the St. Catharines propulsion plant to build 400,000 drive units for electric vehicles.
Not only will this investment support 500 good-paying jobs in our region, it helps stake Niagara’s claim in the growing EV manufacturing sector and will ultimately contribute to combating climate change.
On the marine side, Heddle Ship Yard was recently awarded a $135 million contract from the Canadian Coast Guard to retrofit their vessels. This three-year project will support over 200 jobs, providing many social and economic benefits for the entire region.
In Port Colborne, a $45-million investment will rehabilitate three wharfs along the Welland Canal, helping to ensure that Niagara can continue to play a crucial role in maintaining a healthy supply chain while adapting to the impacts of climate change.
Niagara was recently selected by Atura Power to be the home of its new large-scale hydrogen production facility. Not only will this sustain high paying jobs, but it will also provide low-carbon emission energy for industrial processes.
And across the region we are seeing success story after success story pile up over the last year:
In Fort Erie, Abatement Technologies is nearing completion of its new 100,000 square foot, state-of the-art advanced manufacturing facility that will support 100 quality jobs and allow the company build upon its 75-year history of serving international markets from its headquarters in Niagara.
In West Lincoln, Stanpac recently received a $5 million contract from the federal government to produce new compostable and recyclable packaging. This will create 30 new, good paying jobs while continuing to combat climate change.
In Grimsby, Handling Specialty is building underwater stage lifts that are being used everywhere from world-class Cirque du Soleil shows to Royal Caribbean cruise ships.
In Niagara Falls, just up the street from where we are today, the OLG Stage at Fallsview Casino recently opened with a sold-out show from Billy Joel. The line-up of stellar entertainment being booked into this facility will no doubt help keep the region on the map.
Across the region, we continue to see a thriving agriculture sector, providing good paying jobs and contributing to the food security of our province. While it is not always top of mind, Niagara’s flourishing agri-business sector contributes more than $1.7 billion to our local economy and employs more than 25,000 individuals. As long as I am Regional Chair I will be an active supporter of the farmers across Niagara.
We should also take a moment to reflect on the successful completion of the Canada Summer Games that were hosted across the region last August. The games will leave a lasting positive legacy across our communities both by the facilities they inspired as well as the economic benefits. We owe a debt of gratitude to the thousands of volunteers who made these games possible as we could not have done it without you.
And finally, the new South Niagara Hospital project recently announced a $3.6 billion contract for its construction. Clocking in at over 1.3 million square feet, the construction of this facility is certain to have a positive economic impact on our region.
This is just a small sample of all that we have to celebrate in Niagara. I know I join with you in being enthusiastic for the future – these announcements, and dozens of others, are perfect examples of how we are continuing to grow better together.

Looking to the Future
When looking to the future, I want to start by looking back just one year.

Last year I stood before you at the State of Region and made a series of commitments of what my priorities would be and what would be set in motion should I have the privilege to serve as Chair of the Niagara Region.
Today I am pleased to have the opportunity to share that progress has been made in just a few short months on these top priorities.
I want to start with what is likely the most top-of-mind issue: affordable and attainable housing.
We would all agree that far too many hard working people in Niagara cannot find appropriate housing - too many of our residents have been pushed out of the market. 
Even the Province of Ontario, through legislation like Bill 23 – the More Homes Built Faster Act, has demonstrated that making progress on these housing challenges is a top priority.
Here in Niagara we are ready to respond.
We will not continue doing what we have done for the last decade in the hopes that we will achieve different results.
To that end, I am pleased to publicly announce that Regional Council, working closely with the Chief Administrative Officer, has approved the creation of an Office of Attainable Housing.
This new office will be charged with working with partners at all levels, as well as the private and non-profit sectors, to help address the attainable and affordable housing challenges in Niagara.
We have heard loud and clear from the province that they expect more houses to be built across Ontario and we are ready to do our part.
This new office will take a multi-disciplinary approach to the issue and think innovatively about how we might make a positive impact for the community.

We are taking the lessons we learned when pursuing GO Transit service by creating a team that is solely focused on attainable housing. Creating more attainable housing will not be accomplished off the side of a desk.
This new team will focus all of their attention on getting more of our residents, including our hard working young people, into housing.
It is important to remember that we did not get in this housing situation overnight and making process will take time. However, we are confident that this new model is a positive first step and we look forward to providing the community with updates along the way.
Shared Services
As Regional Chair, I hear from constituents, businesses and my colleagues on council that there is a shared desire to be more efficient and find a “made in Niagara” solution that will “optimize” the region.
These comments were so prevalent that a year ago I made a commitment to focus on more effectively sharing services between the Region and Niagara’s 12 local communities. I pledged to find ways to improve our region and be as efficient as possible.
Given the unprecedented interest to expeditiously move forward with shared services, I am pleased to announce today that Regional Council has endorsed the creation of an Office of Shared Services.
For the first time in the Region’s 53-year history, we are putting dedicated resources behind an initiative that is solely focused on finding ways to make local government in Niagara more efficient, lean and effective. 
Again, similar to our efforts on GO, we did not see making progress on shared services as a part-time job.
This council recognizes that if we want to make a measurable difference on shared services we need to fund positions entirely focused on building relationships, identifying opportunities, and handling logistics.
The offices of Attainable Housing and Shared Services will be coming on line in the coming weeks and will be managed through the new division of Strategic Transformation.
I know you join me in looking forward to seeing progress made on these priorities.

As an important aside, I want to recognize the leadership of CAO Ron Tripp in delivering an organizational plan that is responsive to council’s, and the community’s, priorities.
Equally as important, I also want to acknowledge that these two new initiatives are being resourced without any additions to our staff compliment. There is no new funding being dedicated to these two new offices as they are being resourced within the current budget.
Government Relations and Advocacy
However, a local focus on attainable housing and better sharing of resources alone will not result in the outcomes we are looking for. We know that we must have willing partners in Toronto and Ottawa to make Niagara the best it can be.
Take yesterday’s positive announcement from the provincial government. As the service manager for homelessness services, the Niagara Region relies on provincial funding to deliver services to our most vulnerable residents.
Given this relationship with the province, I am pleased to reiterate the announcement that our funding for homeless programs has received an 86 per cent increase now totalling over $20 million.
This much needed funding will be put to effective use shoring up homelessness programs across the region and supporting those who need it most.
For many years, the historical funding model meant that we were underfunded as compared to other places in the province. Niagara residents invested more into homelessness services than any other community in Ontario.
The discrepancy in funding was so egregious that Niagara was even mentioned by name in a report from the Auditor General as an area for concern and correction.
For years, Regional Councillors, and our talented staff, have been tenaciously advocating for a correction. We have taken every opportunity to reinforce the need for these funds in Niagara and proving that we can get results even with our limited funding.
I want to express my sincere thanks to our staff for the years of dedicated work on this file and ensuring Niagara’s story was being shared whenever someone would listen. Your efforts have paid off and our community is better for it.
Success stories like the one we see here are evidence that we must never accept the status quo and we must continue to have productive dialogue and advocate with the decision makers in Toronto and Ottawa.
To that end, I am pleased to make one final announcement today: the Niagara Region, in partnership with the 12 local municipalities and our friends at the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce, will be reviving the highly successful “Niagara Week” event at Queen’s Park the week of May 15.
During our time in Toronto, our advocacy efforts will include funding for the new wastewater treatment plant in south Niagara Falls; renewal of funding for shared service transition costs; and seeking support from the provincial government to make us whole after development charge revenues were stripped away through Bill 23.
We look forward to bringing Niagara’s concerns forward. Having key representation from the GNCC in attendance helps to demonstrate our partnership and our commitment to build a better Niagara together.
I want all of you to know that we will continue to work hard with our provincial and federal partners to make sure we have a seat at the table and ensure that we are getting our fair share.

The Provincial Facilitator
Before I close today, I know there is some discussion among Chamber members regarding the provincial facilitator. While we are patiently awaiting news from the provincial government regarding the scope of this facilitator’s work, the Niagara Region has been reorienting itself to be open minded and responsive to the will of the provincial government.
Let me share some of my thoughts on this process: I believe that each community in Niagara is unique and brings something special to the table. That each town and city contributes to our special culture and that our mosaic of urban and rural communities helps set us apart from other parts of Ontario.
But, I also believe that the best version of Niagara is one where all of our communities, and the Region, work in harmony to optimize what we have.

I believe that in order for us to build more homes we must first build a precise and shared definition of the problem we are trying to solve. And to truly realize all we can be, we must share what we have already and find those opportunities and efficiencies.
We have come a long way and we learned many lessons that will help us collaborate, coordinate and grow a better Niagara together. I believe the time is now for all of us to work together and make the bold decisions necessary to realize the best version of Niagara possible.
As Regional Chair, I am honoured to once again be part of a team with such a dynamic, hardworking and passionate group of councillors who have their community’s best interests at heart.
I have come to learn that regardless of where two councillors may sit on the political spectrum, their shared convictions and interests far outweigh the differences that set them apart.
This term of council is also privileged to have strong representation on organizations like the Association of Municipalities of Ontario and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. It is through this representation that Niagara has made strides on innovative and important issues like the expansion of broadband internet; green energy and climate change; and increasing women’s representation in local government.
Along with my colleagues on Council, I am also honoured to work with some of the most talented and hard working public servants in my entire career. I would be remiss not to mention the Region’s Chief Administrative Officer, Ron Tripp and the entire leadership team who work tirelessly to turn council’s direction into a reality. Without such capable leadership nothing would get accomplished and we are lucky to have such a capable group in Niagara.
This also says nothing of the thousands of exceptional staff that work in each of the operational departments. The Region provides so many crucial programs and services that residents and businesses rely on daily that I could not possibly mention them all here now. But on behalf of Regional Council, I want to extend my most sincere thanks to each of you for your dedication and experience.
I started my remarks today by speaking of how we must all work together if we are going to build and grow Niagara into the best of version of itself.
Now, more than ever, I believe that this is a time to strike new partnerships and bolster existing relationships.
It is time for us to not only celebrate our successes, but also learn the important lessons from the times we may have faltered.
It is time to reimagine what our community could be and how we might share our resources to get there.
It is time for all of us to respond to our challenges together, and make the investments needed to see progress on our priorities.
And finally, I believe now is the time to seize the opportunity that we have before us to make dramatic change that will transform our community for generations.
It is time for us to be courageous with in our decisions so that we may build on an elevated Niagara that will be the envy of the province.
I look forward to the future and how we will grow better, together.
Thank you.

Media Inquiries

Daryl Barnhart
Office of the Regional Chair

Share this article: Facebook  |  Twitter

Page Feedback Did you find what you were looking for today?