Arenas, budgets, turtles concern Grey Highlands residents

Members of Grey Highlands council received questions and comments about a wide array of topics at a special town hall forum meeting in Flesherton on the evening of Feb. 20.

Grey Highlands council held its fourth open forum tall hall meeting at the Flesherton Kinplex and a crowd of about 40 citizens peppered council with questions and concerns about a number of different local issues.

The future of the community’s arenas, the ongoing deliberations on the draft 2024 budget, infrastructure needs, pickleball and even the fate of the municipality’s turtle population were all topics of conversation.

Flesherton resident Carol Wood kicked off the night by asking about funding for the Flesherton Fling event. The fling is a popular party/celebration, scheduled for August 10, that has become a staple on the local calendar. Wood, a key event organizer, said she has requested funding for the fling through the Grey Highlands community grant program, but has not received confirmation the money will be forthcoming.

“We need the municipality to be there for us and not each year maybe they will and maybe they won’t,” she said.

Wood said the event had requested $1,400 in funding to pay for a tent for the occasion.

“We don’t have corporate sponsors that can come up with big bucks,” said Wood. “If we don’t get (the $1,400), I don’t know where we’re going to go to get that.”

In response, Deputy Mayor Dane Nielsen said council is conducting a review of the community grants program. He said $50,000 remains in the draft budget (down from $75,000) for the program and that in the past big community events were the first to receive funding.

“Significant community events are usually what comes first,” said Nielsen, who added that council must make a decision on the matter. “It’s still a question mark right now.”

A major topic covered at the meeting was the future of the municipality’s arena in Markdale. During the recent budget deliberations, municipal staff provided council with a number of cost-cutting measures that could be implemented to reduce the proposed 2024 budget impact. One of the measures would see the ice surface at the Markdale arena decommissioned.

This has generated significant community opposition with members of council receiving hundreds of emails, local social media has been abuzz with conversations about the arena and a petition signed by 1,700 local residents opposing the move has been circulated.

Members of council took turns assuring the audience that council has not made any decision on the Markdale arena.

“There has been no discussion, nothing has happened,” said Mayor Paul McQueen. “It has hit a nerve.”

Nielsen added that the municipality had expanded the hours of operations at the community’s four arenas and that new staff for the expansion were all in place. The deputy mayor said some tough conversations about the future of arenas would happen down the road.

“We will be having some hard discussions about what recreation looks like in the future,” he said.

Local resident Reid Dennison said there could be an appetite in the community for an indoor recreation complex without ice. He said the municipality’s recreation plan showed the municipality is “heavily overspending” on four ice sheets. Dennison said many local families might prefer a facility with a walking track, pickleball courts and indoor soccer.

Cindy Smith asked council about the future of King Edward Park in Markdale. Smith said local volunteers would like to work on building a splash pad in the park and would like to undertake improvements to the ball diamonds at the park. However, she said uncertainty about the park’s future made it tough to move forward.

“It is a community hub,” said Smith, adding that a delay or absence of any plan for the park was bad for the future. “Those things can’t move forward in a timely manner.”

Members of council said the visioning/planning exercise for the future of the park is on hold as the money was removed from the budget.

Coun. Paul Allen said he feels the municipality can plan without an expensive consultant.

“I think the money can be better spent. Let’s use it for the park,” said Allen.

Coun. Dan Wickens said it would be great if a local group took a leadership role on the park.

“I would welcome a community group that would take the lead on that,” said Wickens.

Duncan resident Richard Frisby was heavily critical of council, municipal staff and the proposed 2024 budget (which includes a draft 8.85 per cent local tax increase).

“We’re not the gravy train anymore. I didn’t vote for staff. I voted for you people. Where’s all the money going? Why can’t you people get down to an inflation rate of two per cent? You guys aren’t even close,” said Frisby.

However, other speakers complimented council on their efforts to get the 2024 budget under control.

“I’m okay with a small budget increase. In life you get what you pay for,” said Dave Meslin.

The former deputy mayor, Aakash Desai, said he is concerned the municipality is not collecting enough money to maintain its infrastructure.

“You’ve been dealt a tough hand and you’re doing your best with it,” said Desai. “My concern is we’re not being taxed enough for the services we’re demanding.”

Meslin also asked council to consider beefing up turtle signage across the municipality. Meslin called himself a “turtle loving citizen” and said the municipality “could be doing a better job” of putting up signs where turtles cross local roads.

Karen Alton asked council to think about providing more spaces for local pickleball players. She said the local pickleball group started last year and signed up more than 100 people.

“We don’t have any place to play here in Grey Highlands,” she said. “There is a need for places to play.”

McQueen said council is aware of the pickleball issue.

“It’s on our radar,” he said.

Chris Fell, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter,