Petawawa mayor leaves a legacy of fiscal prudence and vision

Petawawa – For many people it is hard to imagine Petawawa without Bob Sweet at the helm of council, but on the cusp of turning 80, he decided it was time to retire and did not seek re-election this fall, leaving a legacy of growth, vision and – astonishingly -- no debt.

“The future is really bright for Petawawa,” he said on Monday, shortly before presiding over his last meeting of council. “A lot of exciting things are happening.”

On election night a few weeks ago, there was no stress for him after 34 years of watching election results coming in, but it was slightly bittersweet, he admitted, as he draws a close to this chapter of his life.

“Sometime, somewhere, you have to grab the bull by the horns and say it is time to retire and do it on your own terms,” he said.

He leaves behind a council which still has some challenges to deal with – at the top of the list might be the gridlock going on and off Garrison Petawawa and the push for four-laning the bridge and road onto the base – but also has a sound fiscal base and a trend of doing things affordably and doing them well.

“We are a debt free community,” he said. “I had a strategy we called ‘pay as you go’. It is about careful planning.”

The municipality is undoubtedly the envy of all its neighbours in the county and beyond for this incredible accomplishment, for Petawawa has not fallen behind in projects because of this fiscal prudence.

“We have a modern fire department and modern public works,” he said.

Petawawa funded upgrades to the library and the arena, built a new cenotaph and keeps working efficiently without taking loans. As well, the tax rate is the second lowest in the county, which is a remarkable achievement considering all the work which has been happening.

“We take our planning documents and live by them,” he explained. “We look ahead. We put rates in place and plan for reserves.”

If a major project needs to be done, they simply set aside money for it in advance and pay for the project, he explained.

“When you don’t have a debt load to carry, it makes a difference,” he said.

This does not mean to say Petawawa is the most affordable place to live in the county.

“The assessment is quite high,” he admitted. “But they keep building houses and people keep buying them.”

Mayor Sweet not only played an important role in his municipality but at the County of Renfrew where he has the distinction of being the longest serving warden. He served five terms as warden, more than any other individual to date. He also has a few other accomplishments totalling up to a hat trick for his role as a municipal politician.

“I was told I am the longest elected official in the Town of Petawawa and the longest serving head of council in Petawawa,” he said.

Scottish Immigrant

Despite his long association with the town, Petawawa wasn’t always Mayor Sweet’s home. He grew up in Scotland and the hint of his Scottish accent has never left him although he has called Canada home for almost six decades.

“When you get to a certain age and are single and there is no green light ahead, you think why not?” he recalled of his thoughts on emigrating as a young man.

His brother was already in Canada and his letters sounded promising about life across the pond, so he borrowed money from the Canadian government for his flight and took off, landing in Toronto. The money for the flight was repaid once he had a job and pretty soon Canada was his new home.

He was working for Dunlop Tire and Rubber Corp. in Whitby when the opportunity came to work in Ottawa.

“I was travelling to this part of the world as a salesman,” he recalled.

When the opportunity came to manage a store in Pembroke, he moved his family to Laurentian Valley in 1971. By then, he and his wife Sonya had one child and the Ottawa Valley became their home and the place they would raise their growing family. One day he came home and told his wife they were buying a house in Petawawa.

“She said, where is that?” he recalled.

The move to Petawawa was in 1975 and he became involved as a volunteer in the joint arena board running the Petawawa Civic Centre in the late 1970s. This was his first quasi-municipal involvement and he was encouraged to run for council. He was first elected in 1988 and has never looked back.

Mayor Sweet was involved in the amalgamation talks between the village and township of Petawawa and this was one of the best things which ever happened for the municipality, he believes. The Town of Petawawa, which was created in 1997, became the fastest growing municipality in Renfrew County.

“We have seen so much growth,” he said. “We had one traffic light in Petawawa and that was it. Now there are subdivisions going up all over the place.”

If there is one disappointment for Mayor Sweet, it is he was unable to get a firm commitment on the four-laning of Petawawa Boulevard and the bridge going into the Garrison.

“I thought we had it in 2019,” he said. “It is a competitive process when you move forward with funding with the federal and provincial government.”

Working in partnership with the county, the Garrison, the federal government and provincial government, it would be possible to do this massive project, he firmly believes.

“If I had run it would be a priority to begin the process again,” he said. “I don’t think it would be that hard to re-activate the partnership.”

The gridlock coming and going from the Garrison is a tremendous quality of life issue for those who are working on the base and living in the area, he said.

“7,000 individuals go to work every day on the base. It is a huge traffic issue. I hope the new council can convince the government this is essential,” he said.

With the removal of the rail lines leading into the county, it means the only way of getting things on and off base is two lanes of asphalt, he pointed out.

Community Improvements

The silver lining for Mayor Sweet with the removal of the railway line is the creation of the Algonquin Trail, which is a major heritage project for the county, he believes. He championed the cause at the county for the purchase of the abandoned rail corridor. At 300 kilometres it is a major ATV, snowmobile and outdoor recreation trail.

“We are getting close to going all the way to Mattawa,” he said. “We have the stone dust on the ground ready to go.”

The trail is wonderful for tourism and for people in the area, Mayor Sweet said.

“It has been a godsend to allow people to recreate during COVID,” he said. “The people utilized it intensely. I’m very proud of this legacy issue.”

Mayor Sweet is also proud of many of the positive changes which occurred in the town during his decades as mayor. Building two new schools in Petawawa to address the school closures at Garrison Petawawa was very important, he noted.

“We had between 1,200 and 1,400 kids who would have to go to Deep River or Pembroke,” he said. “We knew we could do better, so we brought the two school boards together.”

The town provided the land and the K-12 Valour School was built by the public board and the Catholic Board built St. Francis of Assisi as an elementary school.

“It is a community hub,” he said. “The idea was to utilize the facilities the school is close to, like the Civic Centre and Library.”

Another major accomplishment in the same area is the Petawawa Family Centennial Family Health Centre.

“We were one of the first to have a Family Health Team in Ontario,” he said.

Leaving the municipality in good hands, Mayor Sweet said he knows the time is right to retire and his age was part of the consideration. He turns 80 in February and he wants to spend time with family, travel to Scotland and enjoy some more time playing golf.

“There is a lot you give up when you run for office,” he said. “You have shortened birthday celebrations and shortened holiday celebrations.”

There is paperwork and in his role as warden there were meetings and other responsibilities, including his role at AMO and the Eastern Ontario Warden’s Caucus, where he served a time as chair.

“A lot of people don’t understand the workload,” he said. “So, I thought it was a good time to move on. I’m proud of the 34 years and I am looking forward to being with my family. I want to go away and relax and walk on a beach and unwind for a couple of months.”

Mayor Sweet is also looking forward to travelling back to Scotland. He has only been back once in 52 years and this time he is taking his wife for her first trip to the land of his birth.

“So, I will be busy in a different way,” he said.

However, once a politician always a politician, for Mayor Sweet noted when he is in Scotland he might see if there is anything he can do to keep the momentum going for the twinning agreement with Renfrewshire, Scotland which was signed last year.

“I started the initiative. I’d like to see that move forward,” he said.

Debbi Christinck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader