The storied waterway that is the Municipality of the District of St. Mary’s namesake is both the literal and figurative spine of this community. As it goes – from its forested headwaters to its broad sea-bound estuary – so goes the hopes and plans of roughly 2,000 people. If anything, 2020 showed this clearly and convincingly.
Atlantic Gold’s hopes for a mine at Cochrane Hill sparked speculation about new jobs, but also fears about environmental degradation and unwelcome changes to St. Mary’s pastoral way of life. The promise of an international sanctuary for beluga whales at Port Hilford brought the community together, even as some wondered how such a complicated effort might work in the midst of a pandemic.
The past year brought many challenges (COVID-19 restrictions, new policies around public interaction, a precipitous drop in tourism and hospitality revenues, employment retrenchments in many traditional industries), but also many opportunities (major new investments in Historic Sherbrooke Village, the promise of high-speed Internet, and a comprehensive municipal planning process) to the district.
No one knows what the new year will bring but – like the river that runs through it – St. Mary’s is on the move charting its way around the shoals and rocks of chance to the future’s broad horizon.
Q. How well do you feel your community responded to the pandemic this past year? What stands out for you?
A. As is the case in most communities across Nova Scotia, people in St. Mary’s stepped up and helped their families, friends, and neighbours through the first year of the pandemic. Although most things in life were drastically changed, people acted responsibly and respectfully of one another and showed patience with the changes and restrictions that were necessary to keep the public safe. We are proud of how the residents of St. Mary’s met the challenges faced this past year. Likewise, we were pleased with the local businesses that were proactive and diligent in putting the proper health and safety measures in place to ensure the residents of St. Mary’s had access to the essentials in a safe environment.
Q. What other notable challenges confronted the municipality in 2020?
A. The municipal election held in October required a major shift in how St. Mary’s conducted elections in the past, with council making the decision to move to a combined electronic and paper ballot voting system. Although we had a number of district councillors selected by acclamation, we were able to test the hybrid voting system with success and that will most likely be the new normal for municipal elections in St. Mary’s into the future.
Q. What municipal achievements are you most proud of this year?
A. We are proud of the staff for the adjustments they made to ensure we continued to deliver great quality municipal services under the much different rules and conditions that were in play over the past year. Everything from recreation programs to public works and administration services were delivered in new and different ways to protect public health and reduce risk of spread of the COVID-19 virus. We were one of the first councils to meet via conference call and use MS Teams platform with audio recordings of the meetings. We undertook the municipal planning strategy (MPS) and land-use by-law (LUB) reviews, including a broad public consultation process, which we will be completing early in the new year. Along with the challenges around COVID-19 came funding opportunities that the municipality was able to take advantage of. We were successful in securing a number of federal/provincial grants to assist with capital projects, salary subsidies for various programs, a COVID property tax financing plan for residents and businesses and interest-free deferral of water accounts.
Q. What priorities are on the horizon for the municipality in 2021?
A. In 2021, we will work to complete the MPS and LUB updates and receive ministerial approval for the new planning documents. We will be proceeding with the Streetscape Plan for Main Street in Sherbrooke. High-speed Internet and cellular coverage will continue to be a priority for the municipality and we will work with Develop Nova Scotia and the service providers to promote projects and maximize opportunities for improved services in St. Mary’s.
Q. What challenges do you see coming up next year and how would you like to address them?
A. As the new year starts, we will still be dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and the many challenges that brings. We will continue to monitor provincial and federal programs and protocols and make adjustments to our delivery methods to ensure consistency and that programs and services are provided within full public health and safety standards
Q. Any other parting thoughts on the year?
A. As a municipality we are looking forward to putting the COVID-related challenges of 2020 behind us and are hopeful for relief in the form of vaccines being rolled out to the local area for all residents that want them. We are looking forward to filling the vacant council seat early in the new year and moving forward with our priorities for the coming year.
Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Guysborough Journal