Despite more than a year of suffering through a pandemic, Chatham-Kent Mayor Darrin Canniff says the municipality is shining bright these days.
Canniff told local business owners and managers the community continues to grow and prosper, despite the curveball that is the COVID-19 pandemic. He addressed members of the Chatham-Kent Chamber of Commerce via teleconference on May 19.
He said while the pandemic has been crushing on small businesses and the mental health of many, there are still amazing things happening in the municipality.
“When the pandemic first hit, we realized no one was ready for this. For example, we didn’t have enough PPE (personal protective equipment), so citizens started donating, We soon had more than 54,000 items dropped off by citizens,” he said.
The May 16th Miracle followed soon after, where residents left non-perishable food items on their front porches and volunteers picked them up to be distributed to those in need and to local food banks.
“We followed that up with The Gift,” Canniff added, talking about a similar food and toy donation effort last fall. “It was another huge success, and was the same concept, with volunteers coming together to say ‘we care.’”
Throughout this pandemic, Canniff said COVID-19 numbers have for the most part remained relatively low when compared to neighbouring municipalities. He commended residents for following protocols, thanked staff at CK Public Health and the Chatham-Kent Health Alliance for working closely together, and added the local media has been instrumental in sharing information.
Still, Chatham-Kent has bears scars from the pandemic.
“Mental health is a not-so-obvious piece of COVID. It impacted each and every one of us. The challenge will be to get people back to where they were,” he said.
Homelessness also became more prevalent in the municipality over the past year. Canniff said numbers tripled to 300 or so people, and efforts are underway to develop a community safety and wellbeing plan to help reduce the reliance on emergency responses.
“If we work well together, there’s a whole lot of things we could do,” he said.
Growth continued in Chatham-Kent despite the pandemic.
“Housing starts are so critical. For years we didn’t have much development on the housing front. Our population had declined for eight years,” Canniff said. “But with people coming here, it’s so important for many reasons. It helps our tax base and provides employees for local businesses. We need to have more people here. Businesses are having a hard time finding qualified people.”
Change is happening, Canniff said, as the municipality has seen population growth of about 4.5 per cent over the past four years, and the 18-40 group has grown by more than eight per cent.
“We’re attracting younger people to the community,” he said. “Chatham-Kent is a hot commodity right now. Even though our housing prices have gone up, we’re still cheaper than our surrounding neighbours. We were suppressed for a long time. We’re catching up.”
Canniff also touched on new apartment building construction, as well as building repurposing, adding more than 600 units of additional rental options in the municipality in the near future.
The continued expansion of fibre optics throughout the municipality is also good news, Canniff said.
“Broadband is a huge piece in our economy. It is as important as water and electricity,” he said of reliable Internet. “We hope to have 90 per cent of Chatham-Kent lit up with fibre over the next couple of years. TekSavvy and a number of other companies are working hard.”
Through it all, we have endured COVID. Canniff said vaccination numbers are nearing 50 per cent for the municipality.
“Vaccinations. That is our ticket to normalcy. Over the next few weeks, everyone who wants to be vaccinated will be,” he said. “We will be able to start putting COVID into our rear-view mirror. The second shot, that’s when our economy can get back to a reasonable normal. I’m hopeful that’s by mid to late summer.”
Canniff touched upon the Navistar property development, adding he sees a mix of industrial and commercial usage of that land.
On top of redevelopment of that land, Canniff said the business park on Park Avenue East is coming along, with 16 units sold inside it near Sass Road.
As well, Onbelay is shifting production from Kentucky to Chatham-Kent.
“A big reason is quality of workforce,” Canniff said.
He mentioned the fact Harbour Technologies is set to expand into Chatham on Richmond Street, bringing 80 new jobs with them to manufacture PPE.
In terms of more to do in Chatham-Kent for residents, the mayor touched upon an axe-throwing business coming to town, go-carts receiving the green light in Tilbury, redevelopment of the bowling alley in Blenheim, and new owners for the Downtown Chatham Centre, which he said will be announced in the coming weeks.