HRM YEAR IN REVIEW: Savage reflects on highs and lows

Halifax Mayor Mike Savage reflects back on a year where accomplishments like growth and diversity were mixed in with issues like development woes and gun violence.

In many parts of the world, 2016 was a year of political uprising and divide. Global issues — like welcoming Syrian refugees and tackling climate change — were either handled with great pride or much hesitation.

Canada, under the lead of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, opened its arms to change this year. And Savage says he couldn’t be more proud to see this transformation through for Halifax Regional Municipality.

Savage touts welcoming and integrating 1,000 refugees to the province as one key highlight. This comes next to taking steps to protect green space like Blue Mountain Birch Cove and the Purcell’s Cove Backlands.

But the biggest affirmation for him was in October, when he was re-elected as mayor by a landslide.

When he first took the chair in 2012, he was younger than the average councillor. He ran on a platform to make Halifax the most livable, entrepreneurial and inclusive city in the country.

But now, as he embarks on his second term, he’s older than the average councillor.

“Does that make a difference? It doesn’t make a difference in your values, your beliefs. It doesn’t make a difference in your political philosophy,” he told the Chronicle Herald, in a year-in-review interview.

“But I think in terms of how you work with a younger council, it probably does.”

He says he’s constantly fascinated by the ideas, thoughts and passions of the five new councillors.

He describes District 5 councillor Sam Austin as a “bright guy” and says District 8 councillor Lindell Smith — the first black councillor in 16 years — handles himself with great maturity.

“I never tried to coach Gloria McCluskey,” he said of the now-retired Dartmouth councillor.

“But I think I can help some of the new folks get their ideas through. And I won’t agree with them on all of them — but I want to hear them.”

In many ways, the platform he ran on in 2012 is becoming a reality. Four years ago, he says residents were asking why there wasn’t more growth in the city.

Today, he throws the word around many times during the interview, sitting next to a window overlooking a downtown where cranes litter the sky.

According to the Conference Board of Canada, the city has the second fastest growing economy next to Vancouver. And the Board estimates that 2,300 jobs will be created over the next year.

But now that this development is happening all at once, it’s also become a great point of contention. Seven downtown businesses are taking legal action against the city over claims that Nova Centre construction, which has been delayed several times since it started in 2013, has taken away some of their clientèle.

“I think that’s something we need to come to terms with. We need to try and move ahead with development in a way that citizens are comfortable with,” he said.

Another issue that growth creates is homelessness and a lack of housing affordability.

Savage says housing and social problems have long been looked at as provincial or federal issues. But now, with the help of council, he is proving that action and funding can be delegated to tackle these issues as well.

“Realistically, if it’s an issue for the citizens of HRM it has to be an issue for the local government as well,” he said.

And council took action at a Dec. 13 meeting, when they endorsed a goal of having 5,000 affordable housing units in the city withing the next five years.

Savage calls this target “fairly ambitious, but not impossible” as there needs to be a way to make more people part of HRM’s prosperity.

Another piece of the municipality’s growth is newly started initiatives like the Low Income Transit Pass, the Mobile Food Market and Housing First.

Frustrated commuters are also looking forward to HRM’s Integrated Mobility Plan that is promising a cohesive travel experience for transit users, pedestrians, cars and cyclists.

Commuter rail is also going to be discussed as a potential addition in the new year.

“And I think I would be remiss as mayor if I didn’t look at 2016 and say we made some good hires,” he said.

City council only directly hires for two positions and this year they hired both CAO Jacques Dubé and auditor general Evangeline Colman-Sadd.

They also created offices dedicated to specific issues like diversity and inclusion and rural planning, and supported community building initiatives like Ceasefire.

But all of this growth and prosperity was put to the test this year with the shock of 12 homicides.

“That’s a lot of potential snuffed out. That’s a lot families affected. That’s a lot of communities shattered,” Savage said.

“And a disproportionate number this year have come from the African Canadian, young male community.”

But in the wake of unexplainable tragedy, community initiatives like Ceasefire and Quentrel Provo’s Stop the Violence have taken to the streets in a plea for peace.

Savage thinks solutions to violence, and really any city woe, comes when the municipality works together.

He recognizes that every community is concerned about their own local issues, and knows that some residents still believe there is an urban and rural divide.

But for 2017, Savage wants the municipality to recognize that it’s all “part of the same pie.”

For example, tackling the problem of regional violence can’t be done by only focusing on North Preston.

“And I just don’t believe that the solution is to separate ourselves,” he says. “It has to be to work together, to understand each other.”

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