Art Gourley hands off the microphone to Erik Olesen while fellow candidates Victor Cumming (left) and Darrin Taylor (right) look on during the first Vernon mayoral candidates public forum Tuesday at the Prestige Hotel. The event was co-hosted by the Greater Vernon Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Vernon Association. (Roger Knox/Morning Star)

Vernon mayoral candidates square off

Greater Vernon Chamber, Downtown Vernon Association co-host first public forum of campaign

It was their first chance to make an impression in front of an audience.

Vernon’s four mayoral candidates squared off in an hour-long forum focused on business Tuesday at the Prestige Hotel, co-hosted by the Greater Vernon Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Vernon Association that attracted close to 80 people.

Victor Cumming, Art Gourley, Erik Olesen and Darrin Taylor were given four previously announced questions, then took four questions from the floor. Each candidate was given one minute to reply.

RELATED: Vernon school trustees, mayor candidates face-off in forums

The last of the questions given to each candidate prior to the forum centred on construction. Specifically, how would the candidates help Vernon businesses affected by construction occurring directly in front of their business to minimize any lasting effects from lost revenue?

Cumming said these are complex times for Vernon’s infrastructure.

“We ignored this for a long time. There are very large infrastructure needs, a very significant infrastructure deficit and now we’re in complex times,” said Cumming. “It is complicated. It is worse than that for some when roads are taken out in front of them, beside them and on the other side. These are serious issues and it will be a serious focus of the next council if I’m part of it.”

Gourley said the city should hire somebody who knows what they’re doing.

“I suggest this as an ex-union painter and was on the board of the painter’s union. As for the infrastructure here in town, they should hire union people to do the work,” he said. “Then it would get done. You can’t run a business when they’re working in the daytime so you have to work at nights. Get a bunch of people that will work nights and get the job done so businesses can open in the daytime.”

Olesen said the current council and administration have done a great job trying to catch up on aging infrastructure.

“How do we come up with initiatives for downtown businesses to incorporate a new way of doing infrastructure so it’s not all done at once or not within three-to-four months,” he said. “We should be spreading it out longer. Our climate could allow for infrastructure to be done over a longer period of time. How do we work together with new initiatives on how we look at infrastructure and the impact it has on downtown businesses? It’s key because downtown is the heart of the community.”

One of the submitted floor questions asked candidates their plans to tackle affordable housing in Vernon for families who have to choose between food and paying rent.

Gourley did not appear to understand the question, even after asking moderator Josh Winquist to repeat it.

“Like the homeless people, I was driving around asking people what we could do to help them, I had a couple of weird answers…I don’t really know what to say about these people,” he said. “I remember years ago in Vancouver that anybody that was a vagrant person they put them in jail. I think maybe put a few of these guys in jail, that might help the situation. They might know there’s a penalty for laying around, right? That’s it.”

Olesen said he’s already been researching the topic, making calls to other municipalities and travelling to Vancouver to speak with MLAs and their teams.

“We not only have a housing problem with the homeless people, we have a housing problem for people like the question asked, those who are picking between food and a roof over their head,” he said. “I think it’s a big continuum we are facing. There’s a waiting list of more than 500 people needing a house in Vernon and I got that just from a few organizations I spoke to. So I think being proactive in the approach, not being afraid to ask for help and new ways of getting housing to our community will not help fix the problem, because it’s long-term, but will help alleviate some of the pressures we’re seeing in our community right now.”

Cumming said it’s a hard issue for municipalities because the mandate doesn’t lie with them, nor does the resources.

“This is a federal and provincial issue, and municipalities got stuck with it,” he said. “There are very few mechanisms available to municipalities to address the issue. They can grant the development cost charge, provide some very small incentives, work closely with developers on selecting specific sites. They can do some land ownership, but the number of tools they have is very limited. The critical part is, work with federal and provincial partners, and let’s get this settled.”

Taylor said a tremendous amount of money is being invested in Vernon over the next year from the province to provide government-subsidized housing. But that’s not enough, he said.

“Something more we can do is increase the available inventory of low-cost rental housing,” said Taylor. “We can look at pockets of the city where we can free up secondary suites, laneway homes. It’s also important to look at how much new medium-density housing is coming online. I’m not convinced that solves our problem. The solution really lies in upping our inventory of low-cost rental housing. Those new, medium-density units being built — and there are hundreds of them approved — it’s fantastic. But it doesn’t help low-income people struggling to eat.”

Other questions involved affordable and attainable housing for young families, plans for Vernon’s non-homeless population, encouraging outside investment, the proposed arts and cultural facility for downtown Vernon, changes to make downtown more appealing for businesses and the community and the master transportation plan.

RELATED: Interest in Vernon politics high

All 20 councillor candidates were invited to set up a trade show-style table and meet attendees before and after the mayoral debate. Only incumbent Brian Quiring and Don Jefcoat did not take part.

The councillor candidates will be front-and-centre in a forum hosted by the Vernon Performing Arts Centre Society Monday, Oct. 15, at 6 p.m. The event will begin with an all-candidates meet-and-greet at 4:30 p.m. at the Performing Arts Centre.

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