Last week the Asian Journal spoke with Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner about the challenges and highlights of 2015, and while we reviewed some of the major items of the year, space did not allow for many other achievements enjoyed by the city.
In this edition, we review business growth, fiscal developments, achievements, innovation, and a look at cultural and social events of the year.
Business & Finance:
Ray Hudson: How was the past year for growth in the business community?
Mayor Hepner: We’ve had $1.5 billion in new construction this year alone. Over the last ten years, we’ve done $12 billion so the business community continues to grow. The general population is still running between 800 and 1,000 a month, and I hear people saying that we’re running out of housing and we can’t keep up. It’s not slowing down at all, and tied in with business growth and development, I am delighted to report that Surrey was voted one of Canada’s top employers of young people.
In 2015, Surrey received the highest grade of any city in the country for financial transparency. Even though we had to raise taxes to cover some of our capital programs and some of the operational dollars for the increased policing, we are still one of the lowest-taxed cities in the region.
Also, I’m now calling City Centre the Financial hub since we’ve got the new Coast Capital centre and Westminster Savings located there.
Ray Hudson: You said you’d seek a city charter like the City of Vancouver has, which would give council greater control over our own affairs. Have you made any progress on that?
Mayor Hepner: The ministers responsible for Community Development have changed since we had that first discussion. Previously under Coralee Oakes, it is now the responsibility of Peter Fassbender (who is a Surrey MLA). I have had early discussions with him on that, but it hasn’t been a higher priority because of some more pressing issues. But we have agreed to set up a task force once the city has identified those areas where we think we can be best advantaged. The City Manager is currently working on compiling that list to take to Victoria before we can have our joint task force. That will unfold in 2016, but we did make limited progress on that.
Ray Hudson: You saw progress with innovation over the year.
Mayor Hepner: I was hoping Surrey would be number one, but being acknowledged as one of the top seven intelligent communities in the world is acknowledgement of the advancements we’ve made in our innovation. We’ll see where we are in 2016.”
We were the first city in the world to integrate IBM Watson, which is a technology platform that uses natural language processing and machine learning to reveal insights from large amounts of unstructured data,” The Mayor said. “It was integrated with the “MySurrey App” and allows City customers to input plain language questions into the application and receive direct answers. We didn’t get a fanfare or a lot of attention around that but from a techie’s point of view it was an astonishing accomplishment.
In public safety innovation we purchased five specialized fire tanker trucks. We’re the very first city in Canada to have vehicles with built-in water purification systems.
If we have an actual emergency these tanker trucks are capable of providing potable drinking water.
Health, Social and Cultural Achievements:
Ray Hudson: One of your election promises was the convening of a Seniors Summit and appointment of a Seniors advocate. What has happened there?
Mayor Hepner: We have discussed how we’re going to do that but we haven’t named a person yet, but I think we’re going to put it under our Healthy Communities office. This will happen in the coming year, but we haven’t made a lot of progress on that yet because we’re still talking about our Seniors Summit.
With respect to addictions and mental health, we created a partnership with John Volken, (of the John Volken Academy treatment centre) and that means a Mental Health and Addictions chair has been created at SFU, the job description is done and the recruitment underway, so in the coming year I expect to have a leadership role happening there, which I think will help us.
Ray Hudson: Just in time for the winter weather, there has been an improvement for homeless in the Whalley area.
Mayor Hepner: With funding from the Provincial government, we opened our forty-bed, 24/7 winter shelter, in the former Dell Hotel liquor outlet, after being without a shelter for a couple of years. And along with that, land has been rezoned near Surrey Memorial hospital, for a long-term emergency shelter.
Mayor Hepner said that the city is dedicated to involving as much of the population as possible in the many public events facilitated by the city.
“ I think we’re the only city that puts on festivals ourselves, and we have more than half a million people attend the big five, which are Canada Day, Fusion Fest, The Children’s Festival, Party for the Planet, and the Christmas Tree-lighting at City Hall.” She went on to highlight a major sports event this summer, which may impact the Olympic Games. “We will host the 2016 World Softball Championships which will bring hundreds of thousands of people and perhaps in the range of $30 million, to the city. There are over forty teams coming to this key tournament, as it will be the determinant as to whether or not the sport is returned to the Olympics.”
Surrey as a Host City for Refugees:
Ray Hudson: Moving on from the year past, to the immediate future, Syrian refugees are coming, and although we don’t know how many will settle in Surrey, the city is a designated refugee resettlement location. What plans do we have to accommodate them?
Mayor Hepner: I’ve asked to be notified so I can participate in some personal greetings as well, but right now we have our inter-agency groups, thirty in total, working to develop what our plan will be. Early in January, I’ll be calling a meeting for those interested in helping. We’ll establish a plan to organize where to send them, whether it has to do with housing, clothing, or other services for refugees. We haven’t advised anyone yet so you’re the first to have the scoop on that plan.
My biggest concern with respect to the needs of the refugees, is language and learning to speak English. I have asked to be kept apprised as to how we’re doing, not only with respect to ESL in the schools and where that program is headed, but also in gathering more data on the numbers of refugees coming here. It may even be less than we originally thought. My concern is that as the people settle into our community, the money that supports their services also flows to this community. I want to make sure it’s our agencies that are getting the funding for assisting those people and that the funds follow that family wherever they move during that period of assistance.