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Councillors debate Brock’s benefits to Thorold

Brock president tells ThoroldNews he's striving to address concerns with students in Thorold
Brock University president Dr. Gervan Fearon and Mayor Terry Ugulini sit on the Town and Gown Committee with the aim of improving university - community relations. Bob Liddycoat / Thorold News

Brock University president Dr. Gervan Fearon kicked off a presentation to city council last week with a brief history of Brock.

The Allanburg Women’s Institute advocated for the university, he said, and “individual family members put up money to locate Brock within Niagara in 1964—a humble start to today, an institute that’s recognized on a global level.”

Currently, 19,000 students attend 120 degree programs in seven facilities, and as of last year, Brock boasts 100,000 graduates, said Fearon, adding that their “talent is the largest contributing factor to creating vibrant places,” according to various chambers of commerce.

“Lots of our students come from around the world,” he said, and “how welcome they feel will help attract that talent, that will drive the vitality of the region. Talent plus investment equals local jobs. Our payroll is $212 million, and 10 per cent of those (employees) live in Thorold.”

In the 2017-2018 school year, each Brock student had a $25,204 impact in Niagara, Fearon added, and approximately 6,000 students and Thorold residents live in 1,200 houses.

“With average property tax, that comes to $6.5 million, or 29 per cent of Thorold’s $22.3 million operating budget for 2019.”

Coun. Anthony Longo disputed the claim, saying that “Property taxes are paid by landlords, not Brock.”

“Were Brock University not here, would there be 19,000 students?” countered Fearon.

“No,” agreed Longo, “but would there not be the same number of homes?”

“We want our students to think about deciding to stay in Thorold,” stated Fearon, “and raise a family, and contribute to the community. That’s why we’ve been working with some of the non-profits” to add housing. “We’re working with housing providers across the region.”

Coun. Victoria Wilson said additional housing is needed on campus.

“We are renovating a facility built in the 1970s and we have approval for 300 on-campus units as well,” to be completed over the next two years, replied Fearon.

Wilson remarked that 300 beds are “not very significant in terms of growth.”

Longo said the provincial Heads and Beds policy pays $1 million to the city of St. Catharines, $600,000 to the Region, “and the city of Thorold gets nothing at all,” yet pays increased policing and bylaw enforcement costs to control student residents.

Fearon noted that money comes from the province. “We don’t make the policies.”

Brock University Student Union (BUSU)’s 2019-2020 contributions support Thorold’s transit operations to the tune of $963,479, he added, “Because Brock students pay $212 per year through mandatory student fees.”

“It sounds like the million dollars is coming into transit, but Brock has their own buses and ride our buses at a subsidized rate,” argued Longo, “so I believe we’re actually losing money.”

Fearon disagreed, saying it’s difficult to distinguish between students and other riders based on appearances.

“They are our students but they also live within your community. They also make a contribution to transportation.”

Coun. Jim Handley expressed concern about the Province’s plan to erect a 2021 Summer Games facility at Brock, with the university contributing $500,000 in cash, plus the donation of land, and various in-kind donations.

“Do you feel it’s fair, when Thorold is investing $7 million, and Brock is the biggest beneficiary?” he asked.

The new facility “won’t all be on Brock lands,” replied Fearon. “We are contributing income in-kind and other parts to hosting the games. That number you quoted does not represent our total contribution.”

Coun. Carmen DeRose asked about Brock’s expectations regarding student behaviour while off campus.

Fearon said the student code of conduct is “relevant on and off campus. The university provided notices of their expectations and consequences for missing the mark.”

“It’s a small group that ruins it for everyone,” said Wilson. “When they acted out in our community, there were residents who were afraid to leave their homes. What I would like to see are stricter rules for those individuals who take part in those parties.”

“I share your concerns,” said Fearon. “Without question, there is a gap between what we’d like to see” and the current situation.  Cooperation between campus security, the NRP and the Town and Gown committee have resulted in fewer disturbances, he said, and “have improved the quality of life for affected Thorold residents.”

“Our Town and Gown committee is probably one of the most pro-active in Ontario,” said Mayor Terry Ugulini, “and if you look at where we were two years ago and where we are today,” it's drastically improved, he stated.

“The key message I would like you to take away from this is Brock is here to add to the positive energy,” said Fearon. “Where there are challenges, we would like to work on that. I know councils represent their community, and we look forward to working really hard to addressing all the concerns.”

In an interview a week following the council meeting, the Thorold News asked Dr. Fearon how he felt about Thorold’s downtown barbecue being hosted to welcome Brock students on Sept. 14. (see related article here)

“It’s just outstanding,” he said, “that they are taking this effort to demonstrate the collaboration and partnership we can have, and it also sets an example of the kind of welcome that’s been expressed by the community.”

The majority of Brock students “are outstanding community members,” Fearon added. “I couldn’t be prouder of the partnership we are building and our students all get a chance to celebrate. We will have a formal collaboration with the BIA to make sure we are well-represented and contributing to the event.”