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Niagara doing well in economic growth and development, challenged with housing shortages, homelessness

Niagara Region Chair Jim Bradley took the stage Wednesday to deliver his sixth state of the region address
Regional chair Jim Bradley

Niagara Region Chair Jim Bradley took the stage Wednesday to deliver his sixth state of the region address, highlighting successes within the peninsula’s 12 municipalities as well as some of the challenges that continue to be faced.  

Hosted by the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce, Bradley spoke to a room full of guests at John Michael’s banquet hall in Thorold, which included elected officials, community group representatives, and staff from various local governments.  

Over the past year, the region has “achieved remarkable success” in terms of economic growth and development, providing some figures to back up what he considers economic successes, he said in his statement, sent out to media following his presentation, Last year, Niagara Region saw investment in building construction total more than $2.8 billion, he said.

Regarding international trade, Niagara continued to post “impressive numbers” in 2023, with exports reaching a value exceeding $8.2 billion, resulting in a net gain of over $5 billion to the local economy, he said. The region’s employment landscape also remained strong last year, with an unemployment rate of 5.8 per cent, he said, adding that the labour force also saw a record 222,000 people gainfully employed.  

Bradley told the crowd that tourism spending rebounded to pre-pandemic levels in 2023, totalling $2.1 billion in visitor expenditures for the entire year.  

He also called Niagara’s agricultural sector an “economic powerhouse,” saying farms and greenhouses generated over $1.7 billion for Niagara’s economy. “Niagara’s agricultural sector plays an important role in our job market, employing over 7,800 people directly and 24,000 across the value chain.” 

In terms of growth, from 2016 to 2023, Niagara's agricultural Gross Domestic Product grew by 21 per cent, outpacing total GDP growth at 18 per cent, he said. “We should all be proud of these statistics, and we would do well to remember the crucial role this sector plays in our economy.”  

But he also admitted there are challenges, ones faced by communities across the country.  “I believe that Niagara has once again demonstrated its resiliency in building itself back after the economic impacts of COVID, and its tenacity in coping with the significant global economic slow down,” he said.  

He then cited a number of specific success stories, such as the ongoing construction of two new long-term care homes, Linhaven in St. Catharines and Gilmore Lodge in Fort Erie. “Once completed, hundreds of Niagara’s seniors will have access to world-class facilities while creating the opportunity for the region to build more affordable housing on adjacent land,” said Bradley in his speech.  

Last year, the region’s physician recruitment program brought 19 new family doctors to Niagara, helping to address the shortage of family physicians that is being felt across the community. 

The 2024 budget contains over $270 million for capital infrastructure projects across all 12 communities.  

“These initiatives, which include roads, bridges and water infrastructure to name a few, will see us maintaining crucial infrastructure that residents and businesses rely on daily,” said the regional chair.  

He’s also aware some people may have concerns about the recently approved regional budget, bringing a 7 per cent increase to taxpayers.  

“While the increases were necessary, they were also larger than any of us wanted,” he said about the last two budgets, adding that a recently completed independent study showed 92 per cent of the region’s spending is invested in services that are deemed essential or mandatory, many of which are accompanied by strict provincial regulations. 

Recent budget challenges are being driven by many factors, he said. “Some affect all of us, like global inflation, while others reflect the legacy of parsimonious financial decisions made decades ago regarding infrastructure.” 

Decisions made by upper levels of government are partially to blame for some of the region’s challenges, he said. “We continue to cope with the impacts, as do all municipalities, of the province, and even the federal government, downloading costs onto the region by making costly policy decisions.”

Bradley said “property taxes were never designed to cover the costs of complex issues” like mental health, social housing, hospital development, Ontario Works, asylum seekers or climate change. “Despite the limitations of property taxes, the region is continually being called on to respond to these issues.”

While there is some funding from senior levels of government for these challenges, and the region is grateful for these contributions, it is “often insufficient and many programs have been frozen for several years or do not reflect the true cost of inflation, putting further strain on our budget.”  

In response to these challenges, he said the region has made all efforts to limit these increases by streamlining services, implementing measures to enforce efficiencies and urging the Niagara Regional Police Service Board to find savings. No new staff has been hired in the last two years, he added, that are being paid for by property taxes, outside of making some desperately needed investments in EMS to combat offload delays. 

The corporate budget for the Niagara Region came in under the rate of inflation for 2024 at around 3.3 per cent. “However, after approving the significant budget for the Niagara Regional Police, which we are required to do, the overall budget increased to the number we arrived at this year,” he said.  

The police budget was approved with a 6 per cent increase.  

“Despite our significant challenges, we remain committed to providing essential services to our community while being mindful of the impact on taxpayers,” said Bradley. “We will continue to explore ways to mitigate the effects of global inflation, provincial policy decisions and the significant cost of policing to ensure that we can provide the best possible services to our residents,” he added, also stressing the importance of fostering positive relationships with upper levels of government.  

Bradley also said it would be difficult to deliver his address without mentioning homelessness, and that there is no easy solution to this issue.  

“The issues we are all grappling with are exceedingly complex, systemically interconnected, influenced by a host of external factors and are found not just across North America but the globe. Niagara is not unique in its challenges,” said Bradley.  

But that does not mean local elected officials are giving up. One significant step forward is the region’s installation of the temporary homelessness shelter solution in St. Catharines on Riordon Street, he said. “This facility has already proven successful in providing safe and supportive housing for those in need. It stands as a testament to our commitment to finding practical solutions to complex issues.”

Regional council also recently approved a poverty reduction strategy with a goal of ending poverty across Niagara.  

“The strategy co-ordinates efforts across the region, prevents duplication and will improve communication and collaboration between service providers,” said Bradley, adding he is confident this strategy “will better meet the needs of our most vulnerable residents while recognizing the unique experiences of those experiencing poverty.”  

Recently, the region collaborated with the City of St. Catharines to create a working group made up of elected officials, staff and key stakeholders with an aim to address concerns focused on downtown St. Catharines. This group meets regularly to discuss strategies to respond to the challenges and to ensure up-to-date information is being shared, he said.  

He also touched on the “ongoing and urgent housing crisis” that is being experienced across North America, and said the Region joins the provincial government in their goal to build more homes. “To be frank, while our role is important, municipalities across the province have only a small role to play.”

Despite these limitations, the region is working through a comprehensive strategy in an effort to respond to the housing crisis, Bradley told the crowd.  

“First, we are actively doing what we can to increase the supply of affordable housing in Niagara. Through partnerships with developers and community organizations, we are creating new affordable housing units across the region,” he said, adding that continuing to make progress on this issue will need to involve local municipalities, community organizations, and other stakeholders to “develop innovative solutions and leverage resources and avoid duplication.” 

There is also a “strong connection between housing and public infrastructure,” said Bradley.  

One of the largest planned projects in the region’s history, the South Niagara water treatment plant, will provide service to thousands of new homes and businesses once completed. “The region, in partnership with the local municipalities and the private sector, continues to strongly lobby for cost sharing on this $400 million project with the provincial and federal governments,” he said.  

Another area he discussed is shared services between the Region and Niagara’s 12 lower-tier municipalities. “We are continuing to see real and historic progress in regard to our efforts to streamline service delivery and better use public resources.”

In his closing remarks, Bradley said Niagara is a community that has weathered storms and emerged stronger. “Our resilience, creativity, and compassion are our greatest assets as we navigate the road ahead.”  


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About the Author: Kris Dube, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

Kris Dube covers civic issues in Niagara-on-the-Lake under the Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the Government of Canada
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