Our story begins over two years ago, one frosty February evening, when more than 200 energized Amherst citizens crowded into the local fire hall to participate in an Everyone Matters event, organized by Danny Graham’s Engage Nova Scotia team.
Make no mistake, this was a big deal for Amherst. It represented a rare opportunity for its citizens to speak out publicly on what aspirations they had for the town, and what needed to take place to make them a reality. You could sense the anticipation and enthusiasm in the room before Danny Graham kicked things off.
The audience quickly made it clear major changes in the town were required and they wanted to be a part of making them happen. High priority issues were quickly raised, such as stimulating business growth and retention of our youth.
The follow-up event in April, also well attended, settled on six key issues important to the community including: a) business growth b) youth retention c) tourism d) downtown revitalization e) improving leisure and recreation, and f) creating an age-friendly Amherst.
A few months later, the 2016 municipal election campaign was underway, and thanks to those two firehall sessions voters had already made it very clear what was needed to ensure a brighter future for Amherst.
Soon after these elections, the newly elected Mayor David Kogon, town councillors and senior staff participated in a consultant-facilitated review of the town’s Strategic Priorities for 2017. Coming out of this exercise economic growth and sustainability was clearly a top priority, followed by inter-municipal relationships, policing costs, and quality of life issues, such as seniors needs, active living and poverty reduction.
While it was the intention of the town to hire its own economic development officer to address its topmost priority issue, it was almost a year before the position was filled. A small but determined group of local business people had already discussed how they could foster a strong economic growth environment in Cumberland County by removing barriers to business growth and connecting businesses with the resources they needed to be successful.
Out of their work emerged the Cumberland Business Connector, a business-led, not-for-profit organization, supported and funded by the county’s three municipal units. Its first AGM was held in June 2017, coinciding with the appointment of Jonathan McClelland as its CEO.
While its role was initially seen as facilitator and a builder of relationships with partners in economic development, in just a year it has become a key player in growing the local economy, armed with a solid strategic plan driving a variety of activities now underway.
Of course, as the Connector’s work continues, our local municipalities will likely be required to make significant commitments to exploit the most promising growth opportunities identified. Unavoidably, this will bring a focus on the current elephant in the room – namely, the prospect of amalgamation of our town and county municipalities.
One element of Kogon’s campaign platform was a commitment to initiate an unbiased study of amalgamation alternatives to determine which would better serve the people of Amherst.
Coming out of the strategic priorities exercise mentioned earlier, the amalgamation topic was recast as inter-municipal relations and the path forward was identified as to meet with Cumberland and Oxford to determine areas of common interest and potential for shared services. Again, this has taken time to produce results, but some joint activities in tourism and border issues are underway.
In the meantime, we read that Windsor and West Hants councils are looking to bury the hatchet and join as one municipal unit, after decades of boundary disputes and various squabbles.
On July 19, it was moved in both councils that the municipalities would contact the provincial municipal affairs minister to enter into negotiations to consolidate the municipalities through special legislation. The process is to be completed by Dec. 31, 2020….so, come the next round of municipal elections in October 2020, citizens will likely be voting for a mayor and councillors to run a single municipal unit.
It seems the major stimulus leading to this coming together was the 2016 election of a fresh slate of councillors listening to an electorate totally fed up with unproductive joint council meetings over seven years.
The tortuous history leading to this resolution may turn out to be a blessing in disguise for that community, providing the motivation to create a unified and politically weightier municipality.
Something to think about as we, here in Cumberland County, enter the remaining two-year stretch before the next round of municipal elections.
Alan Walter is a retired professional engineer living in Oxford. He was born in Wales and worked in Halifax. He spends much of his time in Oxford, where he operates a small farm. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.