“It’s a difficult road to walk, but the rewards at the end are huge.”
Clarke is the mayor of the Region of Queens, which was formed 20 years ago. It was the first voluntary amalgamation in Nova Scotia – made up of the former municipal units of the town of Liverpool, the Municipality of Queens and the villages of Milton and Brooklyn.
In his candid speech to 82 chamber members, he spoke about how the merger took place and answered questions that are on the minds of many Pictou County residents as amalgamation is being considered for the towns of Stellarton, Pictou and New Glasgow and the Municipality of Pictou County.
Clarke said he thinks the Queens amalgamation has been successful for many reasons. When asked what success means to him, he replied: “I think it means the ability to move ahead. I think the ability in Queens to reinvent itself from being a one industry paper mill town to becoming the more diverse basis it is now.”
In 2012, the area’s major employer – the Bowater Mersey Paper Mill – closed taking $600,000 out of the annual revenue stream, and more than 300 people lost their jobs. Many provincial jobs have also been lost in recent years, along with two fish plants and a sawmill.
He said when he was elected, the main street in Liverpool had more empty stores than full ones, but that’s been turned around due to aggressive work on economic development that’s brought 23 new businesses in the region.
He said opportunities for economic development are much greater than they would have been with four smaller municipalities.
“I have one point, which is why I came to Pictou County – you can be stronger together,” he said.
“One of the strengths I identified was our council has eight people all focused on a single priority – a single objective of business attraction and economic development.”
The merger also eliminated infighting between councils. Prior to the amalgamation, he said 23 per cent of staff time was spent negotiating with or out-negotiating the other municipal units.
The $22 million Queens Place Emera Centre was built with no disagreement on the site.
When the amalgamation was proposed, he said many people grumbled that taxes would go up in the county, but the council was able to keep the rate the same.
One of the concerns people had was communities losing their identities, which he said hasn’t happened. All communities have name signs, with each one picking their own slogan. Clarke said the sign for the community of Kent reads: “100 years of strawberry suppers.”
He said geographic battles don’t occur any longer, and he takes pride in the cohesion around the council table.
However, the amalgamation wasn’t all rosy. He said some tough times were weathered and he admits some mistakes were made.
For example, he said he thinks moving all administrative staff to the county building on the outskirts of Liverpool was a mistake. In retrospect, he said keeping staff in the town would have been more of an economic generator.
Cutline: Region of Queens CAO Richard MacLellan listens as Mayor Christopher Clarke answers a question at the Pictou County Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Thursday. CAROL DUNN – THE NEWS
About the Region of Queens amalgamation:
No financial help was received from the province.
The number of elected officials was initially reduced from 32, to nine councillors and one mayor, and since decreased to seven councillors and one mayor.
The Queens region didn’t hold a plebiscite because it wasn’t required at the time as the legislation was different.
The amalgamation was done by a private member’s bill in the Nova Scotia Legislature.
The new municipality saved $750,000 in its first year, which was a “significant” saving at the time.
The former town of Liverpool had a lot of debt, but he said the residents of Liverpool have paid off that debt. “It’s taken 20 years to pay down the debt, but the residents of the county have not had to pay the debt.”