In a meeting hosted Tuesday (April 18) by the South Surrey and White Rock Chamber of Commerce, White Rock Mayor Megan Knight and Surrey Mayor Brenda Locke pledged to do everything they can to have the two cities work together in the interests of residents and the business community.
The breakfast meeting, held at White Rock’s Oceana PARC Retirement Living building, drew chamber members, members of both city councils, and representatives of influential organizations, businesses and BIAs in White Rock and throughout Surrey.
Introduced by chamber executive director Ritu Khanna, and moderated by new chamber president Bill Brooks, the mostly light-hearted exchange – frequently punctuated by laughter – demonstrated an easy rapport between the mayors, who Locke facetiously characterized as “two Surrey girls” (Locke, raised in Richmond, has been a Surrey resident since 1979, while Knight, who grew up in Cloverdale, moved to White Rock the same year).
Both underlined that, since being elected to their current offices last October, they have joined in a ‘South Fraser Caucus’, including mayors from Langley, Delta and Richmond, to “talk about equity in the South Fraser (region).”
“(Our communities) need to put up our hands and tell the federal government and provincial government we’re here,” Locke noted.
That approach is key for a large range of mutual interests, including maximizing opportunities for infrastructure, schools, hospitals, affordable housing, arts and events spaces and transportation service that will best serve residents and businesses, they said, during the course of answers to submitted questions read by Brooks.
Communication between both cities is vital, they said, particularly in light of long-standing plans to redevelop the Semiahmoo town centre, which will impact both cities.
That communication hasn’t been perfect in the past, they acknowledged.
“Where was White Rock when (the Semiahmoo town centre plan) came forward? – White Rock wasn’t even at the table,” Knight commented.
“I don’t think that Surrey has been the best of neighbours (for White Rock) and probably vice versa,” Locke acknowledged, stating that it’s even more important, now, for both cities to integrate their planning efforts.
“We are communicating regularly on these issues,” Knight said. “White Rock planning staff are in touch with the South Surrey planning team.”
“It doesn’t mean we change our plans,” Locke noted.
“But we do it all together. We have been working on the Semiahmoo town centre plan for decades. When our two cities can get together (on issues like these) we have a better understanding of what will happen.
“There will be massive changes – there have to be. We have to make sure we are co-ordinating them in the best way possible.”
One of the biggest challenges facing both cities, they agreed, was providing affordable housing.
Knight said that White Rock council and staff are actively engaged in encouraging proposals for affordable housing from the development industry, and ensuring that there are adequate staffing levels to respond to projects in a timely manner.
“Our housing needs assessment identified seniors as the leading group in need of affordable housing in White Rock,” she said.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re in Surrey, or Brampton, or Toronto or Winnipeg – we are in a rental housing crisis,” Locke said. “We have to do better for the people who are coming to our cities.”
She said Surrey had grown significantly in the last year alone, including many new citizens or refugees with large families, and that they are choosing Surrey more than anywhere else in the region.
Surrey must consequently ensure that it takes full advantage of federal and provincial funding for affordable housing, and federal grants for infrastructure, she said, pointing to the inclusive UNITI Harmony project as a model going forward.
“It sends a very clear message that we believe everybody in our city matters,” Locke said, adding that the city could encourage further such projects, not necessarily by forgiving development cost charges, but “by helping NGOs (non-governmental organizations) “with some of the expectations we place on them.”
Both mayors agreed that business and development in both cities need to ensure streamlined building and business permit procedures and a minimum of ‘red tape’.
In White Rock, Knight said the city is contracting out to a private company to help clear the current permitting backlog, and also plans to add new staff over the next four years to improve the process.
Responding to questions on what the cities can do to boost tourism, Knight said White Rock continues to seek federal funding of some $15 million for full repair and restoration of the city’s historic pier – which she called a “major driver of tourism” – but three attempts so far have met with no response.
Meanwhile Locke said the major challenge to encouraging tourism in Surrey is an ongoing shortage of hotel facilities in the city.