Q&A with North Dundas Mayor Eric Duncan
Winchester’s Eric Duncan was first elected to North Dundas’ council table in 2006 as a 19-year-old. In 2010, he breezed to victory in the year’s mayoral race, and did so again by acclamation in 2014, as well as serving consecutive terms as warden of the United Counties of Stormont, Dundas, and Glengarry. Duncan recently sat down with Matthew Uhrig to discuss highlights from 2017, as well as what he expects during this council’s last mandate in 2018, which will also be his last as a municipal politician. 

Q: This is the traditional looking back on the year, what are your standouts from 2017?

A: How fast it flew by. I say that when I look back at the year I would summarize it as starting to initialize a lot of things we’ve been talking about for a long while, and building the foundations we’ve set for the last several years. The biggest thing I always think of is economic development. A key thing, with my county council hat on, is how the counties are stepping up and getting more into the game, or the frontlines of things. We see that with tourism, and now we’re looking at the regional community improvement plan. Those are tangible examples of where we’re going to see more and more come to fruition – seeds were planted this year. It’s nice to see that they’re stepping up to the plate and modernizing themselves, as that’s been something that needs to happen.

Q: You’ve been focusing mainly on your mayoral duties this year, a first. What’s that been like without something else lurking in the background?

A: Instead of 15 things on the go, I’ve got 10 now. It’s been good, and it has given me a chance to focus on some things before I step away next year. I’ve probably driven some of the staff nuts being more accessible, or more annoying than normal, but it’s a chance to get some of that ‘bucket list’ of stuff done to pass on to the next group and team that comes in. I’m also taking the time to figure out what I want to do next, but time hasn’t solved that yet… I’ve got a year to decide, so we’ll see.

Q: Shifting gears, happy mustn’t begin to describe the feeling of seeing 11 new businesses open in seven weeks this year. From that perspective, it must have been a positive and rewarding year?

A: It’s nice to see, yes, but I always say this: the township can’t make a business come here, but we can create an environment where people want to come here, and I’ve said that for a long time. Now we’re starting to see the benefits of the chamber and the township, and the business community working together to see some of that come forward. When we look at building permits and the number of ribbons we’ve cut, it’s been great. More than anything it has been nice to get the compliments of how nice the business environment has been working together. We’ve seen the growth in agriculture again, which has been consistent and it’s always good to see more of that. But, our retail front is something I’m really proud of, with Winchester being the spotlight. Though I also give kudos to people like Ruth Liscumb from Flair with Fabrics in Chesterville and Marg Loughlin from Loughlin’s store in Hallville, and other businesses across the township that are bringing people in and doing really well. It’s been great – a lot of good news on the business front, and I think a lot of that has to do with the local community improvement plan plus the overall environment of attitude being a small thing that makes a big difference.

Q: On that note, the community improvement plan was renewed for another five years. What, to you, do you think makes that plan work?

A: It’s a good program, a fair program, a generous program, but people see the benefit of what we’re able to do. The interest free loans don’t cost us a lot of money, we’re just out the interest that we would have had if the money was in our bank account. That gives leverage, or bridges finance to things, but we’re able to see what makes it work so well because people go and do more than they might have done if they didn’t have the funding opportunity. It’s one of those things when people see other successes it’s like a snowball that goes – when other buildings in town are doing it, it really rolls. It’s good because it has been helpful, and it’s creative.

Q: Canada 150 was obviously successful, not just for the country, but for North Dundas with Meet Me on Main Street. What do you think it was about that idea that got the buy in so significantly?

A: North Dundas has a history, outside of council or outside of the township itself, of coming up with some neat events, Dairyfest being one, and the Parade of Lights being another. Meet Me on Main Street was another version of something unique and different that hadn’t been done before. We weren’t sure that first night in Morewood when we set up if we were going to have 50 people or what we were going to have, and we were overwhelmed with the crowd and the morale, and the positive environment there. The fact that we did five of them, I’m really happy. With the five [and five more in 2018], we give some attention to communities that don’t have a lot, particularly Morewood and Hallville. They were a huge success, and we’re looking forward to more… I have people asking for the dates now because they are planning their vacations around them.

Q: Forest cover debates still go on, and council’s been working on a burn bylaw plan. It hasn’t taken shape yet, but we all know it is coming. Would you say that’s a priority for 2018?

A: On the fire bylaw, it will be coming in 2018 at some point and we’ll continue to work with people in the ag community on that. After that meeting where it all kind of came to a head I got a lot of calls and made a lot of calls the week after. I look back and say communication could have been better on that. When [farmers] see the size of them, and the impact, I think it was realistic and fair – giving time for people to make accommodations on it. But from a common sense perspective we’re talking about large burn piles and certain limits on them. There are always those balancing factors – you have the ag factor, the neighbouring residences factor, and the fire department and availability of their resources. Forest cover as well is never an easy one, but there is a couple of things we can make some efforts on, including tax incentives. I’ve got my ear to ground on all of this.

Q: Will another focus be residential growth in the coming year?

A: Our numbers have stayed consistent for the number of new builds, and the number of subdivisions is improving. But it’s a multi-stage process. I tell people that the work that goes into getting these things right saves us money in the long run. Most people we deal with are very good, and they know they need to get it right too. All the geological stuff, and water and sewer lines, it’s complex stuff. When we look at new builds, we’re at 30 to 50 a year, which is good and healthy for a municipality our size. But, yes, if we get more people living here, that’s more people shopping here and helping businesses. This is always one of those files that continues on, and I think in 2018 you’re going to see more shovels in the ground and houses in the ground in a couple of new subdivisions.

Q: Are there key priorities you’re putting above others in terms of what to accomplish in this last term of the current council?

A: There are a few things, one being the economic development of the local community improvement plan and the regional one, and areas on the tourism front that can help with job creation and getting more people into the area. And one of the things that is underrepresented on the scale of things we talk about is succession planning, especially with the number of retirements coming in the municipal sector. We talk a lot about roads and bridges, but we don’t talk about our staffing positions. Those are human capital and very important. We have a few staff that will be retiring, and in the next five years we’re probably going to lose [more than] 100 years of municipal experience in North Dundas. That means a lot for people who know the area, know how it works, know what we need to do, and know the players involved. One of the things that I want to focus on as well is passing the baton, not only to the next council, but providing a road map for how we can make sure services stay the same by having qualified, trained staff that keep doing a good job here.        

Q: Last question, and it needs to be asked. Will you do any soul searching and think about running for re-election?

A: No, I’m doing soul searching, but it’s not about whether I run again, it’s about what I do next. I tell people that it is flattering that they have given support and a lot of positive of comments, and I’m proud of what we’ve been able to do. I’m not on the ballot next year, but I will be vocal next year. I do plan, likely, to endorse and give my feedback on people who I think would be good in public life. I don’t have an agenda of A, B, or C, but I do think at the end of the day what people have come to expect is civility and professionalism at the council table, and people with good judgement to tackle the problems that come up. We need good people in public life, and I plan to encourage people to run, and support some good people that I think are going to run in 2018.