Placentia Mayor Bill Hogan says the rural-urban divide is real, and it’s a problem.
In a letter to the editor in this edition of The Charter, written two days after election day, Hogan said Liberal candidate Danny Dumaresque was “spot on” when he said rural Newfoundland needs government cash more than St. John’s.
The letter drew fire fast and furious from the provincial government and St. John’s Mayor Dennis O’Keefe, who called Hogan’s position “foolishness.”
During a public debate in the provincial election, Dumaresque was talking about a proposed fiscal arrangement between St. John’s and the provincial government.
“I would have to say to the mayor of this great city, that there are a hell of a lot more priorities outside the overpass that need to be addressed before we start forking more money over to the City of St. John’s,” Dumaresque said in late September.
Hogan was less concerned about the municipal fiscal arrangement, but said in general, the province’s economic prosperity is not making it off the Northeast Avalon.
“Somehow or other, government, in their ingenuity, has got to be able to spread that prosperity around,” he said. “These people are supposed to be brighter and more intelligent than us poor baymen, so they’ve got to find a way to make sure that that prosperity is experienced throughout the province.”
As an example, Hogan talked about the province’s forestry industry, one of the areas that the Liberals campaigned heavily on. He said attention to forestry would greatly benefit rural Newfoundland and Labrador.
“They’ve got to take some of that new-found wealth they’ve got, instead of doing other things with it — settling the debt or whatever — and invest that in the forestry, and bring up the forestry,” he said. “That would help all the sawmill operators, every other industry that’s out there depending on the forest.”
Rural Development Minister Susan Sullivan bristled at Hogan’s comments, and recited a laundry list of government money that has been put into the Placentia area, from $419,000 for a Cultural Arts Centre, all the way down to $14,000 to support a local archeological initiative.
Beyond that, Sullivan said the government has plowed millions of dollars into rural parts of the province.
“In my department, we have in excess of $100 million in economic and business development initiatives and 71 per cent of those have been made in rural communities since 2005,” she said.
O’Keefe was also bothered by Hogan’s letter.
“There’s still some people who cannot understand the fact that we all need to be working together, everybody in the province,” O’Keefe said. “What we don’t need is this kind of foolishness where you drive wedges between different parts of the province, whether you’re Danny Dumaresque or whether you’re Bill Hogan.”
While prosperity has been good to the capital city in some ways, O’Keefe said that St. John’s still has issues of its own.
“We have to deal with problems that probably even Bill Hogan doesn’t have to deal with like seniors and low-income people being able to maintain and stay in their homes because they’re not sharing in the prosperity,” he said. “So no matter where you live in Newfoundland and Labrador, you’re going to have issues that have to do with quality of life and sustainability.”
Liberal Leader Kevin Aylward, for his part, said he wasn’t trying to play up a rural-urban divide on the campaign trail, but there are definitely issues facing rural parts of the province.
“There’s nowhere in our platform that you see ‘rural divide.’ We outlined policies for all of the province; all of the province including urban areas,” he said. “What we’re identifying though, is that there are economic problems in different parts of the province, and different sectors and we should be very aware of these because we have to diversify our economy.”
Mayor Hogan spoke to The Charter about the issue and said there were problems rural areas face that St. John’s doesn’t, and that alone justifies him saying what he is saying.
“Look at people and businesses in St. Mary’s and the Cape Shore where they are still dealing with dial-up (Internet). They don’t even have proper sewage systems and bureaucracy is blocking the way. People in Colinet could be coming to Placentia for their services but instead of travelling over a gravel road, they will drive longer and farther to go to St. John’s. And that road has been on the list for paving since 1991. The Whitbourne to Colinet road has been on the books since before that even.”
“I don’t know the answer,” said the Placentia mayor, “but these issues should be raised.”
“Everyone lives with some debt. As long as payments are made, there is nothing wrong with having debt.”
Mayor Hogan said his belief is that government should do some more investing in rural areas and forget about paying down the debt right now.
He reiterated that he felt what Dumaresque said was right and that more people should be saying the same thing.
“Susan Sullivan ‘bristled’ at my remarks, but I don’t know why. Capital works and the economy are two different things. She mentioned $400,000 spent on the arts centre here in Placentia but that has paid off in tourism dollars already and the new school needed to be done. These investments were needed,” said Mayor Hogan. “That really works me up. It angers me to see people don’t recognise that with all this wealth on the Avalon, it can’t be shared. A better balance is needed. That’s all I am saying.”