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Mayor Merlin Blackwell on what lies ahead for Clearwater

Blackwell confident newly elected council well placed to deal with challenges

Merlin Blackwell was reelected as the mayor of Clearwater for a second term on Oct.15. Prior to that he served as a councillor for two terms.

In 2022, Blackwell ran against Dean Clifford and won with a huge margin of 88 per cent votes. In an interview with the Clearwater Times, the mayor spoke about being re-elected, the massive changes that took place this election cycle and the tasks that lay ahead for the new council.

Below is an edited excerpt of the interview with Mayor Blackwell:

Clearwater Times (CT): How does it feel to be re-elected as the mayor of Clearwater?

Merlin Blackwell (MB): It is an honor to win. But, I’m using the phrase today that ‘this isn’t necessarily a prize,’ it is like a duty, it’s a calling and something I want to do. Especially after the last four years, I fully understand that the next four is going to be a lot of work and I don’t expect it to be easier than this last term.

CT: Like most municipalities across the province, Clearwater too is experiencing post-pandemic challenges, exacerbated by labor shortage, housing shortage, crime, etc. so moving forward, what are the tasks before you and the council?

MB: The biggest one, right now we’re poised for probably the largest housing boom in 25 plus years. We need to get the infrastructure in place, the internal planning and building and zoning teams in order to support that. Right now we contract our building approvals and zoning to the TNRD and we’re going to either have to to ask for more or have to maybe entertain, in the next couple of years, having our own in-house building inspections, zoning approvals.

…We really need that housing to happen. Because we have a shortage of employees everywhere. Our nursing and doctor shortage here has been well documented. We’re doing well right now with interim people, both on the nurses and the paramedic side. But if we don’t have enough housing, that’s going to be an impossible task to fill some of those jobs long term.

The other issue that is becoming a huge concern, because it’s high temperature today even here, is we need to start really putting a climate lens on everything we do. So between the simple things like fire smarting our community and every single household that we can get and convince people that it needs to happen, we also have to start looking at back-up generation. Do we have enough water supply or do we have enough back-up water supply? What if we end up in a prolonged drought period every year like we are this year… we’re now at high fire danger in this region. These are all things that we now have to put into the planning process moving forward and budget for and think about and do emergency planning for there’s so much that it affects.

CT: Do you think governance is going to become more of a challenge for local governments in the coming years with all the divisiveness and fragmentation that the pandemic era brought in?

MB: I think rebuilding trust after the pandemic stretch is going to be a huge issue and I don’t think it is going to get easier anytime soon. I think this is what took down a lot of incumbent councillors and mayors across this province, especially mayors because a lot of us have had to become the voice for our health authorities because they don’t communicate at a small town level. They tell us what’s needed, the messaging that needs to go there but they don’t get on Facebook groups. Their messaging [relies on] small towns that have newspapers [but] comes out a week or two late. So if you needed a message out in a small town, you ask the mayor or you ask the local municipality to get it out there for you. And after a while we became the messenger in people’s minds and the divisiveness you’re talking about, the anti-vaxx movement, which were much more prevalent in small towns because it was very apparent who was vaccinated and wasn’t because all of a sudden you stopped seeing them at restaurants and at all those public spaces where people gather naturally. So it became a situation where, to use the term ‘shoot the messenger,’ we became the face of the message, even though it was a directive of the health authorities and the provincial health officer.

CT: With four incumbents returning to the new council, how do you feel working with the newly elected council?

MB:The past council was a good team but it was also a team that basically lived through trial by fire. Within a few months of getting on council, our largest employer in the region. The Canfor mills shut down, logging operations like in many places across BC dramatically changed. Then we went into COVID-19 and we rely heavily on international tourism here with Wells Gray [Provincial] Park is basically 50 per cent international tourism… so our tourism economy got kicked in the shins or kneecapped. But and then right as that was starting to really hurt on both those fronts, the Trans Mountain pipeline project started up and ever since then we’ve been living with an extra 1100 or 1000 workers, depending on which week, in a town of 2400 people. So that’s had a huge impact on everything. Finish all that of with the standard housing shortage, labor shortage, wildfire seasons, heat waves, everything else that you can… And it’s it’s been a heck of a turn for the last council and I’m very grateful to have four experienced councillors going forward plus two people that I’ve known for a lot of years that seem to be quick studies and learners because we can just hit the ground running with what we feel is probably the next group of problems transitioning out of trans mountain workers being in town and then rebuilding the tourism economy in the time of crazy climate events and whatever else Mother Earth is gonna throw at us over the next four years. Plus healing the division of Vax anti Vax COVID times.

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About the Author: Binny Paul

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