In this episode of Island Thrive, Paul and Dave chat with Mayor Stewart Young of Langford. Young shares how he continues to shape British Columbia’s fastest growing city. He talks about some of his accomplishments throughout his 28 years in municipal politics. Young tells listeners about the ways in which he has helped build a local economy as part of an effort to make Langford a city that is attractive to young families, business leaders and even the provincial government — as demonstrated in the “mobile office” pilot program which will keep 100 government workers in the city that they reside in.
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Dave: Well, thanks for coming on the show here Stew. I know you’ve been in the scene for quite a while, so maybe start from the early days. I think it was the early ‘90s you took the mayor position, and how did that come about.
Stew: Well, I was a counselor in ‘92 and then ran for Mayor in the next election, which was in ‘93, so that was the start, and I thought maybe I would do it for the three years or something like that, and there were three-year terms at that time…there are four-year terms now, but yeah, I just thought I would do something for the community. And Langford was newly incorporated, so it was all brand new to a lot of people and to myself, and I’m still here today doing it. There’s always lots of things going on. It’s a young family community and a lot of entrepreneurs with their businesses and stuff, so it’s been an exciting time for the last 28 years.
Dave: Right, and what’s sort of initially pulled you to that calling anything in particular that…
Stew: I think it was more just wanting to do something for my community being as I said, a new community, we had such high unemployment, and I was a pretty young guy at that time and had a business, and I just wanted the opportunity to make a difference and give back to the community at the same time for the benefit of…we needed recreation facilities, we needed jobs out here, and that was really paramount in what we were trying to do out here, everybody wanted a job, and everybody had to leave Langford to get a job, so we worked hard trying to build an economy here in Langford.
Dave: The timing with starting Alpine was that around the same time?
Stew: No, Alpine was about 10 years before that.
Stew: So I was already doing all the business stuff, and then basically giving back to the community sort of is really what was happening. And I was helping with the organizing Langford to be an incorporated city or town, and it was unorganized at that time before. So we worked with people to get it incorporated, and that’s when you have local elections.
Paul: I grew up in the region, actually…Well, so to Dave in the CRD, and I lived in Langford in 1987 to 1989. And it wasn’t the city of Langford at the time, was it?
Stew: Yeah, it was too small to be a city. So as soon as you hit 25,000 people and you can call yourself a city or something like that. So we were very small at that time, but we grew fast and it became a place for families to do it, and it was affordable in Langford. That’s why you saw a big change in the last 20 years is because it’s the place to be if you’ve got to raise a family because there’s lots of recreation, three lakes in our downtown core that are within a five minute walk, And it’s a beautiful place to be.
Paul: I remember the highway going past Thetis lake with one lane on either side, it’s hard to imagine that now isn’t it?
Stew: I remember it when they had Millstream road, there was no interchange, and we built that in ‘94 ’95. But yeah, there was no…it was just a light there and one lane in and out of town, and traffic backed up on Treanor and that was two lanes. That’s four lanes now, so yeah. There’s a big difference. A big change, for sure.
Paul: Incredible, and I mean, as one of the fastest growing cities in Canada, keeping up with that infrastructure has to be an incredible challenge, obviously building Veterans Memorial, some of the big projects like the connector with the… I can’t remember what you call it, but the connector with Millstream, that whole area, and then obviously the highway now doubling all the way up to the Westshore Parkway, a lot of big infrastructure projects… You’ve been at the helm, I think for most of those, maybe tell the audience how that challenge has been and how you’ve managed to stay on top of that?
Stew: Yeah, but we’ve done a lot of big projects and a lot of that’s then attributed the tax savings by doing those without having to raise taxes is because we supported development, and then we partnered with developers to pay for the roads. The Interchange is the infrastructure, the sewer, it was all paid for as we grew, so you weren’t burdening the taxpayers that lived here, which I think is a really good way to organize your city and your finances is to make sure the new stuff coming in pays for it…pays its way, I guess. And that’s the most important way to do it. If you continue to just tax people for improvements then you really get people upset, so we recognized early on it was much better to work for the development community and explain to them what it costs them to do business in Langford, and they supported that, and so we were able to do quite a bit of the improvements in Langford with no impact on the taxes, and we’ve been doing that for 28 years.
Paul: I guess in that there’s some advantage there, when you look at the various municipalities in the region compared to, say, Victoria or… Oak Bay, where things are long established and the infrastructure has been in place for the better part of a century, and they’re having to deal with more upgrades than new development. So I guess in that sense, the Westshore in general has been, I guess would you say a competitive advantage to the core municipalities in terms of those new opportunities and development?
Stew: Yeah, well we chased business, we wanted to have businesses come to Langford and jobs. And when you look at Langford, we’ve been able to put in a lot of new infrastructure where other people have older infrastructure and we’re putting in more new infrastructure than some of the other areas that actually have to redo their infrastructure. So yeah, we have a distinct advantage because we got newer pipes and pipes that last longer, they have a 100-year lifespan and maybe our infrastructure is in really good shape and it lasts a long time. So that’s part of it, is that, we’ll be good for the next 50-100 years without having to redo it, and we like to do things once and do a properly you know what I mean? So we don’t want to put in a sidewalk and then dig it up later to put a sewer line in, we want to wait, get the sewer line in, get the water in, and then put in the infrastructure on the surface, your gardens, your brick sidewalks, your lights and stuff. So we didn’t really have to re-do things. It was fairly new, so we were able to manage it that way, which is one of the better ways to do it, of course, for sure.
Dave: But that obviously takes a lot of vision, you need to see what you need well in advance, so with the current pace of growth and how do you keep up? Do you have a vision for five, 10, 15 years down the road?
Stew: I think, Yeah, that’s a good question. What we want to do is keep the economy going and providing jobs for our local residents, and so they can invest in our community, buy a house. If you have a good paying job and you’re in the construction trades, and we’re actually building buildings here and creating those jobs for the blue collar worker, that’s your base of our community, and that’s an important part of looking to the future is not just what we think it is going to look like, but actually how are those jobs going to be created and who is going to have those jobs. Well we want to people of Langford that are living here to be able to walk out their door and have a job in our community. So we approve good projects in Langford and which then we’re not only approving the project, we’re approving the jobs for the people that are here. And that’s a really important connection that we recognize as a city. So the future will be based on what is the job requirements is almost as important as to how fast we grow and realistically, it’s more important to have jobs right now and especially in this time and a good council that understands the economics of what you need to do.
Paul: So and that sounds really, really key. I think… I know that Langford is about over a third of the new housing in the region is in Langford now, I’m not sure where that stats is from, but I imagine that’s over the last few years, it’s been pretty consistent. And so a lot of people are living in Langford, because it’s more affordable and then they’re commuting to other regions, so obviously having a strategy where people can work and live in Langford would be very beneficial, not just for the local economy and Langford, but also in terms of reducing traffic and congestion and all those other infrastructure pieces that kind of go along with that. Is there a broader strategy at work in terms of that economic development, you’re out there trying to drum up the business to come to the area, which is fantastic, I don’t think every community has a mayor that’s willing to do that, but is there more to that strategy or other things that Langford is doing in particular?
Stew: I think that you got to look at what’s really important, and you talk about greenhouse gases, who wants to get in their car every morning in Langford and then go into work and spend that hour commute or pay your parking in an area like Langford has free parking. And so nobody wants to get in a car and her community and basically pay to park to go to work. You know what I mean that just goes counter-intuitive to a good lifestyle and community-base. So in Langford, we try and encourage people to obviously move businesses to Langford so that the benefit is there, but if you’re right, it affects greenhouse gases, it affects people spending more time with their families. So it’s really good planning to work hard as a politician to keep those jobs in your community.
Paul: Do you think, in particular, that there’s a crunch with office space in Langford? I know there’s a lot of industrial space coming on the market.
Paul: But is there a problem with limited office space at this time? And maybe it’s kind of a weird question to be asking and where everybody’s working from home, but I imagine that that is…I sort of get the sense, and we’ve had other guests on that have mentioned this issue in particular, and so is there a strategy to address that?
Stew: Yeah, what we’re doing is we’re pretty blunt about, we say we want government offices out in Langford because the government workers live in Langford. The problem is, is that you got to move the whole Ministry, it doesn’t really work to move partial ministries (this is what I’m told). So that’s very difficult to do because they’re sort of all centered around Victoria, but I think centralizing that and then putting it out in not only just our community but where the workforce is, makes a lot of sense. It saves a lot of infrastructure costs, you don’t need to have like the extra highways and the widening of highways and the parking lots and things like that, or bus lanes. But what it will do is help everybody, and again, it just needs to make that change at the other levels of government, federal and provincial to look at putting these major office centers in the communities where the people work. It kind of makes sense for the last 30 years, the problem with it is it’s hard to change what’s been going on for years and years, but it really doesn’t make sense to have everybody leave your community to go do a job and then to drive back. It doesn’t make sense, especially because nowadays you can go to an office and then everything’s done electronic. It’s a lot different before we had carriers running around doing stuff, now we do everything by computers and stuff, so it really makes sense to make that change. And I think it’s a smart move for the governments to start looking at that, and this pandemic, it’s proved that you can work from home, so all the more easier to work from an office setting in your town that could login to. So we’ve proved that we can work from home and still get work done, why can’t we have remote offices or offices outside of a main huge where 1000 people have to go to an office tower where we could actually break it up into 500 here or 200, 300 there. It wouldn’t make any difference. It would work, and probably office space is a lot cheaper in Langford or other smaller communities than it is in downtown core. So the government saves money, actually, probably in the long run, and the worker saves a bunch of money because they don’t have to pay for gas, for parking and all that other stuff that goes along with leaving your community for a job, so that all makes sense.
Dave: So that all that makes sense. Is there any early success and if not, what needs to change?
Stew: Well, there hasn’t really been any early success because we haven’t had a lot of government offices move out here. There is one pilot project that will be opening, I guess next year in Langford, which is great, that’s the start. I think that will show that it will work depending on how many customers or workers we call them customers for that building, because they get to go in if they want or work from home, and I think that this will be the remote office for a government office. And when that test is done, if it works, then we got to do more.
Dave: Is there efforts made to bring some of the other commercial, like the business community out that way?
Stew: Oh yeah, we’re working really hard to bring in some tech businesses, finding ways to get the attraction to our area for it. As I said, not only is a lot of government workers living in Langford, there’s a lot of tech companies, employees that are living in Langford that are commuting as well. So that will change, I think over time, we’re opening the door, we’re laying out the red carpet for that, well, our staff are very, very aware of the needs and we will work hard to locate them here in Langford.
Dave: I know for us, we’re thinking about the future and pondering an office out there, and I think you mentioned the work from home and the remote work, proving that we can do that, and so one of the thoughts I’ve had is actually having two locations, one out, because we do have a lot of people out that way, so one of that direction and then one or more central or like where we’re at now. So interesting time to see how these changes unfold in the coming years…
Paul: Yeah, especially considering over a third of our staff live out in Westshore which is the normal story now in the region. Stew are you able to give us anymore specifics around incentives towards drawing businesses there? There’s the obvious incentives for the benefit to employees not having to commute which we’ve covered. Is there a tax incentive? Is there, is there anything else in particular? Like, why would I as a business owner choose Langford first?
Stew: Right. Well, we can help you find a location, if you see a piece of property and there’s still a fair amount of property in Langford, if you like that property and it wasn’t quite zoned, we’ll help you through a rezoning on it, you know. So we’re open for business, we will do a lot for you. Tax incentives. We can talk about that as well as amenity reductions. So if you’re creating jobs for people that live in Langford, we’re going to be looking at whatever way we can to incentivize, you could come out and do that. And government offices, provincial or federal government offices, we give a tax break for them if they come out much as we do for seniors homes and healthcare offices, or doctor’s offices will give a tax break for that to you as well. So these are things that we’re working on right now, and it’s open dialogue for anything that we can do to attract people.
Dave: Great, so maybe just shifting a bit, we’ve initiated this podcast because of Covid and trying to help people navigate this and the future. And so, curious, your perspective on what we’ve been through, where we’re going, just economics behind, behind that, just pull the crystal ball out, if you have one. What can you say about all that?
Stew: I think we’re in unchartered territory as everybody knows, and it’s very difficult for me to say how things are going to go. All we can do is hope and pray that we’re going to get through this together. And I think that we’ve got a lot of smart people in our communities here, and we’re all working hard to get through this pandemic. We want to make sure that the city and its staff are there to help, education mostly is what we’re really looking at to make sure that people know how to be safe with this pandemic. Anything we can do, we do outreach to the business community to help them you know less anxiety with their workers and less anxiety with the customers going in. We’re trying to make sure that the public is feeling good about going through a business. If you’ve got sanitizer at your store, and you’ve got masks and people are wearing masks in there, people feel better to go in to your store. So I think that’s changing that’s becoming the norm in Langford which is, I think, is the best way to go is to have your mask on and sanitize when you walk into a store and then walk out, just those things and obviously washing your hands, everything that everybody’s been saying probably works pretty good. It’s when people have groups of parties and things like that, that’s where the problems coming in and 50 people at a location, maybe that should be lowered a lot less than that unless you know all those 50 people. I think that that’s where I just like the parties that people were having in Vancouver, in Kelowna and stuff like that, and across Canada, there’s obviously a measurable impact with Covid increases based on that. So my message to everybody is well, just try and limit your size, I think that’s what’s kind of more important than anything else, is trying to stay close to what your family unit is and you’re working unit, and just make sure that there’s all those protocols in place. Because of who we are it seemed to be expanding our bubbles, because kids are going to school now, people are going back to work a bit more and they feel a bit better because it hasn’t directly affected them yet. And I guess if Covid affects you and you know, someone who has had Covid, you’re going to be a lot more worried about it, especially if that person got really sick or has passed away from Covid, you’re going to be more concerned about it. Right now, our numbers have been low for the province, and we’ve been very fortunate, if not lucky, that our numbers are there, but we still have to make sure that the public is aware of what we can do and how we should be reacting.
Dave: Yeah, I think the silver lining in this is adapting and innovation, any good examples that you’ve seen in the local business community?
Stew: I was pretty proud of the way the residents and the businesses in Langford dealt with this by putting the plexi glass up right away in the stores and creating those barriers, having sanitizer almost at every single story you go in right there, that the business owner put out and just making sure that people were conscious when they were passing people to turn a little bit away, give distance… Those are things that were done and really it’s simple acts there. And of course, we did that acts of kindness where we were growing around to businesses and paying for people’s groceries or this or that. Everybody was working really hard at it to help people out as much as we could.
Paul: We’ve talked about some of the unique features of Langford. As far as I know, it’s still the fastest growing city in the province, fastest growing in Canada. 37% of all housing in Greater Victoria has been built in Langford in the last decade or over the last decade or so. What is it that people don’t know about Langford that you think we should all be knowing and celebrating?
Stew: I think that, you know, the community pride is really big out here, everybody is helping everybody. And there’s a lot of effort put into improving Langford from the residents all the way to the business is… It’s not just like they go to work and come home, everybody is helping everybody. The work that goes into volunteering with our sports teams, this is a young community, there’s just countless numbers of people that donate their time after work, they come home, and there’s thousands of volunteers that are out there helping everybody in sports. A lot of people don’t recognize the amount of man hours or woman hours that go into putting the effort into our community. It’s not just the politicians doing all this extra work, it’s the people in our community that are building our community and are building our base and making it stronger, and because of them we’ve got a great community to live in. You just see all of the support that we get all from the craft fairs to that Christmas light ups, to all the different things that we do, the Halloween things that we were doing at our City Center Park, all of the events that were done by volunteers, our car shows. All of those is thousands of volunteers organizing and it was almost like every single week we had some sort of event going on, and that’s what we were working towards, and no shortage of people that were just excited to help out and volunteer in the PGA when it was here which was just spectacular, one of the best PGA golf events in North America and the high turnout of people and 600 volunteers showed up in two days to sign their name up to go do that. So anyway, those are important things for us to look at and deal with, and I think that we’re going to continue to do that, and I know it’s Covid, so we have to be very careful how we move forward until Covid is…until next year when we don’t have it here no more, but that’s our goal, to work hard and everything we can do to keep our community safe and still have a bit of normalcy.
Paul: I definitely don’t remember the same sense of pride and Langford in the 1980s, and it’s really incredible to see how that has evolved. And some of my colleagues live in Langford, and without a doubt… every single one of them is like, “we live in Langford. We live in the best place in the region,” kind of thing, and that’s definitely something that didn’t exist 20, 30, 40 years ago.
Stew: I think that you’ll see a big change now, we’ve kind of gone over the hump, I think, where we were just sort of…Not much was going on here for like 20 years, and then all of a sudden ‘92, ‘93, ‘94, got the interchange in, you got some big box stores, and then all of a sudden you had some energy here and jobs for people, and then people were able to raise a family and stay here, so that was pretty good. That was pretty cool and ended up really putting a good face to our community in the public’s eye, and of course all across BC people knew about Langford who never knew about Langford before.
Paul: And hats off to you because you were there and I think a catalyst for a lot of what we’ve seen, I would dare say maybe a legend…
Stew: I’m just one voice, one vote out of seven, but my council has been amazing all the way along, you can’t get stuff done if you’re fighting all the time, but my council is amazing for the last 28 years for time I’ve been the mayor… And I can tell you, it’s a lot of hard work from them, it’s a lot of hard work from my staff and hey, you don’t get things done unless you’re passionate about it anyway, and I think that in our community, we’re full of passion, and there’s a lot of people that helped grow Langford and make it what it is today.
Paul: And definitely a big change of gears here, but the other thing that you’re, of course, very well known for is starting Alpine, the legend, if you will, is that you started it with one truck and grew it, sort of the tech equivalent of starting Google in your basement. And I know we’re running short on time, so maybe can you give us the synopsis and any recent developments with your business that you’re able and willing to share as well.
Stew: Obviously, it was a local business where we hired all local people, and then we expanded it throughout the interior to Kelowna, Grand Forks, Trail and Castlegar. So it became a fairly large business over the 35 years, but we also did welding and trucking and all these shops that we had there, just sort of added on things every couple of years, so it grew, ferry services and then we started some restaurants and things like that. So it was all good people that were passionate about their business and their job and stuff like that, and I wasn’t there that much over the last 10, 15 years because I was pretty busy with the politics, 8-10-hour days there, plus running those businesses. So lately well, we sold the business and my kids run it now and we sold it to GFL, it was a great company, everybody kept their jobs and did their things, so that was a good transition for us, and so it was a pretty exciting for us.
Dave: Congratulations for that. That’s great.
Stew: Pretty exciting times for the employees and the company moving forward now. It’s a company that now works up and down the island, and everybody embraced that and worked very hard at that. So the company is your people, and the people are still there, so the company is still there and the great service. So I really appreciated GFL keeping everybody on and looking after the employees like we had for all those years. And I was very proud of my kids for the work that they did to as well. And within the company itself, and I had a lot of good friends that worked in the company alongside me for 35 years.. It’s been great. I got nothing but praise from everybody, for that part of that journey in my life.
Paul: So a significant portion of Alpine was sold to GFL.
Stew: We still have some portion of the business.
Paul: Are you keeping busy with that part of the business now?
Stew: Not really I’m trying to retire out now so that’s really where I’m at right now, and just trying to take step back, 16-hour days for 40 years was starting to take its toll. So I just turned 60, so that was my plan was to retire out at 60 was the plan.
Paul: So that’s it. Are you retiring from politics as well, or is there more…
Stew: Well, I got another two years left on my term, right, and then I’ll have to decide in two years, but that’s a long way out yet…
Paul: Fair enough. I can’t imagine Langford without Stew Young as mayor.
Stew: In two years it’ll be 30 years, right?
Stew: That’s a long time to do the job. And so, yeah, that’ll be a hard decision, a difficult decision for me, but my family comes first in this. I’ll have to make that conversation to myself and to my family at that time.
Paul: Yeah, well, I know time is of the essence and you’re possibly the busiest person in Greater Victoria, so we won’t keep you longer than necessary. But is there any other tidbits or news or things that we didn’t cover today?
Stew: No, I think he covered off pretty good all your questions and stuff there, and it was great chatting with you, it’s good to get caught up on things and you got a good job on that, so hopefully you’ll be able to get your questions out there and people will understand the answers in how we work in Langford and how different Langford is to a lot of places, and how great this place is, and how grateful I am that I’ve had the opportunity to be there in Langford help and make some decisions, and hopefully I’ve benefited some of the business people and the residents of Langford, so they can have a better life.
Paul: Awesome, well on behalf of the team here at Island Thrive and Smart Dolphins, thanks to Stew Young for joining us today, the Mayor at Langford, the legend, dare I say, mayor of Langford.
Dave: Thank you Stew.