Jeff Lehman doesn’t hesitate with the answer when asked what he’s learned from previous years as he begins his third term as Barrie mayor.
“Things take longer than you hoped they will,” the Barrie native said with a chuckle. “I guess what I’ve learned is sometimes there’s good reasons for that and sometimes there aren’t.”
Lehman admits he still gets frustrated when things move slowly or get bogged down in process or politics. He would like to think that he still has that “burn in my belly” to overcome some of that and to “pack his way through it” when he thinks it’s getting in the way of doing important things in Barrie.
“Sometimes it is for good reasons,” said Lehman, who won a third term in overwhelming fashion back in October. “If there’s a Jeff Lehman (2019) that’s different from a Jeff Lehman 2010, he’s probably a lot more patient about the need to do things right, rather than right away.
“I think we when I came in 2010, it was all about going to change the world overnight and many people who are first elected have that view. And you should never lose that energy to change the world, because that’s why you’re there. but you do sometimes have to sort of say, ‘OK, we’re going to do this right.’
“If we don’t bring people along, if we don’t build it in a sustainable way or something like that, then it’s going to be a white elephant or a program that lives for a year or two and then dies because we didn’t build it the right way.”
Up against Barrie businessman Ram Faerber in the 2018 municipal election, Lehman was easily re-elected collecting 90.97 per cent of the vote (24,854).
While he considers it a huge honour to have the overwhelming support from the electorate and believes it tells him that Barrie residents think he is on the right path, what he doesn’t think it means is they want more of the same.
“I think they elected Jeff Lehman eight years ago because they wanted some changes in Barrie and I’d like to think that I’ve been re-elected with a strong mandate twice because people like the direction we’re taking the city,” said Lehman, who first began his career in politics in 2006 when he was elected as Ward 2 councillor on Barrie’s city council. “What I said on election night I really mean, that I don’t take this election result as an endorsement of the status quo. What I take it is as an endorsement of the path for change that we put the city on and I want to continue on that path and sort of take it to the next level.”
The Barrie mayor has always discussed the willingness to do things differently and never be afraid to do so. After doing the job for eight years, his view is that a lot of the way the government is doing things right now is not really sustainable.
“We keep treating the problems and symptoms, rather than getting to the root causes of the issue,” Lehman explained. “And whether that is very human problems like the opioids crisis or homelessness or other stuff we take care of like water systems and roads and transportation, we really have to think differently about a whole lot of things.
“And in general, the way we need to be thinking is why do these things happen in the first place and how do we start addressing those things rather than waiting until there is a problem and patching it, or running out in an emergency or otherwise.”
Lehman points to the health system as a great example of this.
“We’ve built an incredible hospital and incredible healthcare system to treat you once you get sick, but we do so little in many ways to help people from getting sick in the first place,” he said. “We have whole care systems for the elderly in our communities. How can we help them live better at home?
“A lot of those things make a whole lot of sense even if they weren’t the right answers for people and preventing problems from happening is always a good thing, of course. The best fire is the fire that never happens because of fire prevention or otherwise prevented a disaster.”
“It’s also the key to us being financially sustainable, because it’s incredibly expensive to fix a problem after it’s happened and it’s far, far less expensive, in so many ways, to fix problems before they happen and to fix the root problems that cause them.”
With the first working meeting of 2019 taking place on Jan. 7, there remains much work and important issues for council to tackle.
The economy is, of course, always front and centre. Lehman believes they’ve been able to build up Barrie’s ability to grow a business, creating what he calls an ecosystem here with Georgian College and the city to support business formation and most importantly business expansion.
The Barrie mayor believes while business success comes from the businesses themselves, at the very least the city needs to be a supportive environment and hopefully assist with growing those companies along the way.
“Job No. 1, I always say, is going to be about jobs,” Lehman said. “It’s about building a Barrie where people feel that there are careers here, where young people want to come back to Barrie because they see it as a place of opportunity.
“If there’s a legacy I will want to leave Barrie, it’s that we won’t be a bedroom community. We’ll be a place where there’s a lot of stuff going on. The companies are choosing to locate here, choosing to grow here rather than having to leave town to grow.”
And in a new economy where companies do have a lot more choice about where to locate, that’s especially important Lehman says.
“A tech company can be anywhere, so we want to make sure that it wants to be in Barrie,” the 43-year-old added.
Also right at the top of important issues to tackle is the downtown, which has become a focus again because of the challenges around the opioid crisis and otherwise in the west end.
Lehman says there’s been some success there with storefronts, with the exception of one or two, being full.
“It’s actually in better shape than some of the other retailers in the city, but we do have some social challenges there,” the 46th Mayor of the City of Barrie said of downtown.
He believes there is also opportunity there with the Market Project at the Bus Terminal and with the Fisher Auditorium and Convention Centre.
“A convention centre downtown and a market downtown would really transform it, and I really think at that point we’d be in a situation where two major economic drivers bringing tourists into the core, not just to the waterfront, but into the downtown right beside it.”
The Barrie mayor believes that will be good for everybody in the city, including those living in the in the south end.
“Because it’s going to strengthen the economy and it’s going to strengthen the city’s financial position and help with their taxes,” he said. “But most of all it will boost our economy, I think.”
The opioid crisis and homelessness crisis are social issues that the city has to play a part in tackling. Lehman believes many hands will be needed to tackle these kinds of issues, with the provincial and federal governments, along with the health unit and the county, all needing to join forces.
Lehman heard about it door to door in the run-up to the election. People are concerned and he says no question it has to be a priority.
“We got hit, but we got hit hard,” he explained. “The opioid crisis has been raging in Vancouver, in some ways, for 20 years and particularly in the last 10. It took about two years ago for us to really see the numbers start to spike locally here.
“Even after it had hit other cities it didn’t hit Barrie, but then when it did hit here it really hit here. We thought this summer, particularly, it’s very concerning, and addressing that may have not been on the radar two years ago. But it sure is now.”
Born and raised in Barrie, Lehman and his wife, Jennifer, are raising nine-year-old daughter, Cassie, here. His parents built a business in Barrie and he was a Barrie Central Collegiate high school student when the city lost major manufactures like General Tire and with it many well-paying jobs.
Which is why it’s so important for Lehman that his family and others don’t have to go through that kind of phase in Barrie because the manufactures here are strong and growing, and their economy is strong and growing.
So far, he thinks there’s been some success there.
“In the last five years we’ve actually seen growth in manufacturing in Barrie,” he said. “We’ve seen some plants expand, some new companies build new manufacturing plants and that’s all about building a strong economic future.
“We do all those things. We keep our community safe, we try and build great public parks and projects, and we try to build a strong economy for our kids, so the place is better where we leave it, than when we found it.”
PHOTO: Barrie Mayor Jeff Lehman says tackling the homelessness issue and opioid crisis is of the upmost importance as he begins his third term at the helm of the city. GENE PEREIRA PHOTO