Housing has to be the focus

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There have been a lot of lingering questions about Dysart’s recent $1.725 million deal to acquire 91.5-acres of vacant land outside Haliburton village.

Why this parcel? Why so much money? What does Dysart plan to do with it?

We touched base with the key players involved in the deal – notably Dysart mayor Murray Fearrey and local businessmen Paul Wilson and Andrew Hodgson. They were all aligned in thinking this property is the last chance Dysart has to meaningfully grow Haliburton village. Debatable given the swathes of empty land heading out of town along Hwy. 118.

Though, given the acreage is close enough to town that it could easily tie into the municipal sewer system and connects to land Dysart owns along Industrial Park Road, potentially creating a second access point to any future development, I definitely see the upside.

Wilson, who has made a career out of developing vacant land in the Highlands, believes the property could accommodate more than 200 new homes. Fearrey said he sees a range of housing options at the site, from single family detached to multi-unit residential – apartments and condos.

If there’s one thing we need more of in Haliburton County, it’s housing. With experts predicting our population could grow by as many as 10,000 people over the next 30 years, we need places where those people can live. From that perspective, I do see this as a win.

It is a gamble though, and the fact it’s being made using taxpayer money is cause for concern. Former mayor Andrea Roberts correctly surmised a council’s job is to ensure the municipality is as risk averse as humanly possible. Any number of things could happen over the next few years to jeopardize this development.

Fearrey said it was the township’s intention to sell the land to a builder to develop. With how unstable the economy seems heading into 2024, what happens if we enter into another recession? What if, once everyone has done their homework, there’s no outside interest to develop the land? The township would be in an incredibly difficult position.

It is concerning too that Fearrey appears to have negotiated this deal himself before involving the rest of council.

Ever since the October 2022 municipal election, there’s been an awkward perception that Dysart council has become a one-man operation, with Fearrey calling the shots. Hearing how the mayor first contacted Wilson to inquire about the land, and then dealt with Hodgson directly on the finer details, before bringing it back to his fellow elected officials, feels off.

The mayor has done this previously. He was instrumental in the deal that brought the Gardens of Haliburton retirement residence to town during a previous term. That arrangement has worked out well for the town. Maybe this will too.

The night of his acclamation, Fearrey told The Highlander he would solve Haliburton’s housing crisis this term. At the time, it seemed a massive stretch – it still does – but this deal at least presents some hope that more housing options, and substantial ones at that, are coming down the pipeline.

The one thing that leaves me scratching my head is the talk of a new arena and curling club. While they would be nice things to have, you have to wonder where the money is coming from. The final cost of Minden’s new arena was north of $13 million – and that was pre-inflation. Adding a second building to that, you’re likely talking in the ballpark of $20 million. Dysart doesn’t have that kind of money and borrowing it would cripple the township, and its taxpayers, financially for decades.

A shiny, new arena should not be a priority. As much as the Minden-Haliburton rivalry still burns bright, and things like arenas are used as points in a nonsensical game of one-upmanship, housing has to be the number one focus here. I hope council keeps sight of that.