Robin Williams in Cabin Radio's Studio One in September 2018. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
Robin Williams stressed economic development as his primary concern in running for Yellowknife City Council.
In his election interview, Williams told Cabin Radio he sees Yellowknife as a northern Jasper or Banff waiting to happen.
“I think it’s time maybe Yellowknife has a council that really recognizes the value of economic development,” he said, advocating for policies that show the city is “open for business.”
As an example, he urged the use of a vacancy tax to address the issue of vacant downtown buildings and lots.
Williams said he would also push for enhanced homeless employment programs if elected.
There are 16 candidates standing for the eight positions on Yellowknife City Council. Election day is October 15, 2018.
This interview was recorded on September 10, 2018.
Ollie Williams: Why did you decide to run?
Robin Williams: So being a longtime Yellowknifer and a business owner in town, I’ve kind-of had a standard type of interaction with the public in Yellowknife, and that’s been great for a couple of decades. My wife and I just welcomed our second child into the world this summer, which was, you know, as the family grows, I’ve wanted to change how I interact with my community. I’ve always been a little bit politically driven and think it’s maybe the right time to throw my hat in, and see what kind of opportunities might be out there and how my skill sets might help get some things done around City Hall.
You mentioned you’re a business owner.
Roy’s Audio Video, a family-owned business. We’ve been in the downtown for the last 43 years, now. For the last 17 or so, I’ve taken over from my father, Roy, and done the day-to-day operations of the business. We grew, we changed locations in that time, we’ve added a Bell store, those types of things. That’s been my primary job. I’m also fairly involved in musical theatre. Some people might have seen me on stage or directing, maybe the Sound of Music or Beauty and the Beast, something along those lines.
What have people told you about this city that make you think, ‘Oh, I could solve that’? What’s top of your list?
Development. As somebody who does business with a lot of businesses, we’ve recently seen two headquarters leave the downtown – Dominion Diamond, for me, was the most heartbreaking one. A multitude of the employees were our customers and not only that, but them as a business themselves, they really, really invested a lot of money into the downtown of Yellowknife – all of Yellowknife. When you start to see some of that happen… and not only are they leaving downtown but there is nothing coming to replace it.
The other thing that I’ve noticed, just serving people, is our demographic is starting to change. Around the equinox there is a different type of traveller coming to Yellowknife, and I don’t think we are replacing the mines that are leaving with these new visitors. I think it’s time maybe Yellowknife has a council that really recognizes the value of economic development and really looks at investing into our town and trying to keep some of these residents that we have, and really welcome these new visitors we have and this great opportunity.
What has the current council, and past councils, done or not done that you think should have been done differently?
It’s not really… it’s about time. We’re on the cusp of a new community plan and that’s the thing council needs to get moving on right now. It’s not that they weren’t doing anything, it’s just that – where we are now – it’s time to re-look at that plan. I’d really like to focus on development, economic activity.
A few months back, at the end of June, there was an article about Chinese investors looking to do indoor aurora-viewing out at Grace Lake South. A $9 million facility invested into our community with really no cost to the taxpayer; I thought it would be a really good win-win. That was slowed, just because there was no specific community plan for the Grace Lake South area. Administration needs planning, and we have to recognize that – I think that’s a really important part of a community – so let’s get there. And also, let’s let, as much as we can, let people know that we are open for business and we are out there to hear interesting ideas. We are at the cusp of really becoming a leader in aurora tours and northern and Arctic tourism. It’s happening all over the world and we are competing against other jurisdictions. It’s time for us to really know that the competition is on now and the time for action is now. The more we wait for facilities like this, the more we are going to lose out to Scandinavia, the Yukon, those types of things.
But I can almost hear it in your voice that it’s a difficult balance to strike, between pushing ahead with development and making sure the right rules are in place. Let’s take Old Town as another example. Recently, city council had before it proposals around opening up Old Town – changing the rules slightly – on whether or not hotels, motels, bed-and-breakfasts can be developed in that area. What would your approach to something like that have been?
I would have been for that. It’s… which area are we talking about? What it ended up being was, if you’re heading towards the Brewpub on the right-hand side. I think there was a little bit of politics involved with that. Not understanding every side of that story, it would be tough to comment. Generally speaking though, as a guy who’s very pro short-term rental, I think we have a big glut in our economy right now where we don’t have enough hotel rooms or services for these visitors. Instead of us sending delegations across the world to get more visitors to come over when we don’t have any rooms for them, how about we get grass-root economy activity moving. Let’s get people to a certain standard. We need health standards, fire standards. Let’s figure out ways for that to not be a mountain for folks to get over. Let’s generate some municipal dollars through business licensing and taxation. Let’s lower the costs for the individual resident by giving them the opportunity to rent out a suite, whatever they have.
We sometimes lose sight. We are a pioneer town. You’re up here blazing radio in the Arctic, you know? Everybody has to have that pioneering spirit. Sometimes we lose sight that there is a uniqueness about visiting Yellowknife. As small businesses grow, they grow into large businesses, and turn into the Explorer Hotel and Chateau Novas and things like that. But I do believe, heavily, in grassroots economics. And I really believe there is a crafter out in Ndilo, there is Barren Ground Coffee – awesome, what a great little business that popped up, that a lot of us Yellowknifers are using. It’s not just great for visitors and the municipality, it’s great for Yellowknifers like you and me, because we have more selection. Wasn’t it heartbreaking when the Fat Fox was closing down? One less place, one less delicious scone that we had an opportunity to eat. If we get more people visiting, more people on the streets… and I don’t just focus that on downtown, there are a lot of great businesses on Old Airport Road or the Kam Lake area.
But hold on a second. Fifty extra people, if we open up some more AirBnBs in town and licence them, isn’t going to bring the Fat Fox back. You’re going to need another hotel or two to make the kind of economic difference you’re talking about. So, how is city council going to do that? Because it can’t do it on its own, can it?
No, but… I have faith in free business, in entrepreneurialism. One of the positions in my platform is for us to take a look at vacancy taxation, something that we haven’t been doing here.
Explain that for people, what does that mean?
A number of different jurisdictions have used it in different ways. Currently, Vancouver is using it for a residential crunch. Vancouver has a bunch of empty residential places and nowhere for anybody to rent and live, basically because they are being bought by overseas folks. Edmonton is trying to use it for revitalization of their downtown core. For example… this is a non-reality example, but there is Punky Brewsters downtown that used to be a hopping place in the 80s and is now a boarded-up concrete building. They are using taxation instruments to motivate the property owner to either clean up or get it rented, by raising the tax for that place. These empty buildings are an opportunity cost. How are we going to get a hotel coming? Well, I’m looking at a building right across here that’s shedding siding, that’s totally empty–
The Bellanca building, yep.
Pretty good opportunity. It’s built, there’s four walls. That’s a good start. I’m not the one to sort-of say what it is. It’s to make sure that we have policies that are pro-development, so if someone does come to city council or administration with ideas, those ideas get a warm reception. If they’re not in line with our current planning, let’s give them feedback so they can bring plans in line with what Yellowknife is looking for.
There is also land that has been bought here in Yellowknife and it’s not being used, because a developer has purchased it, put a development permit on it, and that permit stays with that piece of property. You don’t have to develop it, nor do we get the opportunity to tax it. We’re just recouping a very small amount of taxation. Again, it’s opportunity cost. More recently. we’re now starting to see the slow erosion of our downtown. It’s starting to become a public safety concern. We’ve had an abandoned building in a residential area catch fire and burn down. That’s right next to high-rises and other businesses. That’s dangerous. Not to pick on the same building twice, but we’ve also had that building start losing siding. Imagine that happening at lunchtime. That could have been a devastating story for Yellowknife. We’re just lucky that it happened at 6am or 7am, you know?
Let’s change topic, we’ve got a few minutes left. I want to know what you think about homelessness. Is city council getting it right?
I think it’s worth a try. I think we’ve had the conversations, we’ve sat around the table. They’ve agreed. I certainly wasn’t at the table during those discussions, but it wasn’t a unilateral decision.
What decision are you talking about?
The 10-year plan to end homelessness. That’s their specific plan and it’s focused on a housing model, and certainly, those that are investing time and energy into finding solutions to these things are pointing towards a housing model. We’ve been told by the people of Yellowknife that they want a solution for this, and a housing model has been presented to us. I think we are only one year into it and I think we absolutely, if it’s a 10-year model, we can’t throw out the basket after the first year. I definitely think we need to be moving towards that.
I think there are, however, other opportunities. Homeless employment programs, I think, are a great opportunity. You can start the road to recovery when you know that there’s a bit of a safety net, possibly, or that if you do a couple of things – wake up in the morning and show up at a location, that’s all I have to do – I can feed my family, or myself. I think employment programs are a great way of empowering people. I think somebody with 20 bucks in their pocket feels a lot better about themselves and their situation than somebody who doesn’t. The desperation on people’s faces is reduced.
It’s a big issue. Again, we are in a frontier town. There are populations that were here before. Yellowknife, as we see it now… I think there are a lot of issues tied up in that. I think we are trying to do the best we can. We went out, we asked some questions, we’ve been given a plan, and I think we should follow through that plan.
Who should be the next mayor of Yellowknife?
I’m not getting into that.
We have to get into that. You’re trying to get on council. Who do you want to sit with?
Well, actually… you know what, I’ve read both their websites, they are both excellent candidates.
There are four candidates.
Well… yes. Absolutely. I think, that being said… I think there are two candidates that have put forward a credible platform for Yellowknifers to discuss and debate. Great opportunity for Yellowknife. I was thinking about campaigning as councillor and I was almost saddened a bit: the city is going to lose one of their sets of ideas.
I’m in a position where I want to work with… if Yellowknife wants to choose Rebecca, I want to work with Rebecca. If Yellowknife wants to choose Adrian, then I’m right there beside him as well. The nice thing about a councillor is I’m one of eight, I’m a voice of Yellowknife. I don’t want to be the voice, I just want to be a voice. If we put a bunch of different people and perspectives around a table to have conversations about stuff that means something to Yellowknifers, then there’s that position of the mayor to maybe summarize it all.
That’s a choice for Yellowknifers. I have my own, personal vote, and I don’t think I really want to get into that. I’m running this campaign to represent businesspeople and families on council. That’s what I want to do and what I’m focused on doing.
Give us a 30-second summary of what your vision for this city is, at the end of this next term if you’ve had the chance to be on council and things go the way you hope they do.
I’d like to see us become a little Jasper, or a small Banff in the north of Canada. I would like to see more small business take root. When I first came back to Yellowknife after being gone, downtown Yellowknife was a hustle-bustle place, there were shops open everywhere. Yellowknife, at 15,000 people back then, somehow supported all of that. Somehow, here we are in 2018 with three or four thousand more people… and less activity. And I’m left thinking, well, what’s there for my little girl and my son? Maybe it’s time for me to get involved and see where those opportunities are, and see what I can do to get excited about entrepreneurialism, about people just sticking a shingle up. I really think that’s the start of everything, for us, you know?