Eying the mayor's chair from the boardroom seat

Jeff Cooke says his experience outside of muni hall will help him lead council

Most people know Jeff Cooke as the face of the Squamish Off-Road Cycling Association, but he is hoping he soon becomes better known as the mayor of Squamish.

Cooke, who recently stepped down as president of SORCA to run in the municipal election, also heads up Sea to Sky Crime Stoppers and is franchisee, president, and master trainer with dog training company Bark Busters.

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He previously campaigned for a seat on council in 2011, but was unsuccessful.

In our continuing coverage of the candidates for the upcoming Oct. 20 election, The Chief sat down with Cooke for a wide-ranging chat about Squamish issues and why he thinks he would make a good mayor.

What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

Q: What are some of the first things you would like to tackle as mayor?

A: The big thing I see facing our community is the imbalance between residential development and economic development. Reversing that trend is the number one thing in my head that we have to fix because it has so many flow-on impacts from affordability, to the social fabric of our community and providing for the business tax base that is going to help fund the hole in our infrastructure budget.

We right now have about 4,000 new homes on the books, not counting what has been built. Maybe, if we continue on the same track with economic development, in that same timeframe we will have maybe 300 or 400 new jobs. So, you are going to end up with another 3,600 families where someone is going to be on the road, leaving our community and going to work.

The stat in the 2017 Vital Signs report was about 47 per cent of people were commuting.  If we continue with this pattern for the next five years we could have two-thirds of the community leaving every morning to go to work and coming back every evening. That is a fundamental change in our community.

When you look at volunteer organizations, one of the main challenges is finding people to volunteer. With SORCA, and other boards I have served on, most volunteers live and work here or are retired.

If you keep boosting the number of people who have to commute to earn a living you end up putting all the burden of volunteering on a very few people's shoulders and I think you see that with the challenges Test of Metal and the Brackendale Fall Fair faced getting the next generation of volunteers. Now we are getting into a situation where our community is starting to deteriorate.

In the past, when you had a small community where the majority of people lived and worked here, you had the businesses who would always step up to fund the hospital, to build the ball fields, to do all that stuff.

If most of the people are working in the city, their companies aren't donating back to Squamish. So, we face this huge financial drain and then on top of that, you have the affordability issue that you need another car, longer daycare hours. Or one partner has to stay home and watch the kids — so we can't have two in a family out earning.

More than that, the kind of town we all moved here for, certainly what I moved here for and love, is feeling connected and engaged being able to be part of the PAC or help out at the food bank. That is fun stuff and it brings people together and it makes people feel part of the community.

 

Q: We do have a ton of jobs available, they are just low income, service jobs, so how do we flip that around so we have better-paying employment?

A: We have to get very aggressive about recruiting companies to come here.

And there are a couple of issues related to that. The better our amenities are in this town, the more we can make it attractive to people who love the outdoors — if we can make it the best place on the planet to live then you market that to companies that value that for their employees.

We started to do something like that with the whole idea with Bob Cheema and his land by creating a rec-tech business centre hub that would then become more of a magnet for other companies to say, ‘Hey we want to be there." We can't keep building the same old stuff that appears in Surrey and build it here. We have to differentiate this community.

I have a very extensive marketing background and just knowing how you can market this town and how you can position it compared to any other town. We have so much going for us, but we have never really turned the dial to leverage that to our advantage. We have been waiting for things to happen to us and have not been proactive.

 

Q:  You were part of branding committee behind Hardwired for Adventure.  Currently, many locals tell us it is too busy. There are too many tourists. If we are drawing all these people to Squamish how do we manage that growth so it is also still a pleasant place to live?

A: We are drawing them to live here. We are set to have those 4,000 homes. This place is going to be jammed with people soon. That is a result of the policies that the current administration has put in place.

We have a chance to make it less crowded in terms of transportation because we can get people off the highway by creating jobs here. Tourism is always going to be a part of Squamish, but we have focused too much on it to drive things.

The key for me is creating those long-term sustainable jobs with companies that are connected here.  We will still have the same number of people but we will be creating more jobs for them so there is less commuting on the highway.

Tourism growth needs to managed better with the right parking and the right infrastructure. When we did the branding study, that was a recommendation five years ago and it has taken five years to get porta-potties at some of the most important trailheads.

That was a key piece of that whole puzzle. It wasn't about the logo, it was about really getting the amenities for people who are coming here so people say this is an awesome place to be.

 

Q: One of the projects you are going to have before you if you become mayor is Garibaldi at Squamish —  they want Squamish to annex them.  What is your take on that project?

A: We need to see what the full proposal is. I think it is too early to say, ‘Yes, this is a great idea.' I know they have been pushing it hard, but we don't know the full picture and what the benefit is to Squamish.  Whether it is Garibaldi at Squamish or any new development, I think we need to take a new tact. We need to look at if this project is a net benefit when we consider all the costs. If it is not a benefit to Squamish, it shouldn't go ahead, regardless.

The cost of developments — some of it gets covered by development cost charges — but a lot of it doesn't. The extra strain on rec centres, the library on hospitals, on construction traffic on roads.

That all gets borne by current taxpayers, which seems to me blatantly unfair. I don't think we have done a very good job of negotiating a fair deal for the people of Squamish in these situations.

We need a fair return for the impact that things have on the current people of Squamish. We cannot be subsidizing and giving breaks — like the tax breaks for the oceanfront. That is unfathomable to me, in this real estate climate.

 

Q: Right, but some of what you are saying is exactly what current council has said against the Cheema project, which you have supported, is it not?

A: What we are trying to do with Bob [Cheema] is get to the place where the project is a net benefit to Squamish. Part of the analysis is going to be, ‘What is going to be the cost?' I don't think anyone has run the numbers, we just keep hearing this is going to be really expensive. And some of the same councillors who oppose it, are the same ones who support Garibaldi Springs. Just up the road when you get to Bob's property, all of a sudden, that is sprawl? That seems arbitrary to me.

If it is not good for our town, we don't want to push it.

I am not part of the SORCA board now, but I know their direction. They aren't going to support this if it doesn't make sense for our town, not just for mountain bikers, but for the whole town. We think it is a really interesting and innovative approach. There's tons of potential there, and we have been able to negotiate a pretty big chunk of land that will save almost all these iconic trails.

 

Q: Given your connection with the Cheema project, aren't you going to have to recuse yourself as mayor from all the decisions on that project?

A: I would like to get advice on that and see if I would have to or not. I am not exactly sure whether I would or not. I am certainly not involved in any of the discussions anymore.

If I had to though, I would recuse myself and I am fine with that.

 

Q: You are known as a nice guy. Even in talking to the paper over the years you have shied away from taking political stands. How is it going to be for you, taking stands that might make you less than popular with people who have supported you in the past?

A: I really don't see myself as a politician. I am more of a pragmatist and I can get things done. That is kind of my talent. Being agreeable and friendly helps to do that. It helps to build coalitions of support so you can get to an outcome that is better than anything you could ever imagine.

I don't like to take a confrontational approach to anything. I don't think it serves anybody in any negotiations. As soon as you start to fight and say, ‘I am right, and you are wrong,' it is game over.  For me, it is a style that has worked to accomplish a lot of tricky things. I know what I believe and I will stick to that. That doesn't mean I can't be friendly while I do it.

 

Q: What do you want to say about Woodfibre LNG?

A: If I had my choice we probably wouldn't have LNG and we would all be out of our cars and we would be fossil-fuel free. But that isn't the case. The project is going ahead. It isn't what everyone wants, but it is time to make lemonade.

Now is the time we have to get in there and negotiate what is best for Squamish from a taxation point of view and from an environmental point of view. We can take a page from the leadership Squamish Nation has shown. If it is going ahead, we need to extract the best deal for Squamish that we can.

There's a lot of division still in the community and it is a scar that people are ready to start to heal. They don't want this dividing them from their friends, for the next four years.

 

Q: This council, and Mayor Patricia Heintzman in particular, have done a good job of building a bridge with the leadership of the Squamish Nation, how do you see yourself continuing that?

A: I think we definitely need to continue that. We saw it early on in the mountain biking community because we have a lot of our trails on traditional territory. That is why I reached out to the Nation many years ago to name some of our largest trails with First Nations traditional names.

We have two Squamish Nation youth on our trail crew this year, too. They are doing an awesome job. We have been partnering with the Nation in ways like that. With Crime Stoppers, I meet with the elders and it has been well received. Obviously, the RCMP and First Nations have had a tense relationship.

What I am good at is building these connections and these bridges.

 

Q: A mayor is just one vote on a council, it isn't like a CEO of a company. So, why are you going for mayor and not a councillor given you haven't been in local government before?

A: I have heard that I don't have that experience. But I look at the track record of the past mayors who have had that experience.  Have they been exemplary mayors? Has the fact that they served on council allowed them to outperform anybody else? I look at where we are now and how we haven't negotiated and I look at where our jobs and economic development are. This pattern that we have been on  — of not being a mayor until you've been a councillor — is broken. We can't keep on that same path. We need someone with business experience — with what you learn in the corporate world. You do not have the luxury of sitting around for four years to make things happen in the corporate world. You make it work in six months, or you are out. That is how I have been trained. We haven't seen that urgency from any of the past mayors.

There are certain technical aspects that you have to learn to hold office, but I think I can learn that in six months.

What makes a good mayor? In my mind, it is someone who can be strategic and set a really clear vision and continue to communicate that. Who can set priorities and stick to them and who can understand the financial side and manage a large business with a good business head and who can bring the team together. That is the most important things to consider when picking a mayor.

 

 

 

 

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