PETER CONRADI/Bullet News
The newsmaker of the year for 2012 is not a wirewalker. It is not an athlete. Not a politician, not a businessperson, a bureaucrat, or even a volunteer. The newsmaker of the year in Niagara is a building – a billion-dollar building, mind you – and one that is going to change our community for a generation.
The completion of the new St. Catharines hospital, combined with the regional cancer and cardiac-care centres, marks the most important advances we have seen in half a century. Maybe more.
All we can say is, despite the controversy in getting here, it’s about time.
The buildings aren’t accepting patients yet. That happens in March. Still, the fact that a decade-long project filled with dissension finally was completed and turned over to the Niagara Health System marked the single most important event of 2012. The new hospital complex was either front-and-centre – or hovering in the backdrop – of almost every local health story.
“It’s a great day for the Niagara Health System, a great day for the community,” said St. Catharines MPP Jim Bradley, who was there in November when the NHS took ownership. “These things don’t happen overnight, I can assure you of that.”
It’s been joked that Bradley began advocating for the new hospital when he was first elected in 1977. That may only be a slight exaggeration. The health system will spend the next several months testing the equipment, training more than 3,000 workers, and preparing for moving current patients from the old General site. The new place opens and becomes a hospital on March 24. But essentially it’s done.
St. Catharines has a new 980,000-square-foot health centre and the region is home to long-awaited cancer and cardiac units.
The chemotherapy area, with 41 stations, is almost double what the NHS has right now and features specialized isolation and segregation rooms for infection control. And although the NHS has been carrying out chemotherapy for years, until now patients requiring radiation treatments had to travel to Hamilton or to Toronto, often every day for weeks at a time. No more.
“That’s the last thing people want to do when they are facing probably the worst chapter in their lives,” Deb Matthews said. “This community should feel very proud.”
Bradley said he can’t wait for the official ribbon cutting in March and for the public at large to see what they now have.
“This is not an expenditure, it is an investment,” he said. “People will be so impressed.”
Maybe the hospital will be in the running as top newsmaker in 2013. But that’s OK. Wayne Gretzky won the Hart Trophy more than once, too.
2. Nik Wallenda. There can be little doubt that the American daredevil captured the imagination of the world when we walked a tightrope across the Horseshoe Falls in the summer. Some 100,000 people crowded Niagara Falls for a glimpse and 3.8 million watched on TV in Canada. It was the sixth most-watched special event show in Canada for 2012.
Circumstances leading up to the actual walk made it a showman’s dream. There was the initial resistance from the Niagara Parks Commission to even hold the event, then there was a demand from ABC that Wallenda be tied to the wire as a safeguard in case of a fall.
All went off superbly, though, and Wallenda walked into the history books and into Niagara Falls lore. Next up for him is a crossing of the Grand Canyon this summer – without a tether, he says.
Wallenda says he still wants to establish some kind of performance centre in Niagara Falls, but there is no word that any progress on this has actually started.
3. Jay Cochrane. Quietly, if such a term can be used to describe such a feat, Cochrane was the second half of the summer of tightrope walkers in Niagara Falls. Every day, all summer long, Cochrane made his journey from a wire suspended from the Skylon Tower to the Hilton Hotel. Only rain and wind knocked him off his schedule.
Cochrane raised money for the Tender Wishes Foundation and the Boys and Girls Club of Niagara. He plans to be back in the Falls next summer for his retirement shows. He reportedly will bring an end to his career with a performance at the Canadian National Exhibition in late August or early September.
4. Janice Thomson. Appointed to a second term as chairwoman of the Niagara Park Commission, Thomson in 2012 solidified her position as one of the leading and most powerful tourism operatives in the area. She runs the Niagara-on-the-Lake Chamber of Commerce and tourism office, sits on the Niagara Bridge Commission and now also co-chairs the Tourism Partnership of Niagara.
It is her role as head of the Parks Commission that most often has her in the spotlight, though. Still, she has steered the government agency with a principled and yet pragmatic style of leadership.
Thomson raised eyebrows when she personally opposed allowing Nik Wallenda to walk across the Horseshoe Falls, and convinced enough commissioners (almost all of them) to side with her. But when politicians, including the minister of tourism and Premier Dalton McGuinty, made their feelings known, Thomson was sensible enough to rethink her position. Wallenda’s show went on and it became a huge success story for the region and for the Commission.
Thomson subsequently had no objections to the Red Bull Crashed Ice event in December, but did ensure a contract was ironed out that would not cost the Parks Commission any money. She is now supporting the Parks’ examination of bringing zip-line rides to the property.
5. Gary Burroughs. The Regional chairman has a tough job. Maybe the toughest in all of Niagara politics. No, definitely the toughest in all of Niagara. He is presiding over what has become a dysfunctional collection of politicians – one which has made some achievements in the first half of its four-year term, but seldom without rancor.
Burroughs says his job for 2013 is to reign that in. He knows there are problems at the Region – witness the departure of three senior executives near the end of the year. But at least he isn’t hiding from the problems – and he is accepting his share of the blame. Burroughs says his focus for 2013 is jobs. But, if we are to believe his inaugural speech two years ago, it is also to get a reluctant council to start talking about governance – if not a total amalgamation of communities, then at least a merging of services where it makes financial sense. If he can’t pull it off, the Region should be looking for a new chairman come 2015.
6. Kevin Smith. The handpicked supervisor of the Niagara Health System has been on this list before. Justifiably so. And he’s justifiably back.
He is the man everyone will praise if the NHS turns around, he is the man everyone will blame if things don’t improve. In 2012 he unveiled his plan for improving health care, recommending the government build a second new hospital in south Niagara.
It has not been an easy sell. Welland, Port Colborne and Wainfleet have come out swinging against the suggestion that the hospital be in Niagara Falls, despite pledging their support for whatever decision Smith made.
Health Minister Deb Matthews said community involvement and support are keys to making a massive undertaking like a new hospital come to life – whether it be through financial or moral backing.
“There are a lot of communities in Ontario asking for a new hospital,” she said. “Certainly, when a community comes together and supports a project like this, it is more likely to happen.”
In June, the mayors of Niagara Falls, Port Colborne, Welland Fort Erie, Pelham and Wainfleet along with regional chairman Gary Burroughs unanimously recommend two potential sites for a new south Niagara hospital to Niagara Health System provincial supervisor Kevin Smith. The panel selected the intersection of Highway 140 and East Main St. in Welland, and near Lyon’s Creek Road and the QEW in Niagara Falls.
When Smith chose the Niagara Falls location among his recommendations to Matthews about restructuring hospital services in Niagara he set off another round of bickering among the municipalities. While Smith has warned that such squabbling could derail the new hospital altogether, Matthews has said it twice while in Niagara.
The other big hurdle for Smith this year is to name a new board and hire top executives to run the NHS.
7. Brian McMullan. The mayor of St. Catharnes and his council pushed forward on major infrastructure initiatives that, while not universally supported, are going to alter the face of Niagara’s largest city.
St. Catharines has for many years languished behind other communities in terms of arts and recreational services for residents. In 2012 it opened a new library and swimming pool, a new downtown parking garage, broke ground on a new arena, and plans to do so soon for a performing arts centre, and a school for performing arts in partnership with Brock University.
Now all the city has to do is pay for it.
8. Mike Strange. More than 1,000 people piled into Optimist Park in July to welcome home former boxer Mike Strange from his cross-Canada ‘Box Run’ trek. Strange received loud cheers and applause as he ran the last few hundred metres down Morrison Street from Oakes Park, accompanied by a motorcade and a Niagara Regional Police escort.
Strange, 42, began his journey April 12 in Thunder Bay. He had drawn inspiration for his journey from a pair of Niagara children — Kelsey Hill, a 13-year-old Stevensville girl who succumbed to a brain tumour earlier this year and from 11-year-old Matteo Mancini of St. Catharines, who just this past September lost part of his left leg to cancer.
Proceeds from Strange’s effort will go to Childhood Cancer Canada.
9. Jim Thibert. The historic Fort Erie Race Track shut down for good in 2012. Or did it? Not if Thibert has anything to ay about it.
In March, the Ontario Liberal government announced an end to the slots-at-race-track program as part of the 2012 budget. That effectively meant the end of money supporting tracks all over the province. That in turn could only mean disaster for the industry.
“We don’t know what will happen, and that’s just part of the problem,” said Thibert, chief executive of the Fort Erie Live Racing Consortium.
Thibert said the Commission is continuing to pound away at the economic benefits of horse racing to the community, and is still meeting with provincial government officials to try, maybe against all odds, for a change of heart. And there are always talks of selling to mystery buyers. For now at least it looks like the track is done. But Thibert isn’t ready to quit.
“We’ve had a Plan A and B and C…well now I am on Plan G. I’m not closing this place. Not today, not ever. We are never going to give up.”
Excavation of mass animal graves discovered at Marineland under the supervision of Ministry of the Environment inspectors in late December. No results have been made public.
It was the latest in a string of problems for the Niagara Falls theme park. The OSPCA has inspected Marineland at least twice last summer following a series of Toronto Star stories alleging animal neglect. Former staff members told the Star the park’s dolphins, sea lions and walruses were exposed to poor water quality, which has resulted in peeling skin in the case of the dolphins and blindness in the sea lion and walrus population at the 51-year-old theme park. Concerns were also raised over diet and living condition for bears, bison and deer at the facility.
Holer and Marineland have insisted they are doing nothing wrong. Judging from the full parking lots again this season, a lot of people believe them.