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  • Writer's pictureESSEX FREE PRESS

Council adopts Community Services Master Plan, a multi-year guiding document

by Sylene Argent, Local Journalism Initiative

Essex Council gave official approval to the Community Services Master Plan on Monday evening.

This is a document that will guide Council for the next 15-years regarding improving, protecting, and expanding the Town’s park system, facilities, recreational programs, and cultural services. It will also set out specific policies and standards to direct day-to-day decisions.

This document will update the 2015 Parks and Recreation Master Plan. Most of the goals laid out in the 2015 documents were accomplished.

The nearly 100-page document – which consulting firm, Stantec, created after engagement with the community and staff with the Town of Essex, in addition to comparative analysis – was presented at a Special Council Meeting on November 20, 2023. The meeting, however, did not have enough time for Council to ask questions. Therefore, it was brought back on Monday evening for official adoption.

Members of the Town of Essex’s Administration have been working with Stantec since November 2022 to create the Community Services Master Plan.

This process involved three phases: background research; strategic direction; and action plan,

implementation and monitoring.

Jake Morassut, Essex’s Director of Community Services, noted through his Report to Council on the guiding document that one of the most noticeable trends is the change in demographics the Town can expect in the coming years, which is important to consider when planning for the future.

The population of the municipality is increasing, as is the median age of the residents. To date, 22% of the municipality are those over the age of 65, it notes.

As the statistics showed, the Town of Essex is in a good spot in terms of recreation, but there are a few things to keep in mind to paint the bigger picture, Morassut said.

“Demographics are changing as we are seeing 39% of the municipalities over the age of 55. This means we need more activities that focus on older adults, be it the amenities themselves or the programs we offer. This goes hand-in-hand with accessibility as well.”

Morassut said the Town of Essex needs to put a focus on accessibility in the facilities as Ontario is expecting one in five individuals will have a disability by the year 2036.

The Report noted Council also saw the current inventory of parks and facilities, which includes 21 parks, 59 hectares of total parkland (or 2.78 hectares/1,000 persons), 13 neighbourhood parks, and eight community parks. This data was used to compare each of our facilities with other municipalities to determine recommended service levels.

The Master Plan makes 111 recommendations which are broken down into seven different categories: Legislative and Policy; Parks, Trails and Open Spaces; Indoor Recreational Facilities; Cultural Facilities; Programs and Service Delivery; Financing, Management and Staff Strategies; and Implementation and Monitoring.

It has 39 short-term recommendations, 37 mid-term recommendations, and 37 long-term recommendations.

The Master Plan provides recommendations on the level of service to provide to residents, which are recommended service levels in comparison to other municipalities. What is not accounted for is the quality and sizing of the existing amenities. For example, he noted some are for specific age groups only, like tee-ball baseball diamonds.

The Town, Morassut said, also needs to have a multi-use approach to ensure field space is not under-utilized.

He added pickleball is a rapidly expanding sport and Essex’s multi-use courts (tennis and pickleball) are being utilized steadily throughout the municipality. While the statistics show the Town of Essex has a higher-level of service than other municipalities, courts are at full capacity and there is room for expansion to better accommodate pickleball users.

Since coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, Morassut said individuals are more focussed on recreation. Individuals have more of a health-conscious mindset and are more focussed on mental health.

Councillor Katie McGuire-Blais thanked staff and Stantec for the document. She did voice concerns, however, regarding how the document describes some of the facilities. For example, it may indicate the Town has a certain number of basketball courts. She noted a more accurate description would be of a basketball net in many instances.

She also spoke of how the report indicates there’s a soccer field available at Big Hill Park, however, she noted that it can often get underwater during rainy seasons and become unusable.

“We do have these fields, but they do need work. Those things were deceiving,” McGuire-Blais said of the report. “I think the same thing is true of Hunter Park...it is usually underwater as well, making it useless for kids to play on.”

She believes the Town does need to focus on the ageing demographic, in addition to adolescents and young adults.

“We are seeing a little bit more graffiti, a little bit more damage to our parks and to our buildings. And I do truly believe that’s because these young adolescents, these young adults don’t have much to do.”

Councillor Kim Verbeek liked that the Master Plan addressed the ageing population. She asked why the recommendations pertaining to forming partnerships with different community members were categorized in the long-term list in the document.

Morassut noted that is something that is ongoing in perpetuity.

Morassut noted that recommendations outlined in the long-term list in the Master Plan does not mean the Town will not do anything with that item until that time, it is projected to be ongoing until that point.

“We just anticipate it is going to take that amount of time to get to that stage where it is finalized,” he explained.

The Town of Essex, Councillor Joe Garon said, offers a lot in terms of programming. He wondered if the Town is missing out on youths and even young adults having to go outside of the area to play in certain leagues, whether it be slo-pitch or hockey.

He would like to find arena space where the Town could run more leagues that people could show up and pay to play.

Morassut said the Town has done this previously, but on weekdays. Prime time use for the ice is booked, he noted. So, staff doesn’t necessarily see times available to do that for specific programs in that instance.

Garon also asked about the potential for cricket at the future Essex Sports Fields, as he has heard some interest growing in the sport.

Morassut noted he has done some preliminary research on that. To be able to use that future sports field facility for cricket, it would need to use the area that would take over basically two baseball diamonds as the fields used for this sport are massive. He knows that the Town is looking into options. The plan for the future Essex Sports Fields was created based on feedback from the community, and that does need to be kept in mind.

In answering Garon’s question regarding baseball usage and how the report notes that Essex’s diamonds are 100% booked, Morassut explained that means the user-groups have use of the fields for that time. Staff is looking to see if there is a better way to book the user-groups, so it is known when they book diamond time, if the facilities will actually be in use.

Council voted to adopt the Community Services Master Plan.

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