BOOTH: Surrey’s next mayors will be kept busy coping with Watts’ costly successes

Dianne Watts ended months of speculation Saturday by announcing she would not be seeking a fourth term as Surrey’s mayor.

Fittingly, Watts made the announcement during the Party for the Planet festival staged at the new Surrey City Hall – an event and a structure that both came into existence under her watch.

Watts’ legacy is impressive as she left her mark – both for good and for otherwise – across the city. Her impact is most noteworthy in Whalley – sorry, City Centre – where a longtime eyesore of an area has been spiffed up with new buildings and roadwork. Millions of dollars have been spent to make the neighbourhood attractive to both residents and business interests including a sparkly bauble of a library, an impressive new recreation centre and the aforementioned new Surrey City Hall complex.

Nearby Holland Park has been spruced up and is a popular site for outdoor concerts and festivals, while artwork dots the SkyTrain pillars and green spaces adding to the fresh and creative ambiance of the area.

Watts and her Surrey First team kept a lid on property tax hikes, giving the city the lowest rates in the region. This in turn powered Surrey’s pace of rapid growth with condo and housing construction sites popping up all over the city. Even as the rest of economy reeled from the financial crunch of 2008, Surrey’s population continued to swell with more than 1,200 people moving to the city every month.

Watts was a tireless promoter and defender of Surrey. During her nine years in the mayor’s chair, public festivals such as the 2010 Olympic festivities, Party for the Planet, Fusion Fest, and the short-lived Surrey International World Music Marathon made Surrey a destination for both residents and others who live in the Lower Mainland. The annual Canada Day celebrations in Cloverdale have grown into one of the largest in the province, filled with live music and the proverbial fun for the whole family.

A series of economic summits featuring famous keynote speakers from around the world also drew attention to Surrey, both with the star appeal they generated and the inevitable protesters who turned up for the events.

Watts was all about getting things done and when something stained her vision for the city, it wasn’t long before corrective measures were taken.

Dead bodies turning up along a remote stretch of Colebrook Road? Spend $80,000 on more lighting and closed circuit cameras of the dump site.

A new record for murders in Surrey? A task force was put together to address the problem.

A hockey mom is murdered outside of Newton Arena? Within a week, the parking lots outside ice rinks across the city sported improved lighting while the Newton Arena lot was patrolled by extra security guards.

Action is nice when required, but some things need longer term planning and thought to pull off, and such considerations weren’t always heeded in the Watts era.

The gentrification of Whalley World looks pretty, but more care was needed in accounting for the people who already called the neighbourhood home. The area surrounding the pretty new buildings is scattered with aging apartment blocks, many filled with low-income residents, not to mention the homeless people who dwell in the area’s parks and alleys.

The new upscale vision of the area does not account for these people, or the social services located nearby that cater to their needs. To a large degree, Whalley’s problems have been solved by strewing City Centre’s dirty laundry throughout Guildford and Newton. The changing landscape is forcing services such as the Surrey Food Bank to seek new locations where they can more effectively help their clients.

Surrey First’s love of development at all costs is creating a city with curb appeal, but is structurally unsound. Monster homes continue their unimpeded march across the suburban landscape, bringing with them increased demand on infrastructure and city services.

The lower tax rate is nice for property owners, but it is also irresponsible given the massive growth rate of Surrey’s population. Lower taxes mean lower revenues for a city that struggles to keep up with the roads, sewers, lighting, schools, garbage removal, parks and other city services needed to accommodate such growth.

East Clayton and Grandview Heights have become massive construction sites in the past decade and already the cracks are showing. Schools are filled to capacity, streets are clogged with parked cars, and in Clayton especially, there is a dearth of the recreation centres, parks and other amenities that make a city livable.

Watts has done a lot of good for Surrey during her three terms leading the city, but the next mayor – and most likely several beyond that – will have their hands full coping with the costs of Surrey First’s success.

Michael Booth can be reached at mbooth@thenownewspaper.com

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