Mayor Stewart Young lives and breathes Langford. We spoke with the Mayor of 27 years to find out more about his story, and the future of the town that he has seen transformed from a sleepy hamlet to a vibrant community that welcomes families and businesses alike.
Mayor Young speaks fondly of his time when he started out as the Mayor in 1992, when the community numbered only 14,000 people and unemployment was running at 20%.
“Our job was to try to find an economic stimulus, to find a way to create jobs and attract business. So, we rolled out the red carpet for business for the last 27 years, and that has created a lot of jobs obviously, our unemployment rate for the last 10 or 15 years has been approximately around two to 3%”
This transformation has seen Langford recognised as one of the fastest-growing cities in BC. Attracting businesses and creating jobs meant that Langford was not immune from the affordable housing crisis on Vancouver Island. We asked Mayor Young how the housing issue is being addressed in Langford
“We don't divide the community. We all work together to create an economy that is good for business and good for the workers. And we have the youngest demographic of the whole region. When you move a business here, there's a lot of young people here to fill those jobs -I think that's what was lacking before. We have an enthusiastic base that are supportive when we're attracting businesses and they get it, they understand. We want young people to be able to own their home, so we make it a priority to encourage development of affordable homes.”
“The goal is to have a strong economic footprint where you can raise a family in our community without having to move away for your job. There are enough jobs here now, there's an economy here that is self-sustaining.”
One of the community sustainability goals for the city is a ‘vibrant local economy’. For anyone who has been a regular visitor to Langford in the past 20 years the change is obvious. Mayor Young is famous for bringing Costco to the city, but he says the work to keep Langford vibrant has not stopped.
“We identified an urban core, which we’d never had before. We decided to densify our core, which is our economic engine consisting of a lot of small businesses. Economic stimulus is based on building a density in our core - making sure that we have walkable sidewalks, bike lanes, streetlights, which add ambiance in our downtown core on Goldstream Avenue.”
“If the community is missing anything, from lawyers to hair salons, we will roll out the red carpet when they get here and make them feel part of our community. If a business has a good experience, we are going to attract more businesses here. Not only do we roll out the red carpet, we do everything really fast. We understand that time is money for businesses, and we work to have all zoning a permits and zonings completed for businesses within three months.”
Building a community takes more than attracting business. As the home of Pacific FC, Langford put itself firmly on the map with sports fans in BC and across Canada. Westhills Stadium is also home to Rugby Canada, Westshore Rebels and JDF soccer.
The lightning speed of development and investment in the community shows no signs of slowing in Langford, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. Over half of the workforce in Langford is connected to the construction industry, which was exempt from many of the regulations that prevented people going to work. The City of Langford hired an additional 8 Bylaw Education Officers in a pro-active effort to help bring awareness to residents and businesses through the crisis.
“We're still moving forward, but we are doing it safely, making sure that our community gets through COVID-19. The City’s COVID-19 outreach team has contacted every business to listen to their problems, and provide the help and guidance they need to stay in business safely.”
“We have been able to provide protective personal equipment at cost like the visors, masks, to residents and businesses. We gave away the [physical distancing] markers, and we provided contacts to source Plexiglas. We’ve got a great team at City Hall that are helping our businesses and they know we have their backs. Our goal in Langford is to be economically sustainable and resilient no matter what is thrown at us.”
Being proactive rather than reactive has been a key part of Mayor Young’s approach since the very beginning. Growing up in a place that young people had to leave to find work, has driven him to ensure the creation of jobs in Langford. While attracting employers is important, Young recognises that the City must be careful to attract the right blend of different industries, especially the tech sector which has become a huge part in the island’s economy since he first became Mayor.
"The tech community in Langford is growing. Forest Technology Systems have been based in Langford for over 30 years. They manufacture remote environmental monitoring systems, instrumentation, and communications technology which are used by the top 50 government forest management agencies across Canada and the United States. We want to continue to grow the tech industry that we have, and attract more government offices.
“And of course, our service sector, which is really important, our restaurants and bars and places that people want to frequent in normal times. We want to have a well-rounded community.
As with much of the island, Langford is visited by a large number of tourists every year. Attracted by a downtown core that is bustling with business but also surrounded by nature, the city has expanded its reach and reputation in the region.
Technology companies like FTS and Charter have helped to put the city on the map. Royal Roads University has a variety of programs tailored specifically to the tech sector, helping to create the next generation of experts in the West Shore.
The city signed their British Columbia Climate Action Charter in 2007 and set a series of ambitious climate action targets around reducing emissions and energy use. These targets will have been met and exceeded in 2020, in no small part due to the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects on industry. Around the world, the natural world began to rebound from the effects of human-generated pollution and waste remarkably quickly.
Mayor Young also points to the densification of the downtown core in Langford, and the growth of the local job market as key factors in reducing local emissions and waste.
“Transit has improved tremendously in Langford. We are looking at why people leave - everybody used to leave or had to drive somewhere to get to work. There are more jobs now in Langford, so there will be reduced congestion on the highway going into Victoria. We have learned that working at home works for many people, and it’s a lot better for the environment. I think this will mark a change and many people will realize that they don't have to get in a car to go to work. If you stay home, you're not really impacting the environment much at all. And I think we've seen that all over the world.”
The journey from businessman to politician has presented many challenges over the years, which Mayor Young has faced head-on in his typical no-nonsense fashion. He promotes critical thinking, leadership and initiative from his team of staff, who are regularly encouraged to take time to understand an issue before they decide on a course of action.
It is a refreshing approach to decision-making, which leads to Mayor Young and the seven-voting member of Council to be better-informed on the impacts their choices will make on the community.
“We expect Council and Staff to be knowledgeable and prepared before Council meetings so we can make efficient decisions. Langford Council understands the value of the dollar and tries to operate the city more like an efficient business. We attribute our success to date to this approach”.
Mayor Young sees the business as partners in the city – not only contributing jobs and tax dollars - making valuable contributions to local charities and infrastructure. He is passionate about changing the way that local government can work for modern society, particularly on the island where issues such as affordable housing are particularly acute.
“It's been on everybody's mind for as far as I'm concerned for 20, 30 years. It hasn’t all of a sudden happened. 90% of the people in Canada want to own their own home. Our job as politicians is not to be an impediment to people coming to our community. As politicians we have a responsibility to make decisions that help them get that, the ability to raise a family and have a home. Our small community of 40,000, has built 50% of the affordable housing on the island, it's been that way for 15 years.”
Many of our younger readers may be considering a career in politics, Mayor Young has made it his life’s work to transform the city he calls home. While running a city like a business may not apply to every situation, he does have practical advice for anyone looking to follow in his footsteps.
“Write down what you want to see change. Write down 10 things you want to change, not one. Make your list, and then talk to everybody - talk to the Chamber of Commerce, the Business Improvement Associations, get involved with the business community.
“There’s no course that you take that says, here's how you manage a $70 million budget. I could walk down the street and spend $70 million, and raise taxes by 100%. You have to understand finances, and that's probably the best advice you can give somebody that’s running for office - to understand business, understand economics, understand a profit and loss or balance sheet. For every decision you make there's going to be a cost.”
Changing the way politics works in a city the size of Langford can involve looking at they way things have worked for years, decades even, and viewing them with fresh eyes. Langford recently overhauled the archaic zoning rules, which had been the same for over 40 years. Changing one zoning regulation – converting R1 lots from 6,000 square feet to 4,000 – has saved countless hours of needless applications and paperwork.
It won’t be surprising to hear that Mayor Young is keen to see more business people involved in politics.
“I wish we could do more to cut red tape for businesses. I want business owners to know that they are an important part of the Langford community because they're the ones that provide the jobs for our residents.”
Mayor Young is excited to see the younger generation get involved with local groups to help find better ways of doing things and give back to the community just like he did as a young man from Langford.
You can find out more about the City of Langford here: https://www.langford.ca/