Going, going, Gord

After 12 years in office, three diamond mine openings and countless business luncheons, Gord Van Tighem stands as Yellowknife’s longest-serving mayor. Chris Windeyer tags along for a day to survey the state of the city, and ponder what’s coming next. 

Gordon Van Tighem, Gord to most, is brewing a second cup of coffee when I arrive at his office one recent Tuesday morning. I’m immediately struck by something: His appearance and demeanour are decidedly different from the impression you get talking to him on the phone. Across the line, his gravelly monotone seems to express a certain world-weariness.

But that’s not really fair. Dressed in slacks and an untucked button-down shirt that reveals a little bit of belly when he leans back in his chair, Van Tighem is quick to laugh and crack a joke. If he’s annoyed by my presence as I tag along with him for a day, he doesn’t once show it. At 63, Yellowknife’s outgoing mayor looks like a guy who’s on the cusp of retirement.

Van Tighem moved to Yellowknife in 1992 to work for the Bank of Montreal. Born in Calgary, he first came north in the late 1960s to work for a seismic crew with Chevron near Kakisa. After graduating from the University of Manitoba, he worked in estate planning, then became a national editor for the McGraw-Hill publishing house, before joining the Bank of Montreal in 1982. There, he got involved in aboriginal banking services, taking responsibility for an area covering most of Western Canada, before taking an early-retirement buyout in 1999. He arrived in Yellowknife planning on a five-year posting. As happens so often North of Sixty, that was 20 years ago. After serving with a slew of community groups over the years, the transition to mayor “was more like second nature, I guess.”

Van Tighem’s time in office, from 2000 to 2012, makes him, by a wide margin, Yellowknife’s longest serving mayor. He’s served four terms, though he’s only had to win two elections (he was acclaimed in 2003 and 2006). As is often the case, Van Tighem’s first run for mayor was almost an accident. By then the past president of the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce, Van Tighem was tasked with recruiting members of the business community to run for office. “All of my buddies that I’d been approaching from the chamber, telling them they should get involved in politics, turned around and said ‘You kind of look like what you were telling us you’re looking for.’”

Van Tighem went on to win that election, trouncing incumbent Dave Lovell and beating Bob Brooks – who still serves on city council – by 200 votes. It would be the last election he’d have to contest for nearly a decade.

The Van Tighem era has been a transformative one, for reasons both directly related to, and outside the purview of, his job as mayor. His administration has bridged the coming of Nunavut, the end of the gold mining era, the onset of the diamond mining industry. Now, as he readies to leave office, the NWT finds itself lagging behind the other two territories in terms of exploration activity, at a time when the beginning of the end is already in sight for diamond mining, and many in Yellowknife’s business community are starting to worry about what comes next.

10:20 a.m.

The Mayor’s office sits in the far end of city hall, with a commanding view of Somba K’e Civic Plaza. The shelves are lined with all the standard-issue souvenirs  of mayoralty: commemorative plates, mugs, hats, even a hardhat. There are several signed prints from flight teams who took part in a just-completed Yellowknife air show, and a welcome sign from the Governor General’s Canadian Leadership Conference, signed by the participants. “That’s gonna be the other thing about leaving: cleaning out this damn office,” Van Tighem says.

His first appointment of the day, Sara Brown, the executive director of the NWT Association of Communities, arrives. It’s a quick, relaxed chat. They shuffle through some papers, talk about a few issues, including a letter from Northwestel, fishing for support from municipal leaders for its proposed $273-million network upgrade that’s before the CRTC.

Van Tighem serves as the association’s president, as well as the chair of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ Northern Forum. That job, alongside Yellowknife’s more-or-less constant infrastructure shortfall, which the city puts at $78 million, has Van Tighem thinking a lot these days about infrastructure and how to pay for it.

The city closed the book on one sorry chapter this summer when it co-signed on a $15.7-million loan to fix the crumbling roads, sewer and water lines in the Northlands trailer park. It also pulled off a bit of a bait-and-switch manoeuvre, voting to borrow $20 million to build a new water treatment plant mandated by changes to GNWT rules, and using existing funds – originally mandated for the water treatment plant – for other water and sewer repairs. In the process the city avoided having to go to a plebiscite for voter approval, a sore point following the defeat of a ballot initiative in March 2011, one that would have given the city permission to borrow $49 million to pursue an ambitious geothermal district heating project for the downtown area. Van Tighem rues that result as a major missed opportunity for the city.

But Van Tighem says the time for municipalities to borrow is now, with interest rates at an all-time low. “The perfect example of what happens when you don’t do it is Northlands,” he says. “All of a sudden the whole thing’s going to blow up at the same time and you’ve got 185 people who have to pay for it. The same thing applies to the city in general. If you don’t stay ahead of it, you end up with a really big bill.”

Nevertheless, many city hall critics decry what they see as runaway spending, what with the city approving property tax hikes seven years running. A Yellowknifer story last year quoted Coun. David Wind as saying property taxes have jumped nearly 25 per cent in the past decade (Van Tighem says it’s more like 12 per cent), while spending has doubled. Previous councils may have held the line on taxes for more than a decade, but that simply forced the city to put off vital projects for another day, Van Tighem argues. “I don’t necessarily agree with the fact that you have to increase taxes every year, but if you continue to support the status quo, that’s what happens.”

Besides, he says, it could be worse. An influx of federal money has allowed the city to undertake new projects without spending its own tax money.

“Now,” the mayor says after Brown leaves, “let’s go commune with nature.”

This means it’s time for a smoke break. We head downstairs and out a back door. It’s a glorious midsummer morning. The groundskeeping crews are out and sprinklers douse the grass of Somba K’e Civic Plaza. Van Tighem fires up a wine-tipped Colt and explains how his cigar habit is the end product of several attempts at quitting cigarettes and the insistence of Carol, his wife of 42 years, that abstaining from smoking made him too stressed out.

11:37 a.m.

We’re late leaving city hall for the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce’s monthly luncheon. On the walk over to the Yellowknife Inn, Van Tighem is stopped twice by people looking to talk – once in the middle of the crosswalk, no less. It’s a beautiful midsummer day, and the lunch rush is just starting to build. It’s one of those times when downtown is at its finest, with busy sidewalks and street food vendors doing brisk business.

Speaking at the luncheon on this day is Don Bubar, the president of Avalon Rare Metals. Avalon is looking to mine lucrative rare earth elements at its Nechalacho project located 100 kilometres southeast of the city. The project is getting closer to production, as evidenced by the signing the day before of a deal between Avalon and the Deninu K’ue First Nation of Fort Resolution, one that will give the band the right to buy a three-per-cent stake in the project. Nechalacho also offers the promise of 300 or more jobs for the region. That’s good news for Yellowknife, whose economy is facing the prospect of the diamond mines starting to wind down later this decade

“It’s always a good thing when someone wants to build a 100-year mine,” Van Tighem says later. But the conversation invariably turns back to the impact 300 new jobs would have on the city’s housing market. If there’s one problem that hangs over the Van Tighem years, this is it.

“The city’s economy has been crying out for more housing,” says Larry Jacquard, the current president of the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce, who maintains that high housing costs, both for buyers and renters, scares off prospective businesses from setting up shop in the capital. Van Tighem is quick to point out a recent uptick in development activity, with hundreds of new units coming on-stream soon, plus the blessed end to both the Bayview Estates debacle, which has been parcelled up and sold off to local developers, and the protracted debate over Lot 501, future site of Les Rocher’s Homes North project. Rocher was seeking city funding for infrastructure while chafing against density requirements for parts of the development.

It’s interesting to watch the chamber of commerce attack the track record of one of their own, but Jacquard says the criticisms aren’t personal. He says Van Tighem is accessible and willing to meet, and if the chamber doesn’t get what it wants all the time, well, that’s politics.

“It’s easier at the local level to take an objective look at an issue and analyze the facts as opposed to coming in with a predisposed viewpoint on how things should go,” says Mark Heyck, one of Van Tighem’s closest allies on council. “That’s something I really admire in Gord.”

2:05 p.m.

We return to Van Tighem’s office in time for a meeting with Yellowknife real estate agent and city blogger Adrian Bell. It’s basically a spitballing session on the state of downtown. What would happen if the city library, which is currently on the second of floor of the Centre Square Mall, was moved into some of the vacant ground-floor retail space? What about redesigning the mall so the storefronts face the outside, instead of a dark interior hallway? What about bulldozing the mall completely?

What to do about the downtown? It’s the ugly sibling of the housing issue. The difference is that while there’s a pretty clear solution to the housing problem – build more houses – exactly how to revive a foundering downtown business scene is a bit more of a slippery proposition. But again, Van Tighem insists the situation isn’t as dire as some might believe. For example, if the threshold for a moribund downtown is 12 per cent of the city’s population living within the core area, Yellowknife stands at 16 per cent and rising.

But clearly the situation is not uniformly positive, if the number of vacant retail spaces downtown is any indication. The city has increased business permit costs from $150 to $200 in a bid to encourage people mulling home-based businesses to set up shop in commercial space. But that just discourages would-be entrepreneurs from testing the waters, argues Jacquard, the chamber of commerce president. “It makes no business sense,” he says. “You’re making it more difficult for home-based businesses which offer some wonderful services and products you couldn’t otherwise get because we don’t have the population density to support it as a storefront.”

And then there’s the longstanding complaints about rampant loitering downtown. Jacquard suggests the city needs a loitering bylaw to give police the power to chase away people who congregate in front of business entrances. So far there’s no indication the city will do so, but it has set up a day shelter just off Franklin Ave.

What is the economic legacy of Van Tighem’s mayoralty? That’s tough to measure precisely, in part because, as Heyck points out, the mayor serves as just one vote on city council. Tax and fee increases certainly don’t help, but neither did the loss of territorial government jobs when Nunavut came into being, or the drop-off in exploration work that’s largely pegged on a burdensome regulatory process that’s out of the city’s hands.

Increased spending counts as a mark against. Or does it? Dave Brothers, the vice president of Clark Builders, says recent beautification efforts, for example, are the kind of thing that will pay long-term dividends. “The downtown core is starting to get more appealing, Old Airport Road is starting to make this city look more appealing.”

3:00 p.m.

Just before Van Tighem leaves for an interview in front of Old Town’s Wildcat Café, which the municipality has been rebuilding since 2010 at a cost of $500,000, city facilities manager Dave Hurley arrives to brief the mayor on a major setback that’s just come to light: Someone has made off with a massive range hood that was supposed to be installed in the kitchen this week. The renovations were supposed to be done by the end of July. Van Tighem asks Hurley what the new completion date will be. “You want an honest answer? Probably by the end of the year,” Hurley says. “The hood being stolen will cost us a good six weeks. We’re lost without it.”

This is no doubt a major annoyance, but Van Tighem’s taking the matter in stride, cracking wise about what someone could do with a range hood that isn’t attached to, you know, a range. “Someone’s bathing their dog in it,” he suggests.

This piece of conjecture doesn’t make its way into Van Tighem’s interview with CBC reporter Shannon Scott, who wants to know if the delay means the project will go over budget. No, Van Tighem says, because a contract’s a contract. “So not like the bridge?” Scott asks, referring to the woefully over-budget Deh Cho Bridge.

“This is the city, not the GNWT,” Van Tighem says.

3:31 p.m.

The CBC interview wraps up. Since the Wildcat is just around the corner from his home, Van Tighem stops to drop off a load of milk and toilet paper from the store, and to show off his pride and joy: a 1951 Chevrolet Skyliner. It’s an original issue, not a kit car, that someone found languishing in an Alberta garage and fixed up. It’s registered as a Bel Air, because the GNWT’s transportation department doesn’t have an entry for Skyliners. The front vanity license plate reads “Gord”; the rear plate, the legal one, reads “51 Chevy.”

“It’s the same colour and the same body style as the one I grew up with,” Van Tighem says. “My dad had a ‘52 Pontiac. This was the closest I could find.” In the days before seatbelts, Van Tighem’s father would throw all seven kids in the backseat. Now, he drives it during the summertime only, opting for a minivan for most of his day-to-day travel. Still, with no power steering and an old-school clutch, the Skyliner serves as a source of exercise. “You should see my leg after a parade from pumping the clutch,” he says.

Van Tighem may find himself with more time to spend driving his beloved Skyliner and plans, once he officially leaves office in early November, to take a little break. “I’m going to rest a bit,” he says. “It’s been 12 years of seven days a week.” Then, he expects to spend time serving on the boards of the myriad community groups he’s involved with.

The end of the Van Tighem era also means the most competitive mayoral race this city has had in years. As of this writing, Heyck, along with fellow city councillor Paul Falvo and Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce executive director Tim Doyle are in the running. Van Tighem caused a bit of a fuss in January when he appeared to endorse Heyck earlier this year, but he downplays that now, calling his remarks “more like a reference.”

5:52 p.m.

We arrive at a swanky Old Town home for Van Tighem’s final stop of the day, a fundraiser for the Western Arctic Conservative Association. Federal cabinet minister Tony Clement, president of the Treasury Board, is showing everyone video he shot on his iPhone of his trip underground at Giant Mine earlier in the day. Current and former premiers and cabinet ministers are here. Hors d’oeuvres like venison tartare, Arctic char tartare and Cajun whitefish make the rounds.

Van Tighem prefers sit-down banquets to stand-up socials these days, ever since he developed a pinched nerve in his back about a year and a half ago. After a housekeeping address (there are eight fire extinguishers on the premises!) and some expressions of partisan swagger (someone mentions the need to rid the Northern electoral map of “an obnoxious orange blob in the centre”) Van Tighem gamely mounts the homemade podium and gives a “Welcome to Yellowknife” speech. “We have terrible weather here as I’m sure you’ve noticed,” he deadpans, pointing at Clement. “We don’t take credit for the weather; we realize that’s federal.”

Such speeches are second nature by now. Van Tighem’s day planner for 2011 records 133 speeches and welcomes – roughly one every other day. While this particular address contains plenty of the standard Thanking Of The Feds For All The Money, it’s also a remarkably extemporaneous explainer of Yellowknife’s economic history. He recounts the region’s history as a place white traders came to trade with the Dene at Dettah, before turning into a hotbed of prospecting activity in the 1930s, with 19 mines cropping up within today’s city limits over the years.

That’s a knack that dates back to his banking days, says Wendy Anderson, who now manages CIBC’s Yellowknife branch but worked under Van Tighem during his time at the Bank of Montreal. She noticed he was instantly a voracious student of local history, particularly First Nations. “He was very knowledgeable about the importance of the history of the people you’re dealing with (as a banker).”

Duty done, Van Tighem heads outside with a handful of other smokers for a Colt. An Air Tindi plane swoops in for a landing as guests chatter and a guitarist plucks away at his strings. Champagne glasses are refilled and there’s a spread of enormous oysters on the half shell sitting on ice. Being the elder statesman has its privileges.

Up Here Business magazine, September, 2012.

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