The era of Greg Wilson leading the Dryden community is coming to an end.
In an interview with Q104 and DrydenNow, Mayor Wilson confirmed he will not be running for re-election in the 2022 municipal election, and is stepping back from municipal politics to spend more time with his family and his business.
“I originally ran for public office back in 2014 due in part to connection with a tax-payer’s group of like-minded concerned Drydenites with similar economic/social values and a vision for how Dryden should get out of it’s financial mess in order to avoid municipal bankruptcy with the Province. This was accomplished,” said Wilson.
“Our family business, like any other, requires constant daily attention if it is to maintain service levels that meet the expectations of customers, including the needs of our team members who provide those services. I want to get back to supporting our leadership team, especially as we continue transition to the next generation. Running for Mayor would not have been possible without their support these past seven years.”
“I do not consider myself a career politician, rather a tax-paying citizen who cares about the community and was willing to step up when I thought I could contribute. Not taking a salary during these two terms was a way of putting an exclamation mark on this point.”
Dryden has seen major changes in the 7 years that Wilson has served as Mayor of the community, but he was never actually elected into his position until 2018.
In 2015, Dryden Mayor Craig Nuttall, who was about a year into his second term after the 2014 election, decided to step down from the position due to personal reasons.
After no sitting councillors put their name forward, the City decided to elect Wilson, who was the Mayoral runner-up in 2014. The owner of Wilson’s Business Solutions, Wilson was seen as a leader in northwestern Ontario’s business community and seemed to be a natural fit for the cash-strapped city.
He was sworn-in in November 2015, but it likely wasn’t an easy transition for Wilson and the city’s new Senior Leadership Team. Just one week into Wilson’s tenure, the city once again needed a new Chief Administrative Officer after John Cummings sent in his resignation.
Cummings had taken over for CAO Andre Larabie, who lasted about a year on the job. Peggy Van Meirlo-West later served for a couple of months in 2016 before she resigned, which led Ernie Remillard to take the position into 2018, when he also resigned. Current CAO Roger Nesbitt was promoted in 2018, and has since provided some much-needed stability to the city’s council table.
A revolving door of CAOs wasn’t the city’s major concern back then, however, as Dryden was staring down the barrel of about $26 million of accumulated debt between government loans, annual losses and the eventual sale of the Dryden Mobility Telephone Service and declining tax dollars from the Domtar mill.
With a minimum of $1.5 million of annual debt payments taken away from Dryden’s budget each year, councillors’ hands were tied when it came to additional spending on infrastructure and community projects. Wilson even turned down his Mayor’s salary for his 7 years as Mayor to help the city with its financial statements.
But in 2020, Mayor Wilson, CAO Nesbitt and Treasurer Steven Lansdell-Roll helped lead the City of Dryden through clearing off their debt related to DMTS – a major milestone for the municipality, which helped to free up additional tax dollars each year moving forward.
While Lansdell-Roll confirms the city is still on the hook for about $7.2 million in principal debt in 2022, which accounts for about $8.6 million after debt servicing charges and interest, that’s a major improvement from the $26 million deficit the city had just five years prior.
Wilson would later take the fight to the province about the downloading of costs and services that used to be provided by provincial and federal governments onto municipalities and their tax bases, which made Dryden’s tight financial situation even more difficult.
Wilson was re-elected as Mayor in 2018 after a tough municipal election campaign, as it came during a dispute with members the Dryden Fire Service as the city looked to revamp its fire services. It was a close race, but Wilson ultimately succeeded against councillor and former federal MP Roger Valley.
The discussions surrounding the new-look Dryden Fire Service and Dryden’s police services dominated much of Wilson’s second term, and ultimately, the majority of his time as a municipal politician.
It all began with the retirement of Dryden Fire Chief Ken Kurz in 2017, after 39 years of service. Former Deputy Chief Ryan Murrell later stepped into his position. He brought about 15 years of experience with him, serving as a volunteer fire captain since 2003.
But in February of 2018, 49 members of the Dryden Firefighters Association announced strike action, following the, in their words, ‘wrongful’ dismissal of three volunteer firefighters, and said they would not return to work until Murrell stepped down as Fire Chief.
What was initially defined as a ‘human resources issue’ was later revealed to be a beer fridge and alcohol use in the firefighters’ break room, which is technically city property and was made illegal in late 2017 by Dryden’s council members.
The city had warned members about the beer fridge, who had asked councillors for leniency, but the Chief was joined by a former CAO and four DPS members for an inspection of the hall in February, which resulted in the three terminations after a verbal dispute. One member had over 18 years of experience.
In response to the strike action, the city changed the locks on Fire Hall #1 on Colonization Drive which locked members away from their lifesaving equipment and decided to hire five firefighter recruits to support the service during the dispute, with additional resources from Oxdrift, Wabigoon and Machin.
Some volunteer firefighters chose not to respond to at least two accidents, a gas leak and one house fire during the dispute, with one of their major calls allegedly coming to members while they were negotiating with councillors at City Hall.
Terminations to members were threatened in March, and complaints to Ontario’s Ombudsman were made about the conduct of multiple councillors, including Mayor Greg Wilson. The complaints alleged that councillors were using bullying and intimidating behaviour in the dispute, but their names were cleared a few months later.
After months of public meetings surrounding the issue, which ultimately divided much of the tight-knit Dryden community into supporters of the association and supporters of the city, a decision was finally made by May 2018.
Despite petitions calling for other models, councillors ultimately voted 5-1 in support of a mix of volunteer firefighters and the use of a work experience program with young firefighters still in training from pre-service fire colleges. Fire departments in British Columbia use a similar model, which has helped to improve response times in Dryden.
One year later, Ryan Murrell would step down as Chief of the DFS. Deputy Chief Cora MacRae, formerly of the Machin Fire Service, served as the interim Chief until Rob Grimwood took over in August of 2019.
Grimwood served in the role for 15 months before he resigned in January to take a new position. Kent Readman, who was the previous Deputy Chief, stepped into Grimwood’s role in January 2021, but announced he would be leaving Dryden to head to the Kenora Fire Service by April of 2021.
After a tough few years, Chris Wood took over as the City’s newest Fire Chief by July, 2021. The service says they saw record-high call volumes to finish out the year, and they plan to invest more time in public education and fire prevention services in 2022.
After the dust had settled with the Dryden Fire Services Association, Mayor Wilson and fellow councillors even underwent firefighter training to be prepared, in case the community ever needed a few more volunteers.
But while the wound was just starting to heal in the community, councillors decided to take another close look at their emergency response services – but this time, they were once again debating the amalgamation of the Dryden Police Service into the Dryden OPP.
The city first started looking to roll members of their municipal police force into the OPP in 2017, but the notion was originally shot down 6-1 by councillors in 2019. Mayor Wilson was the lone member of council to vote to accept the OPP’s original offer, and noted the idea of amalgamation may return.
Wilson was correct as he was the one to file a motion to re-engage with amalgamation talks with the OPP and the province just 17 months later, as, after the 2018 election, council could once again vote on the issue. Wilson’s motion was passed, and after another number of public meetings, surveys and debates on the issue, the amalgamation was passed as well in February of 2022.
Overall, changing from the Dryden Police Service to the Dryden OPP is set to cost the city about $8.5 million in 2022, after uniform, equipment, vehicle and detachment renovation costs. The hope is that the city will see some savings compared to the DPS’ forecasted costs by 2030 at the earliest.
During his time as the city’s Mayor, Wilson also wanted to change Dryden back to a Township. While that was eventually shot down, he did help pass the long-awaited renaming of Colonization Avenue to Boozhoo and Memorial Avenue, in honour of Dryden’s Indigenous community. The recommendations were made by the city’s Indigenous Working Circle, which was created by council in 2021.
While the City moved to recognize the Indigenous community on one hand, they declined to condemn the comments of Dryden Senator Lynn Beyak about the legacy of residential schools in Canada, ‘disappointing’ leadership of Grand Council Treaty #3 and the Nishnawbe Aski Nation. Mayor Wilson said it was not in the city’s mandate to condemn the comments of a federal Senator.
Thankfully for the city, Beyak has since retired. But the Beyak name will live on in Dryden. Former councillor Nick Beyak and northwestern Ontario’s Beyak Automotive Group have announced they will be donating $230,000 to develop a 2,800 square-foot Splash Park at the Rotary Park Complex on Wice Road, with $17,000 from the city.
The Splash Park’s getting ready to be unveiled this August, and it’ll add nicely to the growing Rotary Park Complex near New Prospect School. The city unveiled the 8-year soccer complex project at Rotary Park in 2019, with contributions from across the community.
And now, as Wilson gets set to serve his final few months on the council table, he and fellow councillors can look forward to fundraising for a new dog park at the Rotary Park Complex. A group of volunteers is leading the charge, along with Community Services Manager Steve Belanger.
There are also plans for a new outdoor skating area at Milestone Rink, which was made possible by an over $50,000 donation from Mayor Wilson and his family. More details on that project are expected to be announced soon.
Ultimately, Mayor Wilson says he hopes future councillors and Dryden’s new Mayor will work to create practical and sustainable policies that will benefit the entire Dryden area.
The 2022 Municipal Election is scheduled for October 22.
As of May 25, no one has applied in Dryden for the position yet, but it is early. Residents are asked to file their Nomination Papers, which can be found at City Hall, with the City Clerk by August 19, 2022, before 2 p.m. Excluding school board trustees, candidates must be endorsed by 25 eligible voters.