Regina Mayor Sandra Masters sat down with Global News’ Brenden Purdy to discuss a range of hot topics in the city, one of which was the Experience Regina rebrand. The discussion delved into Tourism Regina, which will no longer be under the leadership of Regina Exhibition Association Limited (REAL), as well as the city’s continuous issue of homelessness and tent encampments. and what to expect in 2024.
Purdy: All right. So, Mayor Masters, obviously a very busy year in municipal politics. And thank you so much for sitting down with us this morning to kind of go over everything that happened during this year.
Purdy: And happy holidays.
Masters: Happy holidays, too.
Purdy: Take me back to the spring with the tourism rebrand. The first time that came across your desk and really the floodgates that opened after that.
Masters: Yeah, I think that what council would have been invited to a session and the Experience Regina rebrand that didn’t include any of the offensive taglines was launched.
I think, in early March. And then with the online slogans that were put out and the backlash, it was it was an international newsmaker, which is not exactly how you want yourself to be known internationally.
Throughout the course of the year, we had the Cuff report, which some members of council had requested that board of directors at REAL hire George Cuff. He came out with a report clearly (of) what was recommended in there, that advice was taken on by REAL.
So, they had launched some initiatives internally with both Regina Narrative Sexual Assault Center just for raising awareness of the gender bias and whatnot … and then just recently, that the denouement to the whole thing would be that tourism has been transferred to within the city of Regina. It really because branding is the important thing. So, in terms of the rebrand, I’m not sure what we hold out hope for from a tourism marketing perspective, it only has a $900,000 budget, which doesn’t buy you a lot of advertising, as you know.
Purdy: Now, we are going to get to a lot of those points that you did touch on there, but I do want to really jump back into that moment, which was really some managerial oversight, as we’ve discussed before. But what is that morning like for you as you walk into your office, and this is all gone live?
Masters: That weekend, I think it was a little bit confused as to some of the concerns because as I said, the slogans weren’t part of the branding package that we had been presented. And so, as it shut down … and everything was taken down, it was overwhelming. I think from a city perspective, it’s distressing. It’s really distressing to have that kind of that kind of public exposure on an international level.
Purdy: In your time as mayor of this city, would you say that that is maybe like the biggest and the most controversial thing that you’ve had to deal with?
Masters: I think we’ve had a few controversies … I will tell you that nothing has come close to touching the oil and gas sponsorship Executive Committee Motion of Jan 2021. From a volume perspective, also making national news at that particular point in time. Then the lawsuit that was launched against the city manager a year ago in November of 2022, we made international news again in terms of somewhat of an unprecedented move here at the city. So, I would think that we seem to have won a year, it would appear.
Purdy: In your time being able to navigate and come through on the other side of these moments, what does that done for you and how have you grown as a mayor and really as a leader, as a person having to deal with those sort of moments?
Masters: You know, I was elected during COVID, and one of the pieces of advice I got from some of the … mayors who had been at it for eight or 12 years, we were responding to COVID, which was essentially international pandemic and health care concerns.
Some of the advice was it’s common, reassuring. It’s a little bit about holding the course. And sometimes you have to deal with the issue. You have to resolve the issue and then post that you allow things to settle a bit and then figure out how to move forward.
The beauty of being mayor is the work never stops. Regardless of what has happened. That doesn’t interfere with the meetings I have on a day. What’s coming up on a council agenda or a police commission agenda or public library agenda or name an agenda. The work continues, and sometimes it’s about resolving the issue, moving through it, and continuing to do the work.
Purdy: So, as we see tourism, Regina then pulled back in towards the city from REAL. Just walk me through what is it been like navigating that and as to where things have gone in the steps being taken to where it is now?
Masters: We knew that tourism was underperforming in economic development (in) Regina. I heard it quite a bit from the folks, the attractions in the city and some of the folks that were looking for tourism assistance.
So, it seemed to make some sense to move it. We own a couple of corporations as a city. And so, move it to where tourism dollars are being invested already and tourism events are happening seem to make sense.
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When it fell apart, in terms of that rebranding, really what became important is the brand. As I said earlier, it’s about the brand of the city. And so pulling that into the city to utilize, we had an opportunity in terms of hiring when our city manager was interviewing for executive leadership team.
We had some opportunity there and there was a candidate that seemed to fit that they would be a good fit to take that on. So, from a destination branding perspective, we’ve got a person in charge of it. Tourism has two members of personnel left over at REAL who will be transferring January 1st.
It’s about figuring out how to participate more with Destination Canada, which is a national tourism marketing entity and as well as Destination International. We should be out in the world bidding on international conferences. And coming up, there’s going to be some federal money to actually allow us some seed money if we’re if we’re looking to do something like that from a national perspective … because it’s events, conventions and trade shows really, which are our bread and butter.
Purdy: So now is that almost maybe being able to take a positive out of a negative situation where we are getting international headlines from the rebrand, but then as we’re going out and making these bids, maybe people going, Hey, Regina Yeah, I’ve definitely heard of that, of people who’ve never been here maybe aren’t familiar with the city. And so, it gives them pause for a second and then maybe giving those bids another look.
Masters: Yes, that that’s part of the point. What we know for sure is that when we show up in person and it’s what I hear from other tourism agencies across the country as well, when we show up in person, there’s something kind of special about people from Saskatchewan. And so we show up in person. We’re genuine, we’re hardworking, we’re friendly, and then we can deliver a product here in the city just like any other city can in Canada.
I will say that from a tourism perspective, events, conventions and trade shows one of our biggest secret weapons is trade and export development through the province of Saskatchewan, because they’re out on an international level selling Saskatchewan and trade with Saskatchewan.
Sometimes there’s countries that know about us because of what it is that we trade, and it doesn’t matter if it’s agricultural products or mining products or forestry products. We’re kind of known for that throughout the world. And so that’s also an element that kind of gets us world stage sort of recognition.
Purdy: And jumping from the world stage back here locally dealing with the Regina Exhibition Association, the position that inevitably came through council, that the board was going to be dissolved, the resignation and then moving forward with a new board. Just walk me through what that process has been like as it’s fairly fresh in your mind as to all of these steps.
Masters: Council is always maintains the right with any of our UMAs, with our municipal corporations to appoint the board of directors, to remove the board of directors. And so just as a matter of procedure that as you know, the resignation of the Board of directors came through, which requires that interim board, I think Councilor Bresciani is looking for now all options to be considered from the MMP report.
I think what we heard at Council when that was presented as well as there is a deeper dive into the operational level that’s required from a from a viability standpoint. At the end of the day, just like we subsidize the balance of our recreational facilities, we may have to subsidize the recreational facilities, which are about half the space of the exhibition association. But really the intention is there. We punch above our weight. We’re looking for a final board of directors if it doesn’t fold into the city that we would be looking for a new board of directors after the interim gets through budgets and MMP report has a bit of a deeper dive into some of the operational elements which can be corrected.
We’re hosting the Brier in March, and we want to make sure that facility that everyone knows that the Brier will go on. We have amazing people that work at the exhibition association that put those on. I think we had something like 900 workers working at Agribition, which was a resounding success this year. And so really, we’ve got a bit of an interim board and then some final decisions will be made through in the spring.
Purdy: So going back 12 months ago from where REAL was then to now with some of the controversies that came up with the rebrand just financially where they are. Would you say the revamp kind of started pushing the dominoes in that direction? Was it finances? Where can you kind of walk me through that?
Masters: From a financial perspective, anything up until this particular budget cycle has been approved by council. So, there’s not a big surprise about the financial statements. You can’t really give to someone $750 million worth of assets and then not provide capital for it. That seems to be destined to fail, in my opinion. I would suggest that, yes, that error that was made, which is unlike anything I think that had been experienced at the exhibition association in the ten years it’s been in operation.
So, I think that created a lot of publicity, which was really negative. And again, what came out of the Cuff report … at the end of the day, a mistake was made. What we heard from the residents of Regina is that brand matters and what people think about our city matters. And then I think when you pile on the financial situation at REAL, it is sort of a bit of a domino effect.
Purdy: So switching things up now, one of the biggest things that dominated headlines throughout the summer was homelessness and encampments. Walk me through what it was like for you. If you can just rewind back the summer when you come into work and there is now an encampment on the front lawn here at City Hall.
Masters: So, the first tent was set up by the organizers of the encampment, so not individuals who were houseless. Then there was an invitation sent out for folks experiencing homelessness to come on down. And that’s how the tents were generated. It was it’s really distressing because the truth of the matter is it felt quite exploitative.
We had street outreach workers and various community-based organizations going out tent to tent to check in on folks, and a number of them had places to stay. But there is an element … of expressing solidarity on, moving houseless issues forward was what was taking place. It was deeply concerning. We heard from a number of community-based organizations who were deeply concerned about the activities that were being undertaken at the encampment from a safety perspective.
And so, trying to make connections, social services were out during the week. We were here every day. Fire and protective services were here every day. We had to increase both security as well as attendance to garbage and waste and move washrooms closer. So, we responded on the one hand, monitored on the other (and) continued advocating.
Then really in some respects, part of the result of the advocacy that we’ve been undertaken for the past couple of years has been that response you saw from the provincial government in October regarding 90 million additional funding for building capacity within the houseless continuum.
Purdy: So just on an emotional level, as you’re watching this encampment grow and undertaking, obviously you’re feeling bad for these people that have nowhere else to go. But then on the flipside of that, what is it like balancing that kind of an emotional roller coaster, as you mentioned, that there are some people being exploited there for a group’s cause and maybe just kind of some of the anger, maybe that process behind that?
Masters: It’s very frustrating. It’s very frustrating because what you don’t want to do is you’re trying to provide care and monitor situation to make sure folks feel safe. And you’re trying to keep a site clean.
It’s really frustrating to have more insight perhaps than the average person might walking by … there’s a lot of communication that comes into the mayor’s office and some of it was anger about the fact that the encampment was there and some of it was about we should do more for houselessness.
So, you’re caught trying to serve the needs of a community that is already vulnerable and marginalized and. And when you know, you have active gang activity happening within it and predatory behavior, it’s deeply concerning. It was something that was managed every single day here at city hall.
Purdy: Now, we’ve seen encampments pop up elsewhere throughout the city. But some steps that have been taken are having regular checks, whether it’s fire, trying to go out and educate people just to make sure that there aren’t any fire hazards that are there present when they are doing these checks. Whether we’re getting more spaces for people to come indoors. Can you kind of walk us through some of those proactive steps that are being taken and things that the city is looking to continue to further be proactive?
Masters: So, as you know, Fire and Protective Services goes out and identifies encampments and does regular checks and gives education on fire safety, because that’s massively important. We know as it gets colder, if they’re using heating device, those tents are incredibly flammable. It’s about advocating and helping to support the expansion of supportive housing units, the expansion of 15 shelter spots for the difficult to shelter, those that get banned from shelters for behavior to actually have medically supervised spaces. Massively important.
We’re looking forward to the urgent care center that’s going to open. It will have specific space allocated for mental health and addictions, which is the underlying root of a lot of these issues. You’ll see it at executive committee this week, Our Community and Social Impact. Regina will be presenting about the Community Safety Patrol. So, we fund the CSP in the downtown region to go out and do checks with folks experiencing mental health or addictions or just living on the street. You’ll see a bit of an expansion to that. We’re going to be looking to partner on a street outreach and probably expand the borders of it a little bit. We just want to make sure that there’s points of contact, there’s relationship building, because it there’s a trust element to it to providing help and we know there’s barriers within this system.
So, continuing to advocate on where we can reduce the barriers in the system. I will say that the provincial announcement, that’s the first time we’ve seen that coordinated intake perspective where health and justice and social services and mental health and addictions will be communicating with each other about where the intake is happening so that across the spectrum of the services, the social services that are provided … and actually serve people in a in a more compassionate and more direct way.
Purdy: Now, Mayor Masters, again, we thank you so much for your time. But we’ve got to ask, would that be one of the big platforms houses in the efforts that you guys are making to try and make this city a safer and a better place to live for all those in our city? Would that be a major platform to run on in 2024? And do you plan on now running for mayor?
Masters: I do get asked this. My answer about running for mayor is that I have a four year mandate and it would be inappropriate to start campaigning. Yet this is about what we’re able to execute on and finding the things that we have to celebrate and where we’ve been able to advance and do some city building and some operational efficiency and things to celebrate.
I think the City of Regina … provides more funding for houselessness than any other city in this province. And so, whether it’s our million dollars operating to the horse dance lodge, which is the reaching home building that opened up on North Broad, or it’s another $7.9 million that we’ve invested in tax exemptions and in direct funding and community support grants and safe injection sites, harm reduction, shelter space. The shelter space that we help fund is quite significant, as is setting up the 24 supportive housing units that were created last year.
So, we feel like we’ve accomplished a bunch. We feel like our advocacy is working. We continue to advocate with both the federal and provincial governments, and we’ll see what else we can. We can land here, but really helping to build capacity within that so that more people can get service that they need.
Purdy: Mayor Mass has been greatly appreciate you taking the time. Happy holidays.
Masters: Happy holidays. Thank you.