Greenhouses big in Leamington economy, big in election race

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Most incumbent mayors of Essex County have either opted out of this year’s municipal elections or have been hailed for new terms without having to run another campaign, but Leamington’s Hilda MacDonald is fighting on, saying she’s not done yet.

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“There are a number of things I would like to see completed. If I’m not in the chair, I’m afraid some of it will fall away,” she said.

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When asked for an example, MacDonald, who is completing her first term as mayor and 16th year on the city council, cited the city’s recent purchase of the former Leamington District Secondary School with plans to partner with the private sector on innovative housing initiatives.

On housing affordability and tackling homelessness, she said: “We have made progress over the past four years and connections have been made. I’m not sure if it’s a priority for the other two.”

The other two competing for the mayor’s job in the October 24 election are Cris Biron, 70, a paralegal whose years of community activism has focused on the local farming community, and Jimmy Simoni, 49, who retired in 2021 after the sale of the family greenhouse vegetable farm.

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In this January 17, 2020 file photo, Leamington Mayor Hilda MacDonald speaks at the 12th Annual Mayors Breakfast hosted by the Leamington District Chamber of Commerce.
In this January 17, 2020 file photo, Leamington Mayor Hilda MacDonald speaks at the 12th Annual Mayors Breakfast hosted by the Leamington District Chamber of Commerce. Photo by Julie Kotsis /Windsor Star

Simoni’s election signs can be seen in front of many local greenhouses. MacDonald admits there has been some response from that dominant sector of the local economy to her and the council’s efforts to address community complaints about light pollution and odor, the latter focusing on the sizable presence of cannabis in greenhouses.

Housing availability and affordability are also linked to the thriving success of the greenhouse horticulture sector as growers buy townhouses to accommodate their staff, leading to further public concern about crowding.

“Because we’ve tried to regulate it, it’s seen as negative,” MacDonald says. “Greenhouse horticulture is very important to the local economy, but it also brings some challenges – we have to think about the community as a whole.”

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Biron said better communication is essential, both in working with the greenhouse industry and in helping the thousands of foreign guest workers it employs who work and live in the community, and to attract new investment and development. “There’s a lot of red tape,” Biron said, adding that he’s heard of waiting two years for permits and licenses for business startups in Leamington, and eight months waiting for construction repair or upgrade permits.

When asked about any political background experience at the municipal level, such as involvement in committees, boards or agencies, Biron replied, “What you need is someone who can represent people – my experience is not as a professional politician.”

Leamington mayoral candidate Jimmy Simoni.
Leamington mayoral candidate Jimmy Simoni. Photo by Jimmy Simonic /Windsor Star

Like Biron, Simoni complains that local taxes are too high and that not enough is being done to fight local crime. Simoni has now stopped burping and said he “still has a lot of life in me. I like to help people and I have a lot of time now, I can give 100 percent.”

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Simoni, former director of the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers, said he also “doesn’t support the Christmas lights at night,” which is how he describes the lighting of the local evening sky by some greenhouse companies. But he is critical of the city’s approach to the problem, which has led some growers to sue the city.

“I’d just like to get people together and mend this disconnect that we seem to have,” he said. Simoni, who has been a volunteer at Hogs for Hospice since its inception, said he wants the city to “go back to basics” in terms of security, infrastructure and “cut a lot of red tape”.

Biron said he wants more “transparency” at the town hall and that his 35 years as a licensed paralegal presenting cases before tribunals and courts has shown that he is “someone who can represent people”.

Incumbent Deputy Mayor Larry Verbeke also has two challengers in this election, Shelly Quick and John Tofflemire. Sixteen candidates are competing for five major city council positions, including three incumbents.

For more information on the candidates and the October 24 election, visit Leamington’s Make Your Vote Count webpage.

Paralegal Cristian Biron is running for mayor in Leamington.
Paralegal Cristian Biron is running for mayor in Leamington. Photo by Nick Brancaccio /Windsor Star


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