NORTHERN ARM, NL – Residents of Northern Arm have rejected amalgamation with Botwood.
The town is home to 426 people, according to the 2016 census, and 270 were eligible to vote. A record high – 202 – turned out for the plebiscite on whether to join the neighbouring municipality of Botwood.
The majority – 136, or about 70 per cent – were against amalgamation.
Northern Arm Mayor Lloyd Hunter was pleased with the voter turnout and the reaction from residents.
“We were kind of in limbo and waiting because, after the feasibility study (on amalgamation), the residents asked to have a vote … and January 23 was their say.”
Hunter said he doesn’t believe amalgamation is the best option for either community at the current time, as they are both self-sustainable right now.
“But who knows what the future holds,” he added.
While most residents voted against the propose amalgamation, the vote was non-binding and the ultimate decision lies with town council, which next meets on Jan. 30. That meeting will likely determine the final decision regarding amalgamation of the two communities.
“I would imagine at that time we will decide there and then after a bit of discussion on respecting the residents’ wishes,” said Hunter.
Residents of Northern Arm voiced concerns over a possible tax increase resulting from amalgamation, but the budget was already public knowledge, Hunter said, and there was no raise in taxes.
“People just don’t want amalgamation – they’re telling me they’re self-sufficient and they don’t know what Botwood has to offer us. Granted, we do a lot of business in Botwood, shopping groceries and whatnot, but so does every other community around a bigger center,” he said.
Fear of identity loss
For many, amalgamation is more a question of identity than convenience, said former councillor Sam Brown, who was involved in the feasibility study to discover if amalgamation was a good option for Northern Arm.
“I think if the residents actually read the report and studied the details of the pros of amalgamation, the outcome may have been different,” Brown told the Advertiser.
“But there are a lot of older residents here who were thinking they would lose their identity as Northern Armers if we joined Botwood.”
She said the biggest fear among residents is a tax increase, which he said would actually bring more services.
“My concern is with an aging population comes the fewer number of people who are able to do the volunteer work required to keep a small town going,” Brown said. “Our fire department is still holding on with decent numbers and a new fire chief but joining forces with Botwood Fire Department would have made ours even stronger.”
Botwood resident and business owner Colleen Dalley said she was hardly surprised at the result of the vote, and that loss of identity is a big issue.
Still, no matter where town hall is, she said people would still call Botwood and Northern Arm by their original names.
“I think that the amalgamation may happen eventually, but it is a big decision and I guess the people of Northern Arm are just not ready for that change yet,” she said. “It may not happen today or tomorrow, but the central landscape of communities will eventually come together to share services and deal with the aging population and increase the services for the better of all, no matter what the amalgamated towns call themselves.”
Bob Hannaford is a longtime resident of Northern Arm but runs a business in Botwood. He said the communities are complementary and amalgamation would not change that.
“For me, personally, I think it would be good in that a larger town may very well have greater access to government funding for a variety of infrastructure issues,” he said. “I don’t believe I would have been living in Northern Arm for the past 37 years if Botwood had not been next door.
“I live in Northern Arm but depend upon Botwood for many of the necessities for living here,” he said. “In that sense, then, I think it would be just as well to complete the job and become one with Botwood.”
Hannaford also noted the trouble Northern Arm has had maintaining local governance. In last September’s municipal election, only five people put their names forward as candidates and voter turnout was low.
Rather than political will, however, he said declining population and rising infrastructure needs will likely trigger amalgamation if it were to occur in the future.
“I don’t feel that joining Botwood would cause Northern Arm to lose its own unique personality,” he said, noting the town’s 125th anniversary in 2016 and the rich and varied history on the display.
“That history can never be erased by mere amalgamation with a neighbouring town.”