Dennis Rogers gets down to business as Kingsville’s new mayor Affordable housing, managed growth, waterfront development on political newcomer’s to-do list

When Dennis Rogers decided to throw his hat in the political ring his aim was to win a Kingsville council seat. That was the traditional route for someone new to politics: start small and over time work up to running for higher positions like deputy mayor or mayor.

But after some thought, some input from family, friends and business acquaintances and just a gut feeling, he decided to go all in and run for the top job.

He was up against stiff competition. Laura Lucier had served on council for four years and Tamara Stomp, a lawyer, was a former deputy mayor.

And, to the surprise of many, but not Rogers, he won.

“I always had faith that we had a shot, otherwise I wouldn’t do it,” he said.

“Obviously, it’s no secret. I don’t personally have any municipal experience. But I (had) people, my campaign advisers, that have over 60 years of experience.”

People like former mayor Nelson Santos and Pat O’Neil, who in the 1980s became Kingsville mayor with no prior experience on council.

“I said it’s a matter of going with what you feel is the right decision,” O’Neil said.

One of those behind-the-scenes advisers was Jeff Smith, owner of County Chevrolet in Essex and co-owner of the Grove brewery and pub in Kingsville.

“It’s not that I gave him advice, it’s that I solidified thoughts he already had,” Smith said.

“His leadership style fits the mayor’s role. Now was his opportunity and I’m glad he took advantage of that.

“Dennis is one of those guys that is super articulate, he’s a super business person in town, so he understands our local economy and what runs it and what makes Kingsville a wonderful place. He’s not afraid of putting his opinion forth, even if it is not popular.”

Rogers is co-owner with his wife Haley of Green Heart Kitchen in Kingsville. O’Neil said running a business and dealing with the public are skills that are invaluable for any politician.

“He’s had his successes and he’s had his failures and he’s learned from that,” O’Neil said.

Since winning the Oct. 24 election, Rogers has spent a lot of time bringing himself up to speed, talking to town staff, department heads, former mayors and fellow council members.

“I’m really relentless when it comes to finding out information and learning things that are going to shorten my learning curve.”

Rogers also followed Kingsville council meetings online and led delegations that appeared before council.

He actively pushed the town to hire a business and tourism promotion officer — a position the town approved in its last budget.

Rogers looks at his business background as an asset.

“So to me, I would put them (politics and business) hand in hand because you’re going to have a business mindset when you have to make tough decisions. Being able to negotiate and be able to rally teams (are areas) where a business person has an advantage.”

Rogers moved to Kingsville when he was eight with his mother and sister. They lived in assisted housing.

His mother, Kimberley Grant, always pushed the value of hard work and higher education.

Rogers went to Wayne State University to study business on a baseball scholarship and after graduating he moved to Vancouver.

“I filled my obligation to my mum, getting my degree, and I moved out west. I was in Vancouver for four or five years. I was acting, actually. I did a few commercials, some plays and TV stuff,” he said.

That’s the way Canada is going, so it’s no big deal, but anyway, it’s precedent-setting that we’ve elected our first black, mixed-race guy.”

But Rogers wanted to move back to Kingsville. He was conducting a long-distance relationship with Haley, who was working in Toronto in marketing.

While at Wayne State, he worked at an Outback Steakhouse in Michigan as an assistant manager and the newly married Rogers used those connections to land a job as a manager of a steakhouse in the Cleveland area.

“When we left in 2013 I was the head of operations at two locations — one was on the east side of Cleveland and the other was out in Mentor,” he said.

The next stop with his wife was in Michigan where they ran a Twisted Sister bar/restaurant that specialized in meals prepared with food grown locally.

It was his experience at Twisted Sister that inspired the creation of Green Heart Kitchen — which also relies on locally produced food.

Rogers said he gives much of the credit for his success to his mom.

“Everything. Everything. She busted her butt and we never did without. We didn’t have all the wants but we had all the needs.” he said. “She worked hard. She worked really hard. At a young age we learned the value of what you have.

“I was ironing and doing laundry and making dinner and that stuff at a young age.”

Because of his background growing up in assisted housing, Rogers supports the town purchasing the Kingsville District High School and Kingsville Public School properties when the land comes up for sale after the opening of new K-12 school on Jasperson Drive.

Rogers said he doesn’t like the term “assisted housing” because of the negative connotations it provokes. He says attainable housing is his preferred way to describe housing for people of moderate incomes.

“I think at the end of the day we have to buy both properties because I think we have to control our own destiny,” he said.

The site of the high school has already been touted as a site for affordable housing. Rogers said the Kingsville Public School lands are also important because they are close to downtown.

“That’s where downtown expansion could go,” he said.

Rogers said he has spoken to local developers who are willing to build affordable housing. The question often boils down to how and where.

“We have to look at development fees. We’ve got to look at services, we’ve got to look at infrastructure, like where we are on those items. But I can definitely comment and tell you that there are developers in Kingsville that want to build affordable housing.”

He said developments could take place on privately or publicly owned land or a combination of both.

Rogers said he wants to see more resident feedback before council makes important decisions on issues like future development.

“To me we have to look at areas like the waterfront … like the west side of town. We have to be able to affect how that’s going to look. So to me that means looking at bylaws, we’re looking at zoning, we’re looking at new development coming in because at the end of the day growth is inevitable.”

Other issues facing the town, he said, include traffic congestion, waterfront development, the number of homes being turned into Airbnbs and future greenhouse development.

Rogers said the current freeze on greenhouse expansion dictated by water restrictions from the Union Water Supply System offers the town breathing space to work with the greenhouse industry.

“It’s an industry that’s right in our backyard. Right now we’ve had an adversarial relationship. I definitely think we have to use (the industry) as a resource. It’s a billion-dollar industry and why they are not a full resource, to me, that has to happen.

“But the other half of that is they should be doing what they are supposed to be doing. They have to be abiding by our bylaws. They have to be abiding by the laws. To me, I don’t believe in greenhouse growth coming within residential areas.”

In late 2020 Kingsville council passed a bylaw designed to curtail light pollution from greenhouses at night. There is also a freeze on greenhouse development west of Division Road North.

No matter who was elected mayor last month the result was going to be a first for Kingsville — either the first woman mayor or the first mayor of a mixed-race background.

Rogers’s father is Black and his mother is white.

“That’s the way Canada is going, so it’s no big deal, but anyway, it’s precedent-setting that we’ve elected our first Black, mixed-race guy,” he said.

“I’m honoured and humbled by that, to be the first. Now kids (from a racial minority) have somebody that looks like them.”

A swearing-in ceremony for Rogers and the rest of council takes place today.

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