Nelson Santos decided to enter municipal politics in the mid-1990s when he was covering Kingsville council for the local newspaper.
Council voted in favour of selling town-owned property at the foot of Division Street next to Lakeside Park to a developer — a move that went against the town’s policy of encouraging and expanding parkland along the waterfront.
“I thought it was a conflict. They weren’t following their own priorities,” Santos said. “That made me pay more attention and feeling that instead of giving away our assets we should be investing in them.”
The policy now in Kingsville, said Santos, “is we don’t sell public parkland.”
Santos ran for council and won, starting a political career that will end Sunday when he leaves his post as mayor and begins his new job as the chief administrative officer of the Township of Adjala-Tosorontio, near Barrie.
He is also leaving his post as executive director of Jack Miner Migratory Bird Foundation, a position he has held since early April.
“I spoke to the chairperson (of the foundation) and said this is an opportunity for my family that I couldn’t refuse,” he said.
Santos said his long-term goal was always to leave politics and work for a municipality in an administrative role.
Santos studied political and social science as well as public administration at the University of Windsor.He leaves local politics after serving five terms and 19 years as mayor.
He also served terms as the warden of Essex County.
Santos said he looks at his time on council with a sense of accomplishment. When he was first elected, Kingsville was a small municipality of 5,500 with little growth. Now, with a population of 22,000, Kingsville is much more than a bedroom community for Leamington and Windsor. It has a thriving downtown and new home construction is at an all-time high.
“At the time, (in the late 1990s) the environment was everyone is leaving. There was no reason to come to Kingsville. Now it’s the reverse.”
Santos said two factors spurring growth were investments in infrastructure — like separated sewers — and amalgamation which allowed the municipalities of Kingsville, Gosfield South and Gosfield North to pool resources and “invest more in the community.”
As deputy mayor in the early 2000s, Santos wrote an economic and tourism report which led to the creation of an economic development committee with broad representation from various business sectors and the public.
He’s got a lot of experience as a mayor and a former warden. That has a lot of importance when you looking for a CAO. He has a lot of relationships that will help a small municipality at the upper levels of government.
“We wanted to draw retirement age communities but also find a balance between retirees mixed with new business and job opportunities,” Santos said. “That all started coming together and we started to see the small mom and pop shops, more investing, more investing in their own buildings.”
Santos also had to guide the town through the pandemic. Well into the pandemic, in June, 2020, he lost his job as editor of the Kingsville Reporter after it was shut down by parent company Postmedia.
“I understood what it felt like to lose my job, so hearing the stories and fears from our community … I committed full-time to do whatever it took to work with all of our businesses, small businesses, the BIA … the province, the Ontario Chamber of Commerce to identify not just a recovery plan but a survival plan.”
He said provincial funding was “a lifesaver,” but added credit also has to be given to local businesses for changing their business models to survive.He said six local businesses closed during the first year of the pandemic, but were replaced by seven new enterprises.
“It’s that sense of entrepreneurial spirit, the will to be part of a community, that rises to the top.”One of his biggest disappointments during his time as mayor was the failure to build an indoor swimming pool in Kingsville. In 2005-6, Total Fitness (now Movati) proposed a public-private partnership to build an indoor swimming pool in a vacant space immediately east of the fitness centre. The property now houses a Chinese restaurant.
However, there was strong opposition to the idea of the town investing in a privately run business, even though public use of the pool would be guaranteed. The cost of operating the pool would have been covered by Total Fitness.
“They argued the old principle of taxpayer dollars shouldn’t subsidize private corporations. It was counterintuitive when looking at forming partnerships.”
Almost 20 years later, Kingsville still doesn’t have an indoor swimming pool.
Santos begins his new job at Adjala-Tosorontio on Monday.
“My first 30 days will be about listening and learning where they are at. There has been a significant number of new hires in the senior management team. They have a new treasurer, a new fire chief, so the whole team will be kind of new there. So, there’s a different kind of energy.”
Santos said his house is up for sale but in the short term his wife Stephanie and their three children will remain in Kingsville until a place to live is found in the township.
Adjala-Tosorontio Mayor Floyd Pinto said Santos’s “skill set” and background played a big part in his hiring.
“He’s got a lot of experience as a mayor and a former warden. That has a lot of importance when you looking for a CAO. He has a lot of relationships that will help a small municipality at the upper levels of government.”