You've already heard about the new "Welcome to Wellington" sign.Now another sign, the one that says simply, "Wellington, Population 1700," is about to be changed.Few have heard the reason why.
The change has its roots in the McGuinty government's desire to transform Ontario'sleaden manufacturing and agriculture based economy into a highly charged knowledge and service economy.
"We want up to date, information age thinking to sweep the province," said Dwight Rumbold, senior innovation specialist with the Ontario Development Corporation. "So we thought: how can we involve rural and backwater communities in this massive transformation.We want to inspire those places that don't count to believe that we think they do."
The solution was not long coming. "It struck me as I walked down Bay Street every morning," said Rumbold. "Most of the storefronts flash up real time stock prices. You get the information you need, where and when you need it. And then I thought: when I go to buy cigarettes or gas, I expect to pay exactly the price that's posted on the sign out front."
"Yet I drive out to The County on a summer weekend, and every year I see the same sign: 'Wellington: population 1,700'. You just know it must be inaccurate. How can the number of permanent exits always equal the number of permanent entrances, year after year? The information just sits there yelling at you: out of date sign, out of touch place. Why should our road signs be any different"?
The brainwave took this form: have a uniform provincial standard to require that all publicly owned road signs carry real time, accurate information - and present it electronically. To implement it, out of the legislative hopper, this spring, comes the new Public Roads Information Act.
The law will require that all public road signs be accurate to the present moment within one percentage point. So, for example, a sign just outside Carrying Place that said 'Picton, 32km' would have to be corrected if the actual distance were 33km or 31km, because the permitted tolerance would be less than one kilometre. Wellington's 'Population, 1700' sign would have to be updated if the population changed by more than 17. And, of course, any newly derived total would itself have to be upgraded constantly. Insiders are already predicting that population signs will require more frequent updating than distance signs.
Yes, you read that right. The new law also requires all regulated signs connect to a computer network and work electronically. "We're going for visual consistency throughout the province," said Rumbold. The effect will be overwhelming."
The latter requirement particularly irks Hans Wrungh, the County supervisor of intergovernmental relations, whose job it will be to bring Wellington and the rest of the County up to standard. "Up to date is one thing, electronic is another: I could have a six person County crew repaint the number on the Wellington sign in a week, tops. But, no, we have go electronic because some guy on Bay Street likes stock tickers."
Although the legislation will phase in over five years, the implications for Wellington are immediate. Municipalities with names beginning with the letters "W," "I" and "T" are required to comply with the new law within one year.
The costs are massive, but in the spirit of the best public-private partnerships, the operators of Ontario's 400 series privately run highways have agreed to purchase and donate100,000 electronic signs as a gesture of gratitude to the government for making them so rich. By complete coincidence, they will also be selling Ontario the hardware that will track entrances and exits - a new generation of sophisticated two-way micro transponders developed from those used on provincial toll highways to photograph license plates.
"These devices fit in the ear, or they can be grafted under the skin," says Wrungh, "And believe me, we'll need them. How else are we going to be able to tell when someone's taken a long holiday, moved out of town or gone to strum a harp? If we don't know that, how can we count our population?"
Suppose a taxpayer refuses to wear a transponder. "Hadn't thought about that," said Rumbold. "We're not charging people for them, so we assumed the problem wouldn't arise. Perhaps there might have to be an element of compulsion in the system: there's so much useful information we could collect."
The payoff will be huge, Rumbold predicts. "I will be able to drive through the County in the summer and look at a digital sign that says 'Wellington, Population 1,753', and know it's close to the mark. It will help young people develop technical skills - they'll be inputting keyboards instead of stacking lumber. It will keep the namby pambys and nimbys tied up and let us get on with the wind power thing. Oops, I should scratch that last sentence."
Rumbold may be right on the mark. Already, a 'save the Wellington 1,700' committee formed. Its members include some high-powered local personalities. An all-star benefit concert, featuring dozens of well-known County musicians and thespians, is set for early June.
For his part, Wrungh is taking the view that you can't fight Queen's Park. "After all those Olympic ads showing Bloomfield and Sandbanks, we owe them one," he said ruefully.
Sentimentalists: get over it. Wellington joins the digital world.