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Who will win Toronto’s votes?

Monday saw a battle to woo voters, with representatives from both the Conservative and Liberal Party of Ontario in Toronto to discuss their plans for housing and transit in the city.

After receiving little support in the provincial budget last week, Mayor John Tory sat down with Conservative Party Leader Patrick Brown Monday morning to discuss funding for social housing and SmartTrack.

The meeting itself was behind closed doors, but the media was given a press release following the exchange indicating PC promises to Toronto if elected into power in 2018. This included allowing Toronto Community Housing to purchase natural gas independently instead of bulk buying from the Housing Services Corporation. The idea is that TCHC will be able to save money be negotiating better prices on natural gas. The city estimates savings of about $6.3 million.

Other inclusions in the PC plan: financial support of the Scarborough subway (actual contribution unknown), supporting TTC fares on SmartTrack RER, and pledged to intervene so that Bombardier trains for the Eglinton Crosstown arrive on time.

The Yonge Relief Line, the project every transit and city building agency has indicated as its priority, was not mentioned in the statement. There was also no mention of allowing municipal sources of revenue such as tolls and short-term accommodation taxes — which makes sense considering Brown made it clear during the budget lockup that the Conservative Party was against both sources of revenue.

At the same time this statement was released, the Minister of Transportation Steven Del Duca took questions from reporters in Etobicoke. In it, he re-stated that the Ontario Liberals are big supporters of Toronto and “no one was invested more than them” in the city.

The Liberal Party has only promised $105 million for the planning of the relief line.

Honestly, at this moment in time, it doesn’t seem like Toronto will win with either party. There is still no promise for further funding for social housing or important transit initiatives like the relief line — two things that are critical to the growth and survival of Toronto.

I wonder if the mayor is planning on speaking with the New Democratic Party to find out their views? During the budget lockup, NDP leader Andrea Horwath said she was committed “to a 50 per cent funding agreement along with its municipal partners” to help in operating costs for transit. It would be interesting to see what her commitment was to Golden Horseshoe Area.

It’s the perfect time to light a fire under Queen’s Park for more transit and housing — and Tory knows it. It’s about negotiating the best deal as soon as possible, because it’s all about the votes at the end of the day.

Will Ontario’s new housing regulations do anything of value?

Ontario is cracking down on the red hot housing market by introducing a series of incentives that will, hopefully, control inflating real estate in the Golden Horseshoe region.

The province plans to bring in a series of 10 different initiatives to help placate the housing and rental markets — but the proposed regulations are a mixed bag. The non-resident speculation tax (NRST) is the primary regulation the Ontario Liberals hope to pass and the plan has immediately fallen under criticism. NRST would tax individuals that are not citizens or permanent residents of Canada 15 per cent when they purchase a home. The tax would apply to transfers of land, including “single family residences, detached homes and condos”. It would not apply to residential apartment buildings. This tax is similar to the foreign buyer’s tax in Vancouver, but differs because it would allow people to refund the tax if they obtained permanent residency within four years of living in the home.

NRST is one of the less impactful initiatives announced Thursday morning because it only applies to foreign buyers and doesn’t adequately represent most of the buying market in Toronto. Blaming foreign buyers for the problems of a mostly localized Canadian real estate market echoes the xenophobic tendencies seen lately in the United States, and won’t help the housing sector in a large or meaningful way. Why not instead implement a vacancy tax so that local homeowners, including foreign buyers, wouldn’t be allowed to keep their homes empty? This would directly respond to the desperate need for housing in the city.

Luckily, one of the other initiatives does leave room for municipalities throughout the province to enact a vacancy tax if they so wish. This puts the onus on each individual city to make the decision, which is either an avoidance tactic or a way to appease a heightening tension between Canada’s largest city and the province. The province will also crackdown on assignment clauses, which allows a buyer to pass on the right to another person to buy a property, and is a ‘scalping’ strategy to avoid taxes.

In the renting sector, the province will allow rent control again, which was banned in 1991. This will prohibit landlords from raising rent by more then 2.5 per cent, which has recently become a massive problem in the Golden Horseshoe. This is a positive change for renters who are currently at the whims of greedy landlords without rental control in place. The province also plans to strengthen the Residencies Tenancy Act to further protect renters from corrupt landlords.

The province of Ontario is finally taking action on the over-inflated housing market in the Golden Horseshoe, but it still stands to ask whether the initiatives introduced are too weak? By introducing a non-resident tax, the province avoids tackling the larger issue. With an election around the corner, the province may be hesitant to bring the hammer down on wealthy homeowners. Hopefully, the City of Toronto takes the initiative instead and enacts a vacancy tax on behalf of the province.

That being said, the incentive to crack down on speculation driving the market up and re-introducing rent control are fantastic incentives for the province. It remains to be seen what the new regulations will actually do for Ontario — but it will be clear what works and what doesn’t have an incredible impact on the red-hot housing sector.

Is Ontario a ‘real funding partner’ for Toronto’s relief line?

The Yonge Relief Line may have a new alignment — and that decision couldn’t come soon enough. This alignment is one of the few remaining steps that need approval before city staff can push this much-needed project forward.

And this project NEEDS to move forward.

The relief line has been talked about on and off for the last decade, and yet, it is still nowhere near completion. Politics always got in the way. Since then, the original Yonge line (Line 1) has become more crowded. This has made commutes nearly unbearable during peak hours. It has effected ridership and forced more people to use their cars instead of taking public transportation.

While some question the need for a relief line, especially with SmartTrack on the table, city staff, the Toronto Transit Commission, and Metrolinx have all come together to label the relief line as a priority for Toronto’s new transit network. Without it, they say, congestion on the Yonge Line will not be alleviated.

The biggest problem with the relief line will be the funding. As Toronto Mayor John Tory said repeatedly at a series of press conferences on transit last week, without serious funding from provincial and federal partners, Toronto will be unable to grow its transit network.

The Ontario government promised in 2016 to provide $150 million in funds to the planning and design of the relief line. That number has not changed, despite the current cost projection of $6.8 billion for the relief line. This means that the provincial contribution won’t do anything other then fund a study or two.

It’s also why Tory has been campaigning and pushing the province for more. When the province dismissed Toronto’s attempt at raising funds through tolls, they effectively removed a significant form of revenue for the city. Without that money, Toronto has no choice but to make its residents pay for the transit network, no matter what the politicians say. That’s why Tory is asking the province to step up and become a “real partner” in their efforts to fund transit infrastructure. He wants the province and the federal government to each pay 40 per cent of the relief line.

The province has been hitting back, indicating they are a “stable provincial funding partner”, despite the lack of funding announcements. But Toronto residents are not falling for it — and that fact is already showing in the polls.

Taking away a revenue-generating tool like tolls without offering a solution is not leadership. Ignoring the needs of one of the biggest cities in the province is also not the way to get elected, despite what advisors may be whispering into the Premier’s ears. The Liberal government will find that out if they refuse Tory’s proposal of short-term hotel taxes as a revenue tool.

Back to the relief line: In May, the executive committee will debate the new alignment option down Carlaw Ave., between Gerrard St. and Eastern Ave., before sending the route to city council for approval.

At this moment, construction will begin in 2025.

Rent control needed to control rising prices

Rent is at an all-time high in Toronto, with low vacancy rates and high prices. In other words, it is nearly impossible to find a home to rent in the current market.

The cost of renting a home in the city has increased above the rate of inflation, and the municipal and provincial governments are looking at ways to help control the price of rent. The Ontario government announced in March  it will consider substantial changes to rent-control rules due to tenants complaining about double-digit rent increases that are leaving people homeless. As the rules stand, only apartment buildings built before 1991 can have rent control and the government is now looking at changing that.

Ontario introduced rent controls in 1976 as a temporary measure to lower rent increases to the rate of inflation, and the NDP government offered a five-year rent control exemption to units in 1992 to encourage developers to build new units. The rules then became permanent. Instead, landlords can only raise rent by 1.5 per cent annually, but can apply for additional increases. Many stakeholders, including CIBC Capital Markets, are against re-implementing rent control because it previously reduced new construction of apartment buildings, and accelerated building deterioration that had rent control.

Rent control is being criticized because there is a concern that landlords won’t upkeep apartment rentals if they can’t lift the cost of rent, or that tenants will remain for longer. It is assumed that landlords will do the bare minimum to maintain an apartment and many rent-cost units fall into disrepair. Avoiding rent control because it would cause landlords to not maintain their property truly demonstrates how corrupt the rental market is. There should be a morally upright desire to fix units. Instead, avoiding certain rent control strategies because it is naturally expected landlords won’t upkeep their responsibilities proves how greedy and deplorable the apartment rental market can be.

The City of Toronto has decided to implement a new set of rules that will force landlords to track tenant complaints, respond quickly to repair requests, and provide pest control. The rules will come into effect on July 1 and is being widely celebrated by tenants in Toronto. The program will be enforced 12 months after launching and will apply to 3,500 buildings with three or more storeys of 10 or more units, resulting in 350,000 apartments. The rules indicate that emergency requests such as no water or heat must be handled in under 24 hours and a pest control situation must be dealt with in 72 hours. Landlords will also be forbidden from renting an apartment with a pest control problem.

Re-implementing rent control is a necessary in Toronto, especially with the new rules that have been implemented that would force landlords to upkeep their rental units. The cost of renting an apartment should be at par with the rate of inflation, because otherwise it is giving way to corruption and greed. It is commendable that the province and city are getting involved in rentals and will ultimately force landlords into a position to provide tenants with fair prices and liveable apartment units.

Tory hits back at province for transit and relief line funds

Early Tuesday morning, Toronto Mayor John Tory sent a letter and a list of budget recommendations to Ontario Minister of Finance, Charles Sousa, calling on Ontario to become “a full partner in cost-sharing of major infrastructure investments going forward.”

The letter outlines Toronto’s infrastructure expectations given the province’s rejection of tolls. Tory said the province has an “obligation” to help the city pay for the maintenance of both the Don Valley Parkway and the Gardiner Expressway, in addition to helping pay for new lines in the transit network, like the Yonge Relief Line.

Tory’s budget recommendation included the approval of a new revenue tool — a levy on hotel and short-term accommodation. The city of Toronto needs legislative authority from the province in order to tax lodgings; however, it doesn’t want this tool to interfere with the funding already given to Tourism Toronto. Tory is proposing a four per cent tax on hotels and short-term accommodations like airbnb.

In addition to a revenue tool, Tory has outlined a list of recommended items the province should fund, including $820 million to help rehabilitate the Gardiner Expressway, $3.36 billion for the transit network plan, $863 million for Toronto Community Housing, and $50 million for child care subsidies.

These recommendations follow a public exchange by Tory and Ontario Minister of Transportation, Steven Del Duca on Monday, in which Tory told the media the province was not acting like a “full partner” in their commitment to build transit. Tory stood at the Bloor – Yonge subway platform and said the province needed to come up with a plan to help contribute to the relief line and other transit projects. He suggested the province, as well as the federal government, each contribute 40 per cent of the funds for the project. Toronto would then pay for the remaining 20 per cent.

Del Duca responded with his own press statement, saying the Ontario government has “always been a strong partner with Toronto city council” and that they were “not going to play political games with transit.” With words bolded and underlined, Del Duca mentioned the measly $150 million the provincial government has already pledged to the relief line and claimed to be a “stable provincial funding partner at the table” unlike the federal government.

The reality is that Toronto needs billions to develop its transit network — a network that will benefit residents throughout the GTHA as more people use public transportation instead of driving on already congested roadways. The refusal of the provincial government to allow Toronto to fund its own projects through revenue tools like tolls puts projects like the downtown relief line in jeopardy. Toronto’s growth and development is, effectively, at the mercy of Queen’s Park.

Tory understands this and is fighting back. He is trying to make it abundantly clear that if the province doesn’t allow Toronto to explore and use its own revenue tools, then it has to step up to the plate and help pay for these important projects.

There are universal benefits to developing Toronto’s transit network. It will help reduce carbon emissions as less people drive into the city. It will help connect the Greater Toronto Hamilton Area so that people can get from their home to work in a seamless manner. And it will help reduce congestion for those who have no choice but to use their car to get around.

Funding this network is a win-win scenario — and if the province is not going play politics with transit, they would see that.

Investment in greenhouses is an environmental win for Ontario

Eating local produce is not only much more delicious, but a healthier alternative for the environment as well.

Earlier this week, Ontario launched the Greenhouse Competitiveness and Innovation Initiative to fund $19 million into greenhouses to promote local and high quality produce in the province. The initiative will allow for the use of new and sustainable technologies and will encourage investments in greenhouse agriculture.

Ontario is the leader of greenhouses, currently contributing to over half of Canada’s greenhouse produce. The province is growing by 150 acres per year and continued investment in this form of agriculture has positive financial benefits for the future. Greenhouses are especially beneficial for sensitive crops that are susceptible to erratic weather patterns and a harsh climate — like the weather Ontario was subjected to this year. Continued investment in greenhouses allows Ontario to expand its local produce capacity and provide people with fresh, homegrown food.

Greenhouses are a sustainable and ‘green’ initiative because they allow carbon to be captured in a concentrated area with high density of green growth being grown inside of a structure. Greenhouses also open the doors for other innovative technologies such as solar-powered electricity and using recyclable materials to build (with the poly-tunnel as an example). Transporting produce locally also lowers carbon emissions because it doesn’t have to travel as far.

Overall, Ontario’s investment in greenhouses will benefit the green economy, provide more green jobs and the province will continue to be a national leader in promoting an environmentally-friendly agenda. By focusing heavily on innovation in the green sector, perhaps Canada stands a chance at actually meeting carbon targets in the future.

Green Party hopes to woo voters with honesty and revenue tools

The Ontario Green Party is working on a comprehensive revenue tool package that will help fund infrastructure and transit projects throughout the province. The package will include a plethora of options for drivers and transit users, including the use of tolls and congestion charges in addition to uploading the cost of maintaining and operating the Don Valley Parkway and the Gardiner Express back to the province.

“One of the biggest challenges facing the GTHA is gridlock,” says party leader Mike Schreiner. “It affects our economy to the tune of $6 billion in lost productivity.”

According to Schreiner, the Green Party is willing to do something other political parties are not — explain honestly and openly what it will take to improve transit and quality of life in cities across Ontario.

“This is a situation where political self-interest is trumping the people’s interest,” he says. “There is a myth that somehow all this infrastructure is going to be built. Imagine if our great grandparents hadn’t paid for dams in Niagara Falls that generates electricity … or hadn’t agreed to pay for the cost of the 400 series highways that enabled us to ship goods to province and the US. It’s time for our generation to step up to plate and fund transit infrastructure desperately needed.”

As part of this plan, the Green Party is supporting dynamic tolling, where drivers are charged a larger cost for using certain roadways like the Gardiner and DVP during on-peak hours and less (or not at all) during off-peak hours. The hope is that this will encourage those who can use transit, to do so, and those who must drive, to carpool.

“A toll taxes people regardless of time of day when real problem is rush hour,” says Tim Grant, Green Party shadow cabinet minister for transportation. “The dynamic road pricing – although it sounds harsh at first glance – is really fair and equitable. It acknowledges that there is a higher cost to discourage drivers in rush hours.”

The money collected from these tolls would be dedicated to transit, ensuring that those who choose to use alternative modes of transportation are able to use a modern and well-maintained system. It’s a win-win scenario — the challenge is to convince people the long-term benefits are worth the cost.

“If you reduce traffic congestion, people have a higher quality of life,” Grant says. “Air pollution is reduced, fuel economy is reduced, which leads to higher air quality and more time on [drivers] hands.”

Grant says the problem with the current funding provided by both the provincial and federal governments to municipalities for infrastructures is that it only pays for the initial planning and construction of a transit project, but not to operate or maintain it. This results in poorer service and low ridership.

Another aspect of the Green Party’s revenue plan is to upload the costs of operating and maintaining the DVP and Gardiner Expressway back to the province, something that was promised over 10 years ago. This would free up a couple billion dollars worth of funding the City of Toronto could use to build better transit infrastructure and maintain other roads within the city.

The key, both Schreiner and Grant say, is to actually listen to experts and communicate that information honestly to the public, without political agenda.

“Part of the problem is that political parties prepare their platform and policies based on a calculation of what voters think – and it’s a sad state because the alternative is for a political leader to go out and be honest and say, you won’t like this, but you will love it afterwards,” Grant said. “It needs political leadership willing to get out in front of all this and say we are doing this because people will get to work faster, kids will have better transit, and this will be a benefit. Vote for me or not – but I will try to make life better.”

The Green Party will discuss their platform and comprehensive revenue package in May in preparation for the 2018 election.

Woman of the Week: Dr. Vicky Sharpe

Dr. Vicky Sharpe can claim something many professional women cannot: “I basically follow my passion.”

Sharpe sits on the following boards: QUEST (Quality Urban Energy Systems for Tomorrow), the Alberta Energy Corporation, Carbon Management Canada Inc., and the Temporal Power Ltd. She is also a director on the board of The Capital Markets Regulatory Authority. Sharpe’s goal is to use her background in microbiology and energy to help inspire sustainable practices and encourage funding and investment in clean technologies.

“Board work, in my view, is really rewarding — if you get on the board that is right for you. I wanted to try and create more change.”

Sharpe always had a passion for the outdoors, in particular for the microorganisms that connect it all. These “tiny little simple genetic organisms” could affect so much change. They could digest oils, or remove hydrogen from the air. It was this interest that led her down an impressive and fulfilling career path in sustainability and finance.

She began her career studying science in Bath, U.K. and took her PhD in microbiology, or more specifically surface chemistry as applied to water pollution, at Trent University in Nottingham. She originally moved to Canada because there were more opportunities for women in her field.

“It’s a male-dominated system. In the U.K., I took a higher degree, a PhD, because I knew if I wanted to compete with the men, I had to be more qualified. People forget how hard women worked at that time to be treated equally,” she says. “There were more opportunities for women [in Canada]. It’s more receptive.”

Sharpe began her illustrious career as VP of Ontario Hydro International Inc. She was responsible for a community-based conservation program that helped retrofit homes, commercial buildings, shopping centres, and hotels in a small town with energy efficient technologies. The idea was for Hydro to become as utility energy efficient as possible. “There was a 90 per cent uptake in people taking at least one product that would be beneficial,” she says. “That was the highest level of adoption by society of energy efficiency.”

While at Ontario Hydro, Sharpe was involved with Women in Science and Engineering (WISE). She would travel to schools and talk with kids between the ages of five and eight about careers in science and technology. She also informally mentors women and helps connect them to other decision-makers. “I actually have taken some heavy hits working to support employment equity,” she says. “At the time there was a lot of negativity about that [but] I integrate it into my life. I give them advice.  We all need help. I had great people who help me.”

One of Sharpe’s other big accomplishments is the founding of Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC), an organization she helped run as CEO for 13 years. She describes the SDTC as an “unusual organization” that was created through an act of parliament as a response to the Canadian Climate Change Commitment in the late 1990s. Through this organization, she helped find and negotiate agreements with clean technology companies and start-ups. In total, she mobilized over $5 billion for clean tech companies in Canada.

“It’s so exciting to see these great Canadian companies growing and building, but now – I asked for this in 2006 — we need to get more capital to scale up these companies if we want to be world leading. We are still struggling with that. Investors tend to go with what they are used to.”

Throughout her experience and studies, Sharpe never had any formal training in terms of finances — yet now, she is one of the leading negotiators in the field. “I found I spend a large chunk of my life chasing money for these companies,” she says. “I just learnt it. If you are trying to persuade businesses to be more sustainable, they are designed to optimize financial returns. So if you are presenting opportunities, you have to take that into account.”

Sharpe has a variety of experience, but there is one commonality that drives her.  “I have to do something that does an impact,” she says.  She won the Purvis Memorial Award in 2016, which is given to those who have made a major contribution to development and strategies in Canadian industry or academia in the field of chemistry.

In the little free time she has, Sharpe does a lot of travelling. Sometimes it is to visit family in the U.K., and other times it’s to better understand a global issue or to use her skills as an amateur wildlife photographer. Travelling and reading helps her reconnect with her love of nature and the environment, and revitalizes her passion for the topic.

“Climate change is in the background and it’s a critical thing to deal with. It’s a threat. I … promote a better understanding of what this is and what it means to people’s lives, both business and personal, and try to influence it for the better because as a society. I don’t think we’ve embraced the positive angles of sustainability,” she says.

“But, when you want people to do stuff, you have to be able to help them do it. There are great Canadian technologies for those who want to build sustainability. They are carrying the torch.”

Ontario will still have a revenue problem

I became a Liberal advocate in 2011 because they were the only party honest enough to admit that both Ontario and Toronto have huge revenue problems. Services like healthcare and education suck up all the tax dollars collected by the province and, as our population grows, there is an even greater need for more funding options. Few politicians have the guts to stand up for increasing taxes or implementing tolls because they risk their chances of re-election. But Toronto Mayor John Tory did. He stood up for tolls despite the risk of losing support in the suburbs because he, like many of us, understands that dedicated funding for transit has to come from somewhere.

I met Kathleen Wynne and others in the Liberal party who said they were willing to admit that Ontario didn’t collect enough revenue to pay for the services residents want — services like transit and housing that cities desperately need. I became a Liberal because of these facts. I believed the Premier would stand up and do the right thing, and not cave to low-polling numbers or pressure from cabinet members desperate to get re-elected. She once believed that tolls were a necessary tool to get the dedicated transit funding Toronto needs.

Tolls on Toronto highways are just as important as tolls on provincially-owned highways. Not allowing Toronto to access this funding tool will simply push the cost of transit expansion and other services on to future generations. From health care, to education, to efficient transit, we don’t have enough funding to pay for everything. But today, Premier Wynne has decided to ignore that problem and gamble that economic growth and low gas prices will last forever.

Relying on our current gas taxes for the billions of dollars needed over the next decade for transit expansion in Toronto is the same “do nothing” approach that has caused the growth of gridlock in the city. Gridlock is costing residents over $13 billion per year in time and lost revenues. A slight slip in economic growth, or increase in gas prices will lower the amount of revenue Ontario collects, meaning we’ll be financing all this transit expansion through debt.

So, why would Premier Wynne go against everything she stood for? Rumours of internal “poli-tricking” swirl with cabinet ministers outside Toronto apparently demanding she stop her support of Mayor Tory’s plan. The Premier should remember how flip flopping on the gas plant in Mississauga almost cost Liberals the 2011 election and this huge change in her position on Toronto tolls may very well lose her the liberal base of support in 2018. This kind of internal poli-tricking is why voters lose faith in politicians, and will choose an honest buffoon over a smart, intelligent, candidate.

Today I am ashamed.

Premiers sign groundbreaking national climate change strategy

Ontario is proving to be a leader in climate change, and that continues with the signing the federal agreement pushing for a carbon tax, known as the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change. Under this agreement, every province must produce a carbon tax framework, and Ontario’s cap and trade agreement makes it one of the best prepared to begin cutting greenhouse emissions right away.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with the other Premiers of Canada at the First Ministers’ Meeting in Ottawa last week and every province signed the agreement except Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Under the Paris Agreement, Canada committed to reducing emissions to 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. The carbon tax framework will help provinces to meet this goal and unifies the country in trying to actually make efforts to stop climate change.

Ontario is prepared for the federal carbon tax mandate because of aggressive targets set by Ontario’s Climate Change Action Plan. The cap and trade program will force high polluters to lower their emissions or pay large penalties on their carbon usage. The program has come under criticism though due to the uncertainty of how much profit cap and trade will make. It is difficult to estimate how much the credits will cost and if there will be a high need for them, but Ontario can learn from cap and trade partners in Quebec and California who have already implemented the program.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall is opposed to the Pan-Canadian Framework on Climate Change and is concerned as to what will happen to climate change agreements in the United States when President Donald Trump comes into power. Trudeau responded to these concerns by emphasizing that Canadian climate change policies exist outside of American interests. Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister was also opposed to the agreement and switched focus to healthcare funding throughout the meeting.

The federal government is moving forward with setting climate change goals and is leading the provinces into taking responsibility for carbon emissions. Manitoba and Saskatchewan will be forced to follow the carbon tax guidelines despite not signing, and Wall has hinted to the media that he may try to take the issue to court.

This Pan-Canadian Framework is a historic decision on the part of Canada and demonstrates the country’s unified front against climate change. Despite certain opinions in the First Minister’s Meeting, the premiers are moving forward with implementing a carbon tax and Canada’s commitments to the Paris Conference goals will hopefully be met. It will be interesting to see how each province decides to legislate their carbon tax and the success rate of each strategy.

Stay tuned climate change fanatics — it is going to get a lot more exciting from here.