Rinks, diamonds and re-election: Mayor Greg Dionne reflects on 2019 and looks ahead to 2020

Mayor Greg Dionne says there will be changes around City Hall in 2020 if more projects start to run over budget.

Dionne made the comments during a year-end interview with the Daily Herald. The mayor said he was pleased with many of the City’s accomplishments in 2019, and felt council was heading in the right direction. However, he wasn’t happy that several projects that ran over budget, and vowed that it would not happen again in the New Year.

“One thing we are going to improve in, and I guarantee it to taxpayers, is this: council is not going to tolerate any more mispricing,” Dionne explained. “If you tell us that the intake is $4 million, then it’s $4 million. If it comes back at $9 million, you’re in trouble and you’re going to be held accountable. When you’re in tough times, you can’t afford to guess what it’s going to cost you.”

Those comments came in response to news that the cost of replacing the raw water pump house would be more than double the original estimate. A 2018 assessment pegged the project’s cost at around $4.5 million, but last November city administrators said the true cost would be closer to $10 million.

That’s not the only project where costs have fluctuated. Last November, city administrators reported that replacing two pedestrian bridges in Little Red River Park would cost an extra $231,290.73. The project was originally budgeted at $530,000.

Then in December, council approved an extra $400,000 in spending to cover unplanned expenses to the Zone Two Pumphouse Upgrades Project, although those costs were largely due to a valve line failure during construction.

Regardless, Dionne vowed that overspending would end in 2020, and said there would be changes if that didn’t happen.

“It’s not acceptable to me. It’s not acceptable to council, and I can assure you in 2020 if it happens again, you’re going to know it because there are going to be some vacancies at City Hall,” he said. “You’re paid professionals, and you’re paid very well. I expect you to do your jobs, and so I’m not asking too much. That will be my biggest goal in 2020, to make sure that we’re on track and that we stay on track,”

Dionne added that he wouldn’t have voted for projects like the pedestrian bridge replacement program if he’d known the true cost.

City keeping an eye on mines, campuses, rinks and hospitals in 2020

Dionne said it’s difficult to say what challenges the city will face this year without knowing what’s in the provincial budget, which is still at least two months away. Until then, city council plans to keep an eye on a number of developments, the most lucrative of which is the proposed Rio Tinto Diamond Mine in the Fort à la Corne Forest east of Prince Albert.

In November, Rio Tinto Exploration Canada Inc. announced plans to buy a majority stake in the mine at a cost of $75 million. It’s still very early in the development process, but Dionne said it’s a positive sign for Prince Albert.

“We meet with them on a regular basis,” he explained. “It is a positive signal, but they told us not to get excited (because) they will not have a final answer for two more years, which is fine. That at least gives us something to work towards. We’re going to keep in front of their face because we want their offices here and most of their services to come out of PA.”

Dionne said the city has already offered Rio Tinto storage space and a head office location, and added that Prince Albert had a better chance of landing investment from the company than any other industry.

He also threw cold water on any notion that the mill would reopen some time soon.

“So far I’m the only one that’s been a realist,” Dionne said. “2020 has come and the mill will not be opening. Every one else said, ‘oh ya, Greg, blah, blah, blah, 2020.’ Well, I’ve seen the demolition orders. I’ve been to the property and saw what bad shape it’s in, and I don’t think it’s rebuildable, and I was in that development industry so I know what decay is.”

Dionne also invited anyone who thinks they can bring a new industry to P.A. to go out and find it. He said city representatives have “been in front of everybody” trying to convince businesses to expand or relocate to Prince Albert without any success.

“It’s easy to get up and say, ‘well, we need new industry,’” he explained. “I’ve been to 30 new cities this year looking for industry. Tell me what I’ve missed, or come and see me. If you can bring us a new industry with 400 to 500 new jobs you’ll be surprised the finders fee we’ll pay you. I can say that because I know there’s nobody out there. I can say, ‘you bring me a manufacturer, I’ll give you a quarter of a million dollars.’ I know there’s none out there.”

Besides the diamond mine, Dionne said he’s looking forward to the opening of the new University of Saskatchewan campus, which will bring roughly 60 jobs to Prince Albert in 2020. He’s also eager to take further steps towards building a new hospital, a project that will likely last two to three years once it’s approved.

City closes chapter on 2016 oil spill, but mayor says Husky Energy may still have role to play in 2020

The City’s other major development, a new rink and aquatics centre, will come with some significant fundraising challenges. The provincial and federal governments have already chipped in a combined $44 million, and Dionne said they can’t afford to say no to that contribution.

However, Dionne added that they’ll still at least need another $50 million for the project, even with the City contributing $16 million itself.  The City plans on looking at additional fundraising models in 2020, and may even start a fundraising campaign. Ideally, the campaign would raise between $10 million and $15 million.

Dionne said Husky Energy might also have a role to play, although nothing has been finalized. In 2019, the company paid for a number of local projects, the biggest being the completion of the Rotary Trail, as an apology for the 2016 oil spill. In the next few years, Dionne hinted that Husky could provide additional funds to help build the new rink and aquatic centre.

“We have really now formed a very good relationship with Husky, through the oil spill and through the apology, and they have left the door open (and said) if we would like another sponsorship, to call them,” Dionne said. “We told them, ‘we’ve got a rink project coming, we’ve got a new hospital coming, and for that we’re going to have to go out and raise some public money.’ They’ve told me not to forget about them. They haven’t guaranteed me anything, but they’ve told me not to forget about them.”

Airport expansion on hold

The New Year will see the inaugural meeting of Prince Albert’s airport authority.

City council created the committee to help identify ways to improve the City’s airport, while also creating additional revenue, but any changes are unlikely to involve expanding the runway.

Dionne said he doesn’t think the City can attract West Jet or Air Canada to Prince Albert, and added that the most well-used routes travel to communities or industries in Northern Saskatchewan that don’t have large enough runways to handle bigger planes or more traffic.

That means council likely won’t approve plans expand Prince Albert’s current 225 sq. metre runway in 2020.

“What we should be looking at is enhancing our airport,” Dionne said. “We have one runway paved and a grass one. Well, let’s get that grass one paved. We have a problem in the winter with de-icing and weather. Well then let’s get a de-icer. We have lots of inquiries about they can land floatplanes. Well, we used to have a floatplane base in PA. Well, why don’t we? That’s why we put the airport committee together.”

Airport passenger counts declined for the third straight year in 2019, and Prince Albert’s airport manager expects it to decline again in 2020.

Dionne hints at re-election plans, but plays coy until State of the City address

Dionne hasn’t officially entered the race for mayor, but that will likely change at the State of the City address on Jan. 30.

Prince Albert residents will head to the polls this Fall to elect a new Mayor, and despite health concerns in 2019, Dionne hinted that he’s still up for a re-election bid in 2020.

“All I’ll say on that is that I’m putting the final tweeks on my new five-year plan which I will be announcing at my state of the city address at the end of January,” he chuckled.

Dionne did not perform his mayoral duties for several weeks in September due to health concerns. During that time, deputy Mayor Don Cody served in his place.

At the final city council meeting of 2019, Dionne thanked local residents for their patience and generosity while he was laid up in hospital in Saskatoon following heart surgery.

“My biggest thank you is to the community,” he said during that meeting. “I’m still eating food that was dropped at my house from residents all over the community, so I really want to reach out and thank the community. They visited me. They sent me cards and gifts. I was kind of shocked with the overwhelming response from the community, so from my heart—my new heart—I really do want to thank you, because that was the backbone of a community, when we all come together.”

Dionne added that health problems wouldn’t affect him in the lead up to the 2020 municipal election, telling council he plans to be “even more aggressive, if that’s even possible.”

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