Council approves proposed aquatic and arena rec centre site despite objections over lack of public input

Prince Albert’s new $60-million aquatic and arenas recreation centre will be built in the southeast portion of the city between Highway No. 3 and Marquis Rd.

Council voted by a 5-4 margin to purchase an 18-acre parcel of land from local developer Signature Development Corporation for $6,525,000. The decision came after more than an hour of passionate and, at times, heated debate during Monday’s city council meeting.

Critics say the public wasn’t given enough time to give their input on possible locations, but Mayor Greg Dionne defended the process, saying one option was clearly better than the others.

“That site will generate enough taxes to make the payment on the debt, and that’s what it was about,” he said during an interview on Tuesday. “It just wasn’t about finding a little piece of land. It was about finding a piece of land that would be able to generate us revenue and taxes, so that’s what I’m excited about. This is an 80-acre development on the east side of the city, and it’s going to fit in perfectly where it is.”

City council considered two alternate locations during their deliberations. The first, near the Alfred Jenkins Field House, would have required a land swap with the Saskatchewan Health Authority. The second location, a 35.7-acre parcel east of the Saskatchewan Polytechnic Campus, is contaminated and would require a “lengthy and costly” process to remediate, according to a report from City Manager Jim Toye.

Mayor Greg Dionne — Daily Herald/File Photo

During the meeting, Toye clarified that most of the contamination was due to a creek running through the property. Most was already cleaned up, but there was still a chance of contamination due to hydrocarbons.

Dionne said neither site provided the long-term commercial development benefits they were looking for.

The City of Prince Albert is on the hook for $16-million of the facility’s $60-million price tag, and Dionne said they’ll have to borrow money to cover that cost. Ideally, property taxes from the new Signature development will help pay those debts.

“This developer had a great vision – an 80-acre entertainment and trade area, and our pool and rink areas fit right into that,” Dionne said. “There’s going to be hotels, restaurants, retail (and) all kinds of businesses on that site.”

Dionne added that he doubted Prince Albert residents would be able to reach a consensus on the issue. He said his office has already received complaints from residents who want the facility built in the East Flat, West Flat and downtown core. He said none of those locations offered enough economic benefits.

City Manager Jim Toye echoed those comments when faced with questions from city councillors about the 18-acre purchase.

“It’s the taxpayers who are on the other 62-acres—we’re talking hotels, retail stores, all those types of things—who are going to help pay down the debt,” he told council. “In the other two locations, we don’t have that opportunity.

“We have an opportunity to have this new development, where a good part of the long-term debt’s going to be paid by new businesses in the area. Or, we can go with the other locations and the citizens of all the areas around Prince Albert will be (paying).”

Toye added that the City initiated negotiations with the developer, and that the negotiations have been ongoing for a number of years.

Dionne, along with Couns. Don Cody, Blake Edwards, Dennis Ogrodnick and Ted Zurakowski all voted in favour of the project. They faced stiff opposition from the four councillors who voted no, three of whom said there wasn’t enough information to make an informed decision.

Couns. Terra Lennox-Zepp and Evert Botha were the most vocal critics. Both said they believed the facility would be a benefit to the city, but had too many unanswered questions to give their support.

Lennox-Zepp said four days wasn’t enough time for residents to look over the proposal, and wondered why city council didn’t debate it at an executive committee meeting first. She also said there wasn’t enough information about the financial costs of the other two sites.

“It’s laughable that we should decide on a location for a $60-million project with four days of public notice and absolutely no public input,” she said during the meeting. “We do public consultation on much smaller budget items. We do community meetings. We do surveys. I don’t know which location the public wants the most and would be most beneficial, but we should at least have the respect for our citizens to go and find out. There’s no reason provided to us for why this (vote) needs to go ahead tonight instead of at a future council meeting.”

Ward 3 Coun. Evert Botha — Herald file photo.

Botha echoed those concerns about the lack of public input, and said council needed more financial information about the cost of cleaning up the contaminated 35.7-acre site near Saskatchewan Polytechnic.

“Will this be great for the City? I believe it will be an incredible asset,” he said during the meeting. “What concerns me is that we as a council have been presented with no additional information on the additional options to the (recommended) property.”

Lennox-Zepp’s comments triggered a fiery debate with Coun. Dennis Ogrodnick over whether the public received enough notice. The resulting exchange forced the mayor to bang his gavel and temporarily halt the debate in an attempt to calm everyone down.

Cody, Zurakowski and Edwards all offered enthusiastic support for the proposal, which they said would provide a much-needed facility while driving economic growth. However, Ogrodnick was its most staunch defender.

“The public knew about this (project) in September of 2019—that we were getting two hockey rinks and an aquatic facility,” he said during the meeting. “The public also knew that yes, we were denied a third rink, a larger rink, because for some reason the federal government believes the CHL is (made up of) semi-pro teams…. We were denied that larger rink, and the public new that as well, so to say that we’re springing this on them in four days is absolutely wrong.”

Lennox-Zepp reiterated her concerns that there needed to be more public input on location, and said there was no harm in delaying the vote to give people a month to mull it over.

In an interview on Tuesday, Dionne said he believed four days was enough time for the public to discuss the location.

Ogrodnick also addressed accusations that he was “bought” by the developer. He said he taught one the developer’s children in high school more than a decade ago, and was given a book on the history of the business community in Saskatchewan as a thank you.

“That’s the gift that I got from that developer, so I’m not being bought and my vote is not being bought,” he said.

Coun. Charlene Miller was the only elected official to suggest a fourth location. She wanted council to consider building the facility out near the airport. Miller also echoed concerns raised by Botha and Lennox-Zepp about the lack of information in the report.

“We have a lot of questions that are unknown, and I’m not comfortable going forward until questions are answered properly,” Miller said during the meeting. “I do believe it should be coming to executive committee before it comes to council so we can have a discussion publicly about the situation, because this is a lot of money.”

Coun. Dennis Nowoselsky was the only other councillor to vote against the project. Nowoselsky has touted the benefits of having an indoor aquatic facility in Prince Albert since being elected in 2016. However, he said it doesn’t make sense to build such a facility when there are so many other needs, like improving water and sewer infrastructure.

“It’s a matter of priorities,” he said. “Those other infrastructure projects are big and they’ve got to be considered.”

Nowoselsky said former professional hockey players like Robyn Regehr have helped building rinks in communities that helped them get to the NHL. He suggested that former Raiders like Mike Modano and Leon Draisaitl should consider donating some of their millions to building a new rink in Prince Albert.

When asked about water and sewer infrastructure, Dionne said the city has already sent in federal grant applications for those projects.

The aquatic and arena recreation centre is the first of three projects to be built on the site. The second includes a 125,000 square foot entertainment centre housing a large arena, while the third involves a convention centre, branch library, and other developments.

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