Prince Albert city council has approved the funding and management services agreements for the proposed aquatic and arenas complex to be built in the southeast corner of the City.
Council also approved a $3.6-million detailed design agreement with Saskatoon firm Architecture Interior Design Ltd., in partnership with MJMA Architects of Toronto.
The City’s elected officials debated all three issues for almost two combined hours during the Sept. 21 council meeting, as project detractors continued to question the chosen location, the City’s debt level, the lack of consultation whether the first phase of plans should include a branch library, and whether a new recreation centre should be the City’s top priority in the first place.
Mayor Greg Dionne said he’s undeterred by the criticism, and reiterated that Prince Albert residents want to see the project go ahead.
“The pushback is from a small group—a very small group—but unfortunately they’re being very loud,” Dionne said during an interview on Thursday.
“They all understand that this (funding) that we got from the federal government, if it does not go to the rinks and the aquatic centre, it goes back to the federal government. We cannot divert that money to the secondary sewage treatment plant.”
The federal government will contribute $24-million to the rec centre, along with nearly $20-million from the province. That leaves the City on the hook for the remaining $16-million. They also have to fund the purchase of a new parcel of land in a proposed Entertainment District being built by Signature Developments, which adds more than $6-million to the total cost.
On Thursday, Dionne defended the land purchase agreement, saying the land they bought will be serviced by Signature Developments, which saves them money in the long run. He also said the City would place an eight per cent levy on the businesses and properties in the district, which would go towards costs associated with building and operating the new rec centre.
“It will lessen the blow for the taxpayer,” Dionne said. “Over and above that, we’re going to start a fundraising campaign, because we believe we can lessen the repayment (time) for the loan.”
A big part of that fundraising campaign will be selling the naming rights to the new facility. Dionne said he expects the City to receive a seven-figure offer for those rights alone.
He also took issue with critics saying council was making too many decisions without public consultation, and pointed to the Alfred Jenkins Fieldhouse as an example.
Dionne produced documents at the Sept. 21 meeting which showed the Alfred Jenkins was built following a land swap with the Parkland Regional Health Authority. He said that location was chosen so the facility could be built closer to Victoria Hospital, and not as a result of extensive consultation with the public. At the time, the plan was to host Victoria Hospital programming at the Alfred Jenkins.
Dionne also argued that multiple consultation projects, including the city master plan survey, have shown that an indoor aquatic centre is a major priority for the majority of residents.
While the discussion at the Sept. 21 meeting was cordial, several councillors expressed frustration with the negativity surrounding the project.
“We need some positives in this city, for everybody to use, not negatives,” Ward 6 Coun. Blake Edwards said during the meeting. “This is a wonderful, wonderful thing for our city. It’s $44-million given to us to use for recreation or (we) lose it, so we’re using it.”
“I’m proud that we’re going to have an entertainment centre, similar to what Cornerstone is,” Coun. Dennis Ogrodnick added. “It’s going to be a draw. It’s going to be a destination.”
Opponents of the project weren’t convinced by those remarks. Many, like Coun. Terra Lennox-Zepp, said they agreed Prince Albert needed a new recreation centre, and supported building one. However, she still wasn’t happy with the process, and told council she wouldn’t vote for a project that came before council after only four days notice, or one that required a $6-million land purchase on top of a $16-million funding commitment.
Lennox-Zepp also wasn’t happy with the federal and provincial funding agreement. As a result of the agreement, the provincial government will no longer provide more than $5-million in transit funding for the city. Instead, that money will be diverted to the COVID Resilience Infrastructure Stream.
“To have our hands tied and told you can only have this provincial commitment if you agree that your transit money is a part of this multiplex, I think that is something that the public does not want,” Lennox-Zepp said in an interview.
City Manager Jim Toye and Public Works Director Wes Hicks faced plenty of questions about the application process that led up to the funding announcement. Hicks said they submitted 10 projects for consideration, and listed the recreation centre and a new waste water treatment plant as their top priorities. They said the final decision was the federal governments.
The City submitted their 10 applications in April 2019. The list of submitted projects included a new garage for the transit department, a new raw water pump house, a landfill cell expansion, the West Hill trunk sewer main project, a new airport terminal, airport apron repairs and expansion, a Central Avenue underground utilities project, and funds for the Central Avenue Streetscape. City administration met with council before making any applications.
“There were five different funding streams, and in each stream, you had to give your first choice and second choice,” Hicks told council. “There was a first choice for each stream, so under the recreation stream, the arena was the first choice, but under the water and sewer, which was the green program, the sewage treatment plant was the first choice, and we had a first choice in every stream, but the arena was the only one we got a positive response back on.”