Hickie releases economic development platform

Mayoral candidate hopes to strengthen economic development office, cancel levy, add tax incentives and give free land to would-be developers

Darryl Hickie says the void in economic development in Prince Albert is big enough to drive a truck through. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

Mayoral hopeful Darryl Hickie unveiled his economic growth platform for Prince Albert Thursday, including a realignment of the economic development office, the cancellation of a proposed eight per cent levy on new businesses coming to the entertainment complex planned for the southeast part of the city, tax incentives for businesses that meet certain job creation quotas and a plan to give away commercial land for free to companies that invest in building new industry in the city.

Hickie made the announcement in the now-empty storefront where Sears once stood in front of a pickup truck bearing his face and name.

“I felt it only fitting that we should be here this morning for this news conference in the former Sears store, to make a statement that our massive void of economic development activity under this current mayor is so large, you can drive a truck through it,” Hickie said.

“(Dionne) claimed that he was personally talking to companies who are making final decisions to come to Prince Albert and set up shop.  They never came. Where has his economic development plan been for the last eight years? I would argue that this is anything but proven leadership.”

Hickie said large businesses have opened up in the rural areas surrounding Prince Albert, but that nothing major has come to the city. He said that’s because businesses in the city are asked to pay for the land, not encouraged to apply for tax abatement that may or may not be approved by city council, faced with ever-rising property taxes topped off with the associated paperwork and red tape that goes along with all of that.

Hickie promised that if he’s elected mayor on Nov. 9, he will make add resources to the city’s economic development office, giving it its own director who will seek advice from the chamber of commerce and a new mayor’s council of business leaders.

“I’m not the smartest individual in the room. Why would I be the one to lead economic development by myself solely?” Hickie asked.

“This town is full of individuals with expertise in this particular field. I will turn to them for advice as we should.”

The mayor, Hickie said, should be a cheerleader, not the one actively seeking to attract business to the city. The economic development office, he said, will be given a mandate to eliminate “any and all red tape” that impedes new business development and growth. Its staff will be experts on provincial and federal programs that can be used to attract startups and promote the expansion of local businesses, while working with interested entrepreneurs to advocate for them and help them to access any available local programs.

The economic development office wasn’t the only promise Hickie made Thursday. Hickie also promised to implement a Prince Albert first policy where local businesses will have competitive advantage on all projects and procurements, such as local clothing stores bidding on supplying uniforms, or local supply companies furnishing city hall.

“We support our local firms and local businesses wholeheartedly. That will be the primary focus. Moving forward if I’m elected as mayor, the term support local first will resonate throughout City Hall,” Hickie said.

He also promised that vacant or underused commercial/ industrial land in Prince Albert will be given away free and rezoned if needed to allow any company to put up infrastructure, with a focus on land near the landfill and land in the green energy park north of the airport.

Businesses will also be eligible for tax breaks under Hickie’s plans if they have different brackets of staffing, plans for expanding staff levels or plans to hire individuals with mental health concerns or plans to support community-based organizations that work with marginalized and homeless individuals starting out on a new path.

“A job provides them with security and a sense of pride and accomplishment,” Hickie said. “These individuals need a hand up rather than a handout.”

Additionally, all current land available within city limits will be offered to any company or organization that uses their own capital to establish or expand a business and provide jobs, Hickie said.

“Now is the time to kickstart a local economy, become an overall business incubator, so to speak, be innovative, think outside the box and do whatever needs to be done for our city,” he said.

“The short term goal, of course, is jobs and the housing starts to go along with those jobs. With a long term goal being additional revenue and prosperity to Prince Albert.”

The program will depend on the provision of a business plan with infrastructure development and a number of new jobs created by the project.

“I’m not going to let people take free land and put up a Quonset,” he said, adding that the program would be structured with a rebate paid once development is complete.

“We want to have an actual functioning, operating business with jobs that support our economy.”

While Hickie was tough on Dionne’s record when it comes to the economy, he was also critical of the eight per cent development levy proposed for new businesses setting up in an 80-acre recreational project owned by Signature Development Corporation. The city has purchased an 18-acre piece of that development for more than $6 million.

The city’s site is to be the home of the proposed arena and aquatic centre, as well as a future new home for a WHL-sized rink and a new branch library. The remaining plan is slated to host hotels, retail, restaurants and other related businesses.

The city has said it will 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. That levy will help cover the $16-million the city has already committed to funding through a loan. The federal and provincial governments have committed to the remaining $44-million of the project’s first phase.

The $6 million to buy the land came out of the Civic Facilities Reserve, which comes from an annual capital projects levy of about $1.5 million per year.

That levy, combined with tax revenue and the additional eight per cent levy on development in that 80-acre parcel, will be used to pay back the city’s loan for its $16 million contribution, with interest.

 “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.

The city has yet to fund the remaining $65 million in estimated costs for the WHL-sized rink and branch library.

 Hickie, though, isn’t convinced the levy will raise the funds needed. He thinks businesses approached about developing in that region will see the extra costs associated with that levy and pass it up for cheaper parts of the city where that extra levy isn’t in place. He said Thursday it will mean the city will have to expand that eight per cent levy to all businesses within Prince Albert to level the playing field.

Hickie said the city won’t need the levy in order to fund the future centre’s operations, as it will be saving money by closing the Kinsmen and Dave Steuart arenas. He also said the city will be closing other aquatic centres, but it wasn’t clear what Hickie was referring to. The city currently has three facilities — Marion Aquatics, the Frank Dunn Pool and the Kinsmen Water Park.

The water park is still in operation, while the Frank Dunn Pool is located within Carlton Comprehensive High School and operated jointly by the city and the Saskatchewan Rivers School Division. Marion Aquatics is located within the former Rivier Academy. While the future of that building is uncertain, the pool remains open.  In 2018, the city signed a three-year operating agreement with the pool’s operators to keep the facility running through 2020 for $143,000 a year.

The city has not yet committed to keeping or decommissioning the Kinsmen Arena, but the Steuart Arena is on the chopping block because it requires expensive upgrades and repairs, and the city would rather demolish it than pay for more work.

Hickie didn’t say where the city would find that $16 million officials have said will be generated in part by the eight per cent levy.

“The mayor has also said that this current (development) levy that’s been in place that he’s utilized the $6.5 million already in the bank to pay for the land, that levy is going to stay in place to generate $1.5 million a year to pay off the loan. And he’s saying it’s another eight per cent levy to pay for the operating costs of the area. It just doesn’t add up here. It’s just basic math that doesn’t add up. He’s going to keep charging us the levy to pay for the loan. But he’s going to put another levy on businesses who are going to be stymied to come to that area who need to employ people to put capital in. It’s just not making sense to me or other businesses I’ve talked to in Prince Albert.”

Hickie vowed to scrap that eight per cent levy if he’s elected in the fall, calling it a “business killer.”

Dionne flatly denied allegations that the eight per cent levy to be charged to new businesses coming into that 80-acre district will be expanded to existing businesses already operating in Prince Albert.

“No, that’s not true. That is a lie,” Dionne said.

“I’m getting tired of having to correct the facts. The facts are that we, in that zone, are making it a special zone. We are not taxing the rest of them. It’s a benefit for being there.”

— with files from Jason Kerr