Mayor optimistic Prince Albert can rebound from COVID in 2021, plans to meet with business leaders in New Year

Mayor Greg Dionne speaks to the media after being elected to a third straight term on Monday. -- Jason Kerr/Daily Herald

Mayor Greg Dionne says he plans to meet with Prince Albert business representatives in the New Year to discuss ways to help the business community bounce back.

New restrictions come into effect on Boxing Day that reduces legal operating capacity for Saskatchewan businesses from 50 to 25 per cent. Others, like Northern Lights Casino, have been forced to temporarily shut down.

Dionne said he’s concerned local business owners, and perhaps a few national chains, won’t make it through the first few months of 2021. He hopes to meet with the Chamber of Commerce and Prince Albert Downtown Business Improvement District (PADBID) to give them whatever support they need.

“January and February is when the nationals (national retailers) will announce what stores they’re closing and what lines they’re killing,” Dionne said on Monday. “I’m so worried about some of our local businesses because … they’ve just been hanging on, and still have to hang on for a little while longer. I want those stores to survive, and the only way we can survive them is bite the bullet and shop local.”

A second year of tax deferrals will be one of several ideas on the table when the two groups meet, but Dionne said Prince Albert residents need to support local businesses now so they’ll be around when discussions take place in January or February.

“Before they need tax relief, of course, they need customers,” he said. “That’s why we’re promoting shop local.”

Business, sports and culture, and education will be some of the biggest issues heading into the new year. Dionne said the City plans to have further announcements about developments in the forestry sector in the coming months. He also hopes to work with French Canadian Society of Prince Albert to close the deal on a new French school.

Regardless of how those developments turn out, Dionne argued the City is well positioned to bounce back from the COVID-19 pandemic due to glut of construction jobs created by large infrastructure projects. Among them are the new arenas and aquatics centre and the new hospital.

“Once we get vaccinated, then we’ll be back on track,” he said. “We have some major projects that are going to help us recover from COVID. Saskatchewan has the Restart Saskatchewan program? Well I have the Restart Prince Albert program.”

The sports sector is one of the biggest areas of uncertainty heading into 2021. Prince Albert was slated to host the Hoopla high school basketball tournament this spring, but it was pushed back due to concerns about COVID-19. Prince Albert should get the event in 2022 instead.

Major events scheduled for 2020, like the ESSO Cup, were cancelled and have no firm restart date. The Saskatchewan Lacrosse Association was supposed to host field lacrosse provincials in Prince Albert in 2020, but have yet to set a schedule for 2021.

Golf Saskatchewan was supposed to host the Senior Men’s and Senior Women’s provincial championships at Cooke Municipal Golf Course last summer. They were cancelled and relocated to Yorkton due to COVID and Golf Saskatchewan has already agreed to host the 2021 senior’s championships in Warman.

The Saskatchewan Senior Fitness Associations 55+ Games were also supposed to be held in Prince Albert. They were pushed back from June 2020 to July 2021 at the earliest. Prince Albert retains hosting rights.

An application to host the 2024 Senior Men’s Softball World Cup is also in limbo. Dionne said they still plan to apply for the event, but are in a holding pattern until they get more information February.

Dionne said it was disappointing have so many major national and provincial events cancelled. When asked what role the City could play in supporting organizers hoping to bring major events to the City, Dionne said they have to be patient and rely on local teams and leagues to be safe.

“We understand that we have to be fair and reasonable,” he said.

Dionne added that the lack of sports is hurting young people in the community. He said youth need opportunities to socialize, and sports is one of the best. As long as teams and leagues continue to follow guidelines, he’s confident they’ll return sooner rather than later. Part of that, however, involves staying safe over the Christmas break.

Dionne plans to stay home and watch a few John Wayne and Clint Eastwood movies during the holidays. He hopes Prince Albert residents do something similar.

“We’re all excited about Christmas,” he explained. “Well, we’re not cancelling Christmas. We’ll still have Christmas next year (and) we’ll have Christmas the year after. We’re asking you this Christmas just to slow down, take a breath, and keep healthy.”

Dionne acknowledged there were “bumps in the road” since the first COVID case in March, but said there’s no playbook on how to handle a pandemic. He’s confident the City did the best it could to manage those challenges in 2021.

“I think, overall, besides two or three isolated incidents, the City fared very well,” he said.

“I’m glad the year’s almost over because it has gotten progressively worse over the last couple of months and we were warned about that—the second wave. Of course, it’s sad, going into Christmas, that we’re into sort of a semi-lockdown position with only five members allowed in your house and no large gatherings and then right after, we’re doing the same thing as many other cities right after on Boxing Day … but our lockdowns aren’t as drastic as other provinces or in some cases other countries. When you listen to the news today, a couple of other countries went to total lockdown. They never ever thought that would happen.

–with files from Lucas Punkari