The city’s Capital Partnership Program has come to an end with no groups ever getting grants despite the time and effort they put into it.
Council voted in late 2016 to end the program once that last project had been assessed, and on March 20 council voted unanimously to end the process for the St. Albert Community Performing Arts Centre.
Michael McElroy, president of the St. Albert Performing Arts Society, a group formed for the sole purpose of pursuing a 200-seat performing arts venue in St. Albert, said while he bears no ill will towards council the entire program was troubling right from the beginning.
“I think there’s something terribly, terribly wrong to put an organization like us through the rigours of all this when there was never any chance for it to happen,” he said.
The Capital Partnership Program, initially called the Capital Partnership Fund, was initially envisioned to allow the city to provide one third of the funding for major capital projects, to a maximum of $5 million, while the community groups and other levels of government would pay the rest.
Council never approved a specific funding source for the project, but former city manager Patrick Draper had proposed the program could be funded with $8 million per year over five years coming from the city’s borrowing against its own reserves and from the provincial Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI) grant.
Groups were asked to propose a preliminary, high-level business case for projects, which was then judged and graded by a committee. Upon approval, they were to be asked to put together a detailed business case. But the requirements of the program were too onerous for many groups to manage.
McElroy said the society put countless hours into the project to satisfy the program’s requirements, first coming up with a basic business plan for approval at the first stage, then having to put together a detailed business case for approval at the second stage.
In order to complete the work to the city’s satisfaction, he said it would have cost the society “thousands and thousands of dollars,” and they determined it simply wasn’t worth it because the money likely wasn’t forthcoming to begin with.
“It became clear, especially with private conversations with city council members, that probably we should save our money,” he said. “So we did that.”
Dynamyx Gymnastics Club president Cathy Schwer echoed the frustration with the program, saying the idea of this kind of partnership is a good one but this particular program missed the mark.
That group’s proposed project, a new gymnastics facility, never ever made it past the first stage and still required a lot of up-front work.
“For us, we put in a lot of time and energy, then got denied,” she said.
She said the process wasn’t bad at the start, with city staff putting on information sessions to help guide groups through the process, but in the end with no actual funding commitment set aside, it fell flat.
The program officially began Jan. 1, 2015, with the intention that it would run for five years. It lasted less than two; council voted to scrap it last December.
Mayor Nolan Crouse said the program’s failure came largely as a result of the lack of dedicated funding, which is why he opposed it from the beginning.
“It was doomed to fail from the very beginning because the assumption that was being made, when the program was implemented, was that there was going to be provincial or federal grant money available for these larger projects,” he said.
He said there was little likelihood of that, as the main provincial grant to cities for infrastructure is MSI, and smaller grants like the Community Infrastructure Program and Community Facilities Enhancement Program are geared towards smaller projects.
Crouse said council approved the policy seeing that it might have some potential, but it just never materialized.
“To make a long story short there was never going to be provincial money, in my opinion,” he said.
And councillors at the March 20 meeting didn’t balk at ending the program, with some sharing strong words about its shortcomings.
Coun. Cam MacKay said in his opinion, the city owes all the groups involved and apology and that he intended to reach out to them to offer one.
“I’m a little bit embarrassed about how this all evolved. A whole bunch of groups spent time and money to submit applications for money that was never there,” he said. “I hope at the very least this becomes a learning experience for council and administration about these sorts of programs.”
Other councillors expressed their regret that the program in this form didn’t work out, but said the intent behind it and its stated goals of working with community groups to build infrastructure was certainly worthwhile.
Coun. Tim Osborne said he sees value in the work the society did, and value in a new performing arts space, just not in the program itself.
“The vehicles here of the Capital Partnership Program is realistically not the path forward,” he said.
The precise path forward is not clear. Development services manager Gilles Prefontaine said administration is working on a policy that would address how to handle these kinds of partnerships, but it’s not clear when it will come back to council for discussion.
“We do need to figure out this process, because we do need to have a consistent approach,” he said.
There are several groups who have approached council outside the confines of the Capital Partnership Program for funding support, including Dynamyx with respect to a new gymnastics facility and the St. Albert Soccer Association with respect to a multi-use indoor/outdoor spots facility.
Council agreed this week to enter into a memorandum of understanding with the soccer association to look at the feasibility of partnership on such a facility, and Crouse said that’s likely the direction this kind of partnership will go in the future.
That said, he agreed there’s a need for an overarching policy to manage how this process will work, even if the process works differently for various user groups.
“We need to have some sort of a policy,” he said. “I don’t know if they’re all going to have the same model, but I think there needs to be something that’s overarching.”