The Gazette sat down with St. Albert Mayor Nolan Crouse for a year-end “fireside chat” to discuss the highlights of 2010 and the challenges ahead in 2011. Here is the first of a two-part series.
What are the highlights of 2010 for you?
“Depending on which way you view certain things, you can look at 2010 as good or bad. Let me just use some hot examples. The purchase of the sculptures ended up being negative. So far I think maybe I’ve received 10 negative comments and 250 positive comments, yet for some reason the lingering of the negative gets highlighted.
“70 Arlington [Dr.] might be another example, where it’s a highlight for the greater community because it meets an affordable housing mandate but the lingering negative sometimes feels like it overshadows those things.
“Even taxes … it’s a highlight to me that we’ve been able to be as tight as we can be in these times.”
What do you rank as your most satisfying accomplishment?
“I won’t hide the fact that I drove the downtown area redevelopment plan [forward]. There was a certain amount of risk that was taken with that. Someone had to crystallize it in some way and I felt that I had triggered that work. Ultimately there was a vision put in place.
“I felt that smart growth, depending on which side you were on, I felt that I did my homework to the point where I knew that I was making ultimately the right file decision for St. Albert. I did not move quickly nor did I make uninformed decisions. I travelled and read and did everything I could to learn what the smart growth thinking was. I knew also that we had a split council so I knew that the weight was on me to try to determine that.
“I thought that getting the $14 million from the province, in part what they owe us for Ray Gibbon Drive, was the result of my relationship and working with the province. Even though they said that was forthcoming, I knew that what it was going to take was meetings and letters and negotiating and discussions and that happened. I don’t think that would have happened without my effort.
“I forgot about branding. Of course that was a significant accomplishment and I think I was a key person in pushing the branding initiative forward.”
Is there a decision you’d like to have back?
“I don’t know about a decision. I believe work that did not progress well enough was work on the river.
“I don’t think we’ve made progress that we need to make on Ray Gibbon Drive even though we got $14.3 million. That progress is very slow and tedious.”
Which decision generated the most feedback from the community?
“The Habitat decision was probably the most feedback. Smart growth might have been very close to that because the smart growth feedback was coming at us, not so much from the gallery, but was coming at us in letters and emails and phone calls because it was so complex.
“Interestingly enough, probably the most face-to-face comments I got were positive comments on the purchase of the sculptures. I get it almost every day. The sculptures comments haven’t stopped, almost all positive.”
How would you describe the current state of the city?
“Financially, I believe we’re in very good shape. I believe corporately the organization is in very good shape, management-wise, policy-wise. We continue to be a community of giving. That manifests itself through the food bank and service clubs.
“I think the state of the community is as good as it’s ever been. Volunteers, not for profits, sports, arts, culture programs are as strong. There’s really been no weakening during the financial downturn of any of that.
“We’ve worked very hard the last five years of improving our service standards that did decline. Between snow removal and parks and graffiti and damaged infrastructure and potholes, we put extra money toward returning to what people viewed as our service levels in the ’70s and ’80s.”
Where would you say they are compared to historic levels?
“They’re back to where they were 10 years ago but not back to where they were 20 years ago.
“Now, the city has almost doubled in 20 years. A perfect example is, we’re clearing all the streets right now, but when you’re twice as big, it’s taking us a little longer. We don’t have twice as many trucks so getting the streets cleared … when somebody’s at the bottom of the list, you don’t get to them as fast.
“Parks and boulevards and trees … everything’s doubled. It feels like it takes longer even though we have more staff and more resources and more money. Trying to maintain that as you grow is a real challenge.”
What are other challenges that St. Albert is facing?
“The future of Riel Park, stage three and stage four, which are the soccer and rugby fields. We don’t have the money to do that.
“The declining state of the seniors’ centre and we’ve got all these satellite buildings and offices now that we’re funding. I think that’s a large capital item that we’ll be faced with having to deal with in the next decade … a new building.
“The RCMP building is limiting us in terms of growth for police. Number one fire hall is currently put back [on the funded budget list]. It’s a large capital item.
“Those are the key challenges for us … figuring out how to afford to pay for each of those large ticket items when they come up.”
Do you see any solutions in your mind?
“I don’t think there’s any silver bullets. I think you just have to pay for them when you can afford them.
“You have to continue to get some non-residential development, continue to work with the developers to make sure that you get tax revenue from businesses, light industry, commercial. That’s a long process but every year we have $10 million or $12 million we apply toward capital. Some of that is applied toward growth of new things and we’ll continue to do that.”