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Council pumps the brakes on Active Communities rec facility

City doubtful on project financing, community need
stock-St. Albert Place DR020

St. Albert city council voted to halt Active Communities Alberta’s (ACA) pursuit of bringing a non-profit-run rec facility to the city after nearly four years.

On Monday, councillors voted 4-3 (councillors Ken MacKay, Ray Watkins, and Jacquie Hansen against) in favour of not moving forward with a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with ACA for a $42-million multi-use recreation facility. 

Plans for the multi-use facility included two indoor arenas, 25,000 sq. ft. of gymnasium space, a fitness centre, daycare, non-profit facilities and retail as well as a full-sized indoor fieldhouse in the city's northwest, located on Rohit Land Development’s 59-acre parcel west of Ray Gibbon Drive.

Under that non-binding agreement, the city would have committed $20 million to the project for construction and on-site servicing costs, contingent on another $20 million in backing split between provincial and federal governments. That MOU was about 95 per cent ready to sign, according to Kerry Hilts, deputy chief administrative officer, but first the city needed to have a better understanding of the potential risks involved. 

ACA has been lobbying St. Albert city council for at least three years to keep moving their partnership forward. Matt Bachewich, ACA president, said their operating model would expand recreation services in St. Albert while reducing the need for residents to subsidize facilities. 

In an email to the Gazette, Bachewich said the organization was "shocked and confused" by council's decision, calling it a "blow for grassroots, community-based innovation in St. Albert."

"The value for money assessment found no “show stoppers” to moving forward with our project and validated our business case as financially sound. The risks and recommendations focused mainly on items that could be addressed through an MOU," Bachewich wrote.

"As a result of city council’s decision, thousands of hockey and ringette families will have to continue driving on winter roads to rural arenas for many years to come – the result of a shortage of arenas in our city. The dangers on these roads and risks to families are not well understood by those that haven’t lived it. Maybe it's time for city council to hear from families about the need for more arenas and recreation facilities in St. Albert."

Too risky 

After going through the 11 recommendations laid out by MNP’s value for money study, city administration remained unconvinced that moving forward with the project would be in the city’s best interests.

“(ACA) put together a really solid package and they’re very passionate about what they’re doing. This comes down to the financial side, and are we meeting the community needs?” Hilts said. “This is the investment that will hold us to the next number of years in facility development.”

The chances of ACA securing funding from upper levels of government in the next six months is low, Hilts said, and ACA would likely need financial support from the city to operate the facility. Considering another indoor pool is listed as a top-priority need in St. Albert, administration also questioned whether the facility would meet the community's needs.

"We do appreciate ACA's project – it is addressing the need for arenas – however, it does not address the need for aquatics," said Diane Enger, recreation facility director. She recognized the need for ice time in the city, but noted there are other regional arenas available to residents as well.

If the partnership with ACA was to move forward, an operating agreement would need to be drawn up to address eight outstanding areas, including expectations for municipal support, naming rights, staffing levels and a dissolution clause. Completing the review of the MNP recommendations would mean the city would have to shuffle its existing priorities or pull on additional staff resources, according to administration's backgrounder report presented to council.

As a long-time supporter of the project, Coun. Jacquie Hansen put forward a motion for the city to move forward with ACA on the MOU after the non-profit has the opportunity to address the MNP report recommendations. Going back on the MOU would halt any momentum ACA gained with this project over the years, she said, highlighting the need for ice time in St. Albert. 

"I can tell you from experiencing having multiple kids in hockey over a 15-year span ... we never had practise times in St. Albert," Hansen said. Twice a week after school, she and other hockey families would have to make the drive to outside communities including Bon Accord, Onoway, Redwater and Legal for hockey practise. 

"It's difficult. And if you've got more than one kid, than you're really running ragged ... In my opinion, we just simply need more ice."

Considering the impacts of the pandemic, Mayor Cathy Heron said she does not believe ACA could secure government funding and ensure no tax dollars would be needed to support the facility's operations. And if the city was to move forward with a recreation centre, plans would have to include a pool, she said.

"I think we need to do the conceptual planning, whether it's this year or next, and then we put out an RFP (request for proposals) that would be open to Active Communities and all other groups to respond to," Heron said.  

The motion failed in a 4-3 vote, with Heron, Coun. Sheena Hughes, Natalie Joly and Wes Brodhead against.

Administration recommended the city not explore opportunities for partnerships with third parties to build and operate new arenas until 2022, after more recreation facility planning has been done. 

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