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Millennium Park borrowing petition falls short, organizer says

Petition organizer Ciara Fraser said she and a team of about 30 volunteers collected 4,583 signatures, although the minimum number required to force council to either abandon the project or send it to a public vote was 6,608.
Petition organizer Ciara Fraser, right, and volunteer Percy Zalasky, left, collecting last-minute signatures at city hall on April 1. JACK FARRELL/St. Albert Gazette

petition against the $20.8 million borrowing bylaw to fund the development of Millennium Park has come up about 2,000 signatures short of the minimum requirement, its organizer said.

Ciara Fraser started the petition shortly after council passed first reading on the borrowing bylaw in late January, and had about two months to collect a minimum of 6,608 signatures, representing 10 per cent of St. Albert's population. By April 2, the petition's deadline for submission to the city as dictated under the province's Municipal Government Act, Fraser said she and about 30 volunteers had collected 4,583 signatures.

Although the number of signatures obtained was about half of her initial goal of 8,000, Fraser said it became evident through talking with residents that people care about what goes on in the community. The problem, she said, is people aren't informed.

“I've learned that people care very, very deeply about trees here, and I've also learned that people care very, very deeply about fiscal responsibility," she said. "Because the people who couldn't give a rip about the trees are very incensed about the cost, and the people who maybe don't care as much about the cost are incensed by the fact that the trees are being removed. Every single time when I've approached someone, people care. The trouble is, they just don't know.”

“I can almost guarantee if I had the time to go around and knock on every single door in St. Albert and present them with this issue and have a very brief conversation with them, they'd all be against it.”

City spokesperson Pamela Osborne confirmed Tuesday morning the city received the petition, and chief administrative officer Bill Fletcher now has 45 days to verify the signatures.

If the team had collected the minimum number, council would have been forced to either abandon the Millennium Park project as it currently exists, or send the project to a binding public vote.

Despite coming up short, Fraser said she still submitted the petition to the city as she felt it was her duty to at least show how many residents are against the Millennium Park project. 

“In my mind, each name on those lists are still people who have come to me with their concerns,” she said. “That represents over 3,000 conversations that we've had with people, and every single one has said what a foolish idea this is and how unheard they feel by city council.”

Although council is eyeing a $20.8 million borrowing bylaw, the project's actual budget is $16.6 million. The $4.2 million difference represents contingency funding, meaning that if the project goes over budget, there is room in the borrowing amount to cover unexpected costs. However, council would need to give additional approval for any spending over the $16.6 million mark.

The project will see the area between St. Albert Place and Lions Park downtown transformed into an open green space with a pavilion building featuring public washrooms and some commercial space. 

The design of Millennium Park approved by council in December also features a playground and picnic space, and a water feature that will double as a public skating place in the winter months. It also features nearly 9,000 square metres of open park space, which will require the removal of 56 per cent of the trees in the park as it exists today.

“Primary for myself is the issue of the trees,” Fraser said. “I've gone with the city managers in the parks department to go and walk the site to see what their plan is, and I agreed that the area could do some updating ... but not at the expense of tearing out every single one of those trees that are slated for removal, and also not for what they're planning.”

In all, Fraser estimated she spent a minimum of 300 hours working on the petition and collecting signatures. On April 1, Fraser spent most of the day sitting at a desk in St. Albert Place collecting signatures along with petition volunteers Lyn and Tony Druett from the Big Lake Environmental Support Society (BLESS) and residents Dan Stoker and Percy Zalasky. Between noon and 1 p.m. on Monday, the Gazette observed at least 20 residents come in to sign the petition, with most citing concerns about the project's cost and the loss of trees.

One signatory said she thinks the city needs another ice rink before spending the budget of Millennium Park on a park space.

Environmental advisory committee also concerned

St. Albert's citizen-based Environmental Advisory Committee (EAC) also signalled its opposition to the Millennium Park project by approving a motion last month recommending council reconsider the park's design. The EAC believes the plans go against the city's new Green Environment Strategy.

Committee member Kevin Aschim, who put the motion forward, said removing 56 per cent of the trees in the area “didn't look very good for the city” in light of the new strategy, which was released in January.

“It's a good strategy and I think it's necessary, and it came out literally within weeks of the Millennium Park proposal, which ... would result in removal of 56 per cent of the forest and wetlands right along the river,” he said. He added he thinks there is room for compromise on developing the park. 

“There's absolutely a middle ground,” he said. “I think the original plan agreed upon in 2018 largely calls for the protection of all of that area in question ...  and in doing so, meets all of the objectives of the green environment strategy.”

“We're not here to fight things, we're here to help make good decisions”

The EAC passed the motion with four votes in favour and none against, although two committee members weren't present for the vote, and the committee's chair, Bill Marsh, abstained from voting.

The Gazette was unable to reach Marsh to ask why he abstained.

Council is scheduled to hold second and third readings of the project's $20.8 million borrowing bylaw on April 16.

Jack Farrell

About the Author: Jack Farrell

Jack Farrell joined the St. Albert Gazette in May, 2022.
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