St. Albert city council has revealed its 2022-25 strategic plan, which outlines five priorities for the current term.
These priorities include economic prosperity through the advancement of initiatives such as the development of the Lakeview Business District; downtown vibrancy; supporting community well-being with initiatives such as the affordable housing project at 22 St. Thomas St.; adapting to a changing natural environment; and financial sustainability.
The city is scheduled to release its corporate business plan, which outlines action items to realize the goals in council’s strategic plan, in August.
During council’s June 21 meeting, Mayor Cathy Heron compared the new plan to the one council members created after the previous election in 2017, which she described as “one of the best strategic plans … that I’d ever participated in.”
In an interview, Heron noted that all elements of the plan are equally important, which is why the priorities aren’t ranked.
However, Heron said she is particularly happy to see a focus on climate change in the plan, as well as a focus on the downtown.
“That’s something I’ve been championing myself, and there’s a few members of council that are right there behind me,” Heron said of revitalizing St. Albert’s downtown area.
Hughes raises concerns
During the council meeting, Heron said members of council had to compromise to come forward with a unified vision.
“No plan represents all seven of us 100 per cent,” Heron said. “But it is a plan that we did develop together and out of respect for each other, we need to support that and move forward.”
Coun. Sheena Hughes told council that while she does support the plan and agrees with many aspects of it, there are still areas she finds concerning.
For example, Hughes said she is dubious about how the city will afford the cost of items in the plan, such as advancing planning for the development of Millennium Park, which falls under the downtown vibrancy priority.
City administration told council during an April committee of the whole meeting that the park’s budget is currently pegged in the ballpark of $12 million to $15 million.
“The cost of [Millennium Park] when we’re looking at huge tax increases between the last election and next election … being able to afford this becomes a serious question,” Hughes said.
Another concern Hughes raised centred around plans in the financial sustainability priority, which includes the strategy of continuing “to explore opportunities to diversify revenue sources, advance investment in long-term, net-positive, revenue-generating infrastructure and support alternative service delivery.”
According to the plan, this includes exploring a potential solar farm, in addition to discovering other partnership opportunities.
“I know we say we’re not pushing the solar farm, but at the same time we’re saying invest in that type of infrastructure,” Hughes said. “We definitely want to make sure our due diligence is being done on this to make sure we’re confident about those results.”
Hughes also said she takes issue with the indicators the city has identified to track the progress of its five priorities, noting these indicators are out of council’s control.
One indicator for downtown vibrancy is change in employment numbers in the city’s downtown, and one for adapting to a changing natural environment is the Sturgeon River water quality index.
Despite her concerns, Hughes told council she would vote in favour of the plan.
“In general, I’m willing to support this,” Hughes said, noting that annual updates to the plan will provide an opportunity to revisit it.
When asked about Hughes’s concerns, Heron argued that the strategic plan is about setting ideals for council to strive to even if they’re not all met by the end of the term.
“If you don’t put them in the plan, you’re never going to focus on them,” Heron said, arguing that a clear focus on Millennium Park could bring in capital dollars from other levels of government.
Similarly, Heron said indicators are important for helping to make the planning process — which involves high-level and conceptual goals — more concrete.
“This is our plan, and this is what we want to see for the city, and you have to somehow tie that back to indicators of success, or steps along the road to get there,” Heron said.
Planning process 'most challenging'
Coun. Natalie Joly thanked St. Albert city administration during the council meeting for their support in the planning process.
“This was, I think, the most challenging strategic planning process that I’ve been involved with in any organization,” Joly said.
In an interview, Joly said that while she can’t comment on specific discussions in the planning sessions — which are held in camera — in general, the environment that council and St. Albert is in is “different than anything I’ve encountered” in strategic planning sessions.
Joly cited high costs for both municipalities and the taxpayers that contribute to them, and changes enacted by the Province of Alberta — such as the downloading of costs previously taken on at the provincial level — that have occurred without stakeholder engagement.
“Those are certainly challenges that we have to face,” Joly said.
Coun. Shelley Biermanski noted that as this was her first council strategic planning session, she has nothing to compare it to.
“I’ve heard from council it was easier before,” Biermanski said. “Well, I guess it’s easier before if you all agree.”
Biermanski noted that differing opinions can make coming to consensus a challenge, but ultimately council’s goal is to work together. She added that fiscal restraint will be key for the term going forward.
“We have to be very cautious of what our priorities are,” Biermanski said.