Cultural centers

Questioning of members of the Chamber, grill committee on the cultural center project

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Local entrepreneurs received a presentation on the $59.5 million civic center project at a meeting of the Whitecourt and District Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday.

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The presentation was provided by the city’s ad hoc construction steering committee, comprising chairman Norm Hodgson and Chelsea Grande, director of community services for the city.

Members of the Chamber had the opportunity to ask questions and share criticism of the proposal.

“Every meeting we record all the questions and we get the answers to all the questions,” Hodgson told dozens of in-person attendees.
“It’s a learning exercise for us.

“We will complete this education campaign during this month.”

The proposal includes an arts, culture and convention centre, an expanded library and a new municipal administration office.

The 6,586 square meter cultural center would include a theater that could accommodate 600 guests, according to Hodgson’s presentation.

The proposed 1,312 square meter library would be approximately twice the size of the current Whitecourt and District Public Library and include outdoor spaces and a cafe.

The price of the installation is 59.5 million dollars, including 41.7 million dollars for the cultural center, 11.2 million dollars for the administrative building and 6.6 million dollars for the library.

Chamber members offer commentary, criticism

After the presentation, contractor Ray Hilts asked if the council had made the decision to build the facility. Com. Serena Lapointe said no.

“Is the council going to put this to a public vote, … with the community weighing in on the merits of the project?” Hilts asked.

“A public information session is useless if it does not go crescendo.

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Grande responded that “how to proceed after this (education campaign) has not been decided by the board at this time.”

Hilts also expressed disappointment that several advisers did not attend the chamber meeting to engage the business community, which he said would bear much of the cost.

According to Grande’s presentation, the center’s monthly tax impact is expected to be $7.72 for the average home, $20.85 for the average small business, and $50.51 for the average industrial business.

Regarding the financing plan, the committee foresees $7.1 million in municipal partnerships and $2.6 million in sponsorships.

Primerica’s Amanda St. Pierre asked what would happen if the partnerships failed.

“It will be a decision for the board to make,” Grande said.

(In her decision on the cost-sharing of services, arbitrator Deborah M. Howes ruled last week that it was “premature” to order Woodlands County to contribute to the costs of building the center.)

Hodgson added that Woodlands isn’t the only municipality that can participate.

St. Pierre also asked about increased operating costs with a larger library. Grande said these are factored into the fiscal impact projections.

Meanwhile, Alan Deane of Whitecourt Stationery wondered if the cost estimates took inflation into account. Grande said a consultant was used to build inflation into the cost.

“I’m concerned about adding to the burden on future taxpayers,” said Mike Putzke of the Alberta Newsprint Company.
“I would like to make sure that we grow this community and grow in this project.”

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Location, administrative building scrutinized

Malcolm Heaven of the Whitecourt Agricultural Society wondered if there would be enough parking at the facility.

Hodgson said parking is included in front of the building, but additional space is available in the park.

Grande said there will be two additional lots between the center and the park.

RE/MAX Advantage’s Leo Zelinski called the area a “cul-de-sac” that could create traffic jams.

He said the area at the bottom of Dahl Drive is “underdeveloped” and could be a more visible location.

Patricia MacNeil of A-Tech asked if the inclusion of the administration building in the proposal was worth it, when the municipal administration could find new premises in the old library and the Forest Interpretation Centre.

“Potentially you’re going to lose a vote on the arts center and the library (because of) the cost of the administration building,” MacNeil said.

According to Grande’s presentation, $1.4 million of the funding is expected to come from the sale of the old library and municipal office.

MacNeil said if the buildings don’t sell, the administration building creates more than $11 million in debt.

Marc Chayer of Brogan Safety Supplies told the Whitecourt Star he also worries about the sale of the Old Town office, noting that many companies are turning to remote work after the pandemic.

“If it’s too old-fashioned for these guys, is it going to be okay for anyone else?” Chayer said.

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None of the $15.6 million federal Investing in Canada grant is for the administration building, though Grande said provincial grant dollars from the Municipal Sustainability Initiative are available.

Zelinski echoed the sentiment that there was no “urgency” to start the administration building.

Meanwhile, the federal grant for the cultural center would be lost if nothing is done by the end of 2022, according to Hodgson’s presentation.

Engaged community

Addressing the Whitecourt Star in October, Mayor Tom Pickard did not rule out holding a public vote on the project and said it would be up to council to decide whether to hold a referendum.

A virtual open house will be held on February 16 at 7 p.m. and another open house will be held in person at St. Joseph’s Parish on February 17 at 7 p.m.

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