Cultural managements

The new cultural and congress center receives a warm welcome

Town of Whitecourt ad hoc committee presents plan for combined $60 million cultural and convention center that includes space for a public library and a new town office

BARRHEAD – If the town of Whitecourt goes ahead with its plan to build a new cultural and convention center, it will in all likelihood proceed without the financial support of Woodlands County, at least if recent comments from councilors in the Woodlands County are an indication of this.

On February 16, an ad hoc steering committee for the construction of the arts center, represented by President Norm Hodgson, Director of Community Services for the Town of Whitecourt, Chelsea Grande, and representative of the Whitecourt and Woodlands Performing Arts Society, Barb Maddigan, made a presentation to the board, which was accepted as information.

The price for the facility (to be built in downtown Whitecourt), which would also include a new library and municipal administration office for the town, is estimated at $59.5 million.

About 54% or $32 million of the combined building would be funded by various government grants, including a $15.6 million Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program (ICI). The Town of Whitecourt would contribute $10.1 million through a debenture, an additional $7.1 million would come from municipal partnerships and $2.6 million would come from sponsorships. The remaining $7.7 million would come from reserves and the sale of assets.

Hodgson noted that the ICIP grant was urgent saying that “if nothing happens in 2022, the terms of the grant would expire”.

The arts and convention center portion is set at approximately $41.7 million.

Hodgson noted that discussion of a cultural events center began in 2008 as part of the ACE (Active, Creative, Engaging) Public Sessions, which asked the public what amenities the community lacked.

“The process identified a cultural and event center as the number one priority,” Hodgson said.

He noted that over the next few years more surveys and needs assessments were carried out, all highlighting the benefits to the community of having a cultural and convention center.

Hodgson referenced a 2015 Internet Survey Monkey poll in which 84% of respondents strongly supported the concept of a cultural and event center, with 75% supporting an increase in taxes to build and operate such a facility.

“Services are important for families,” he said. “If we want families to relocate to Whitecourt and the area, we need to have the services to meet their needs. At the moment we are heavily sports and leisure focused, with fantastic facilities both in the town and in Woodlands County. But what about attracting and retaining those interested in other things, like the arts?”

Hodgson, who is a pharmacist, added that he knows two doctors the community has lost due to a lack of these amenities. The first who decided to leave Whitecourt after five years for Spruce Grove and a potential second doctor chose another community, both due to the lack of arts and cultural events for their children.

“We also believe it will be a driver for industry that will help bring and create jobs in the region,” he said. “This is a facility that will set us apart from all the other communities in the region, from Grande Prairie to Edmonton…the center will reinvigorate the economy of the entire region when this pandemic ends.”

Maddigan agreed, saying the center would allow the area to bring everything from conventions to shows that are now only accessible to residents of the city.

Grande said the committee estimates the cultural convention center portion of the project will have an annual operating deficit of about $400,000. An additional 35% or $30,000 would also be added to the Whitecourt Library operating budget.

Traditionally the county has contributed to the Whitecourt Public Library. However, recently the amount has become a bone of contention between the two municipalities along with several other funding agreements. To help solve these problems, the municipalities entered into arbitration. The arbitrator released his 172-page report on February 3.

Hodgson added that the cultural center would also expand future educational and career opportunities that currently do not exist or are “extremely limited” for young people in the area.

Anselme County Dave Kusch suggested that construction costs may no longer be accurate given recent inflation trends.

“Wood has tripled in the last three years, steel has doubled in the last two years,” he said, adding that while the design for the facility was created between 20016 and 2018, the figures are no longer viable.

Hodgson replied that the cost of building the facility was current as of the end of January.

Goose Lake/Freeman County Peter Kuelken said it would be difficult to make any decisions without knowing the life cycle costs of asset management.

“When you’re looking at a $41.7 million investment, which is often used, it’s 10% over the life cycle of the building to make it the facility that we will continue to expect,” he said. -he declares. “Would that $4 million be needed to go into a fund included in the financial table because that’s something any municipal partner would be concerned about?”

Grande responded that lifecycle contributions start in the fourth year of the cultural and event center and that of the library already exists, noting that it starts at $15,000 and increases each year from there.

Whitecourt Central County Alan Deane asked if the committee was considering a phased approach, building each component separately to help soften the shock of the stickers.

Grande said that would be difficult because the buildings are intertwined and constructing them as stand-alone facilities or in phases would increase overall costs.

Kusch wasn’t sure a cultural and convention center was needed, saying other Whitecourt facilities are underutilized, noting that the Interpretive Center and the Allan and Jean Millar Center have hosted concerts that can accommodate more than 900 to 1,500 people. The proposed cultural center theater could accommodate 600 people. He also said that several hotels in Whitecourt have conference facilities.

“The short, skinny answer is scale order,” Hodgson replied. “I know people who have taken their weddings away from Whitecourt because there isn’t a big enough facility. The town gets 10-15 calls a year about conferences, but we can’t accommodate them. With this facility, we could host the (Global Energy Show), now held in Calgary and Grande Prairie with 600 delegates.”

Kusch also wondered what benefit the facility would have for the county, noting that any industry it might attract would be within the city limits.

“No, the industry will be in Woodlands County and the people employed will live in Whitecourt and the county. That’s the benefit,” Hodgson replied.

“As well as increased professional services in Whitecourt such as doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc. which Woodlands County residents benefit from,” Grande added.

Warden John Burrows asked why the committee was approaching the county, noting that in 2018 they wrote a letter saying they couldn’t participate in the project.

He also noted that in 2017, at a joint city council and county meeting, several versions of the facility were presented, with varying price tags.

“At no time have I heard any type of involvement from this board or seen any version of this coming out. Now we have this $60 million facility, and it seems like that’s the only option. “, did he declare. “I’m not sure what we missed.”

Grande responded that the project was presented at a joint council meeting in 2018. She noted that it was also at a Woodlands County meeting in May 2018.