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Council approves $1.5 million in funding for twin-rink facility

Coun. Natalie Joly disagreed with the choice, saying she "can’t justify telling a senior on a fixed income that we need to spend $1.5 million on a project that’s not even recommended by our staff.”
1708 active comm sup CC
The decision to put up the cash passed 5-2. Shown here is a conceptual drawing of the Active Communities twin outdoor rink facility. ACTIVE COMMUNITIES ALBERTA/Photo

St. Albert city council has approved $1.5 million in funding for Active Communities’ twin-rink facility, despite an administrative recommendation that the funds would be better prioritized elsewhere, council heard Monday. 

Located on land behind Paul Kane High School, the facility — a refrigerated outdoor twin rink to be used for ice sports in the winter and dry-court sports the rest of the year — will be equipped with a roof, dressing rooms, and a storage area. 

Back in January, council agreed to consider funding up to $1.5 million for the facility if Active Communities met three conditions: raise a minimum of $3 million from other funding sources towards the project; provide the city with a public engagement report; and provide an independent financial review of the project business case.  

Active Communities met all of these conditions, raising more than $4 million in funding: $3.5 million pledged from the provincial government, a $150,000 grant from Co-op, and more than $500,000 in private donations. 

Council voted to provide the $1.5 million from the city’s capital reserve, which is used to fund capital projects. The funding is conditioned on Active Communities adhering to a grant-funding agreement, to be outlined by the city’s chief administrative officer. 

Matt Bachewich, Active Communities president, addressed council before they considered approving the funds. 

“Today is the culmination of thousands of hours of volunteer effort, and a watershed moment for our city,” Bachewich told council. 

He highlighted the project business case, conducted by accounting firm MNP. 

“The MNP review found that our financial projections were reasonable, comprehensive, and conservative,” Bachewich said. 

Administration advises against funding

Despite having met the requirements outlined by the city, St. Albert city administration recommended council not put funding toward the facility. 

Daniele Podlubny, St. Albert’s interim director of recreation and parks, outlined that based on the city’s recent community amenities site survey and the city’s capital prioritization matrix (which helps the city rank long-term projects), the twin-rinks are a lower priority. She emphasized the financial hardship the city is currently facing. 

“It’s important to note that investment in a lower capital priority project will come at the expense of higher capital priorities,” Podlubny said. 

Additionally, Podlubny noted the location for the future facility — on land behind Paul Kane High School — is “incongruent with the city’s priority to develop to the northwest.”

As for the business case, she said the estimate includes a five-per-cent contingency, less than the 10 per cent the city would typically plan for. When coupled with rapidly rising construction costs, Podlubny said the final costing of the project is ultimately uncertain. 

Further, Podlubny noted the project is new for Alberta, meaning the model has not been proven in the province. 

“As a first of its kind in Alberta, the project would test the viability of this type of facility, as a private operation, in St. Albert and across the province,” Podlubny said.  

Councillors question recommendation 

Coun. Sheena Hughes and Coun. Mike Killick both questioned the reasoning behind administration’s recommendation. 

“Was that evaluated on just a rink, or ice sheets?” Killick asked. “When I looked at this in terms of how it would be ranked, it’s a multi-use facility.”

Some examples of dry-court sports the facility could be used for in warmer months include pickleball, volleyball, and ball hockey, with the potential uses in summer double what the uses are in winter, Bachewich said. 

Killick argued that instead of viewing the facility being the first of its kind in Alberta as a negative, the opportunity to support something new is a huge draw. 

“This seems to be a good precedent to set,” Killick said. 

Coun. Wes Brodhead seconded Killick, describing the facility as a “unique opportunity to engage with a not-for-profit” and a “minimal investment on the part of St. Albert.”

“I recognize all of the risks that were brought to light by administration,” Brodhead said. “I don’t want to diminish them, but the reality is, at the end of the day, we’re getting the $6-million facility here that we are not operating — no ongoing operational costs to the taxpayer.”

Two council members side with admin

Coun. Natalie Joly disagreed with the motion to put up the cash for the facility, highlighting the steep tax increase of more than eight per cent the city will be faced with for 2023 if they maintain services and other annual costs, such as reserve transfers. 

Each per-cent tax increase is the equivalent of about $1.2 million in funding. Notably, removing funding from the capital reserve for the Active Communities project does not have a direct impact on the tax levy; instead, there will be less funding for higher-priority capital projects. 

“How can we ask our seniors or single parents, and all residents struggling with inflation and other financial pressures, to accept the equivalent of an additional 1.2-per-cent tax increase so we can support a project that doesn’t fit with our needs or priorities?” Joly asked. 

“I can’t justify telling a senior on a fixed income that we need to spend $1.5 million on a project that’s not even recommended by our staff.”

Mayor Cathy Heron seconded Joly, highlighting “the financial crunch” St. Albert is facing. 

“I’d be much more comfortable investing the taxpayers' money in a higher-ranked facility,” Heron said. “I’m not sure when $1.5 million become a drop in the bucket and minimal.”

Both Heron and Joly said they are supportive of aspects of the proposed project, but take issue with key components of it, such as the location. 

“This is very uncomfortable to me to answer to my residents,” Heron said. “That’s where I’m coming from.”

Closing debate, Killick said he appreciates "the mayor saying that they're your residents, but they're all of our residents on council." 

“I truly believe that through real strong partnership with [Active Communities] … this is a good service to deliver for our residents,” Killick said. 

“Saying yes to [Active Communities] is really saying yes to our provincial government partners … saying yes to the school board … saying yes to the 2,500 students [who attend school near the future facility], and saying yes to the private business partners that [Active Communities] has also got funding from.”

The vote to fund the twin rink facility passed 5-2, with Heron and Joly opposed. 

Bachewich told council Active Communities is confident they can raise the remaining funds to build the facility (With council’s contribution, funds raised sit just under the $6-million mark, at around $5.65 million).

As for when the facility will open, Bachewich told council October 2023 is “certainly within the realm of possibility.”