A tidal wave of support from St. Albertans accompanied city council's decision Monday to approve conditional funding for a sports campus.
Now, the pressure is on for Active Communities Alberta – a nonprofit organization looking to build a $60-million-plus facility – to lock down federal and provincial funding. The proposed facility would provide space to many sports groups, including ice space, gym space and areas for pickleball.
The city will still be moving ahead with a project charter for additional ice space at Servus Place, which will come to council when they look at the 2019 budget later this year. The price tag attached to that – roughly $20 million – is the same amount Active Communities is seeking from St. Albert.
Mayor Cathy Heron says council will probably weigh the two projects against each other.
"I'm hoping Active Communities can have made some significant progress by this fall because then we can evaluate ice with a little bit more knowledge," she said.
"I think that'll be an either/or decision coming up this fall."
Active Communities president Matt Bachewich said he thinks that's a fair approach.
"That's a reasonable ask, and I think we're expecting to make significant progress in the next several months and have an even stronger case to make for this project by the fall," he said.
Supporters of Active Communities turned out en masse to council chambers Monday as councillors voted 6-1 in favour of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the group. Coun. Natalie Joly was the only councillor to vote against the project, saying that it would need to have an aquatic component to get her vote.
The MOU, which is not binding, means the city could provide $20 million for the facility as long as Active Communities secures $10 million from each of the provincial and federal governments.
Bachewich said the $10 million is the same level of funding other communities such as Medicine Hat and Lethbridge have received from those governments for new recreation centres.
Councillors decided to impose two more conditions on the MOU: in order for it to proceed, the facility would need to be built within St. Albert and the city would put up to $10,000 toward an outside consultant for a "value for money assessment."
Although Active Communities has said its preferred land is a plot currently owned by Edmonton, where the St. Albert Soccer Association is planning its Field of Dreams project, Bachewich said Active Communities is not anchored to that site.
"I think there's lots of opportunities for land that's located in an area that could be mutually accessible for St. Albert and the region," he said.
"At the same time, I think St. Albert definitely showed great support for this project by approving the motion ... and it does now set us up to start talking (about) where would be a good place to locate this facility."
Heron said the group's openness to finding a different piece of land is what ultimately convinced her to vote in favour of the MOU, although she has been supportive of Active Communities up until this point.
"That could potentially be in the northwest, although it's been made very clear to council there's no land available in the short term," she said.
"But if they could secure $20 million in funding, then I think the city could probably find a way to speed up the servicing and get that built."
Bachewich estimates the $20 million in funding from the city will cost the average St. Albert taxpayer $5.08 per month, based on a 20-year loan at the current Alberta Capital Finance Authority borrowing rate.
On Monday, five people presented to council in support of Active Communities, including Kevin Porter from St. Albert Minor Hockey Association and Eileen McClean from St. Albert Pickleball Club. Two members of organizations from other communities that have successfully pulled off what Active Communities is proposing – Perry Cavanagh, executive director for the North East Sportsplex Society in Calgary; and David Dorward from Edmonton's GO Community Centre – presented on the success of their organizations.
Councillors also heard from St. Albert youth Martin Rudolf, who plays for the Spruce Grove Saints.
Coun. Jacquie Hansen, who put the motion for the MOU forward, said the project would begin to address the facility needs in St. Albert without building one facility at a time.
"We are short of space and we need to consider our future. I believe a sport and wellness campus would have huge economic spin-offs for our city, wherever it gets built," she said.
Coun. Ken MacKay called the project "visionary" and said it was necessary for the city in the long term.
Coun. Wes Brodhead said he has always been intrigued by Active Communities' business model and found the idea compelling, as well as the prospect of a combined $20 million from the federal and provincial governments.
Coun. Sheena Hughes said the city needs to think outside the box on facility development and the idea of having a nonprofit take on the operating costs of a recreation facility without that impacting taxpayers should be pursued.
"We're meeting several needs," she said.