Exhibition Park project voted down
Four proposed amendments also fail at CIP deliberations
After four hours of discussion and four proposed amendments, Finance Committee voted not to include Exhibition Park’s Trade, Convention Centre & Agriplex in the draft 2018-27 Capital Improvement Program.
In a tie vote of 44, Coun. Joe Mauro’s resolution to include the $78million project was defeated. Coun. Bridget Mearns excused herself from the deliberations.
Any project can be brought back for discussion during the CIP process, however. But as of the end of Wednesday, it’s off the books.
It was the first of $284 million total unfunded Community Capital Projects up for discussion. They are all vying for a portion of the approximately $62.6 million available.
The project was planned to begin with a $2.2-million detailed design process (of which Exhibition Park would kick in half the funds) for 2018. Phase 1 would involve construction of the Trade and Convention Centre at a cost of $59.8 million in 2021 (with Exhibition Park contributing $2 million).
The second phase, construction of the $16-million Agriplex, was pushed back four years to 2026, before deliberations began.
An amendment was first proposed by Mayor Chris Spearman to remove the convention centre portion from the project. Spearman cited the need for greater conversation around a proper location for a convention centre, noting a study presented last week suggested the downtown would be better suited.
The redevelopment plans have been in the works for years and more than $9.3 million has already been invested into infrastructure, noted Mauro. City council had also committed $25 million in conditional funding in the previous CIP.
Mauro said to pull out of the project now is a disservice to the community. He said Exhibition Park’s main goal is to expand so they can continue to do what they’ve done best for more than a century. They’re turning away lots of exhibitors and the city is losing money. Spearman’s amendment was defeated 6-2.
A second amendment was proposed by Coun. Jeff Carlson to move the Phase 1 build timeline back by one year to 2022. This would put it beyond the four-year approved funding window, with no confirmed funding source. The provincial Municipal Sustainability Initiative grant is slated to end in 2021 and no replacement has been announced.
Carlson added a clause to the proposed amendment for the City Manager to develop a funding strategy for the project.
Mauro noted the project has shown a great deal of community interest, spurring thousands of emails and phone calls in support. He said this project has been vetted over and over by consultants, committees and stakeholder groups. There is no operational cost to the city, and Exhibition Park has always kicked in funds, he added.
“We have basically given them, in my opinion, lip service,” said Mauro. “How can you on one hand say it’s a great project, the community loves it, it’s needed for the city, but let’s move it out of the four-year window and put it in 2022. We know anything outside of the four-year window is basically smoke and mirrors because... we may not be here.”
Carlson’s proposed amendment was defeated 4-4. A third amendment was brought forward by Coun. Jeffrey Coffman. He proposed $23.9 million Phase 1 funding in 2021 and $33.9 million in 2022, with City Manager to develop strategy for 2022 funds and no construction until confirmation that all funding is in place.
Coffman said this makes a commitment to the community that we believe in this project. His proposed amendment was also defeated 4-4.
A fourth amendment proposed by Spearman looked at imposing a property tax increase to residents to help fund the cost of borrowing to pay for the project. It would involve an increase of up to one per cent over four years from 2019-22. However, taxpayers could be stuck with higher rates for the duration of the borrowing period up to 15 years.
Carlson said it would be prudent to consider that other projects yet to be discussed, such as building a new westside fire hall, may have an impact on taxation.
Spearman noted if they’re going to take on significant projects, “we need to be realistic about the costs.” This is about being open and transparent to citizens, he said.
“We have to realize, when we take on a project, it’s a difficult balance that we have to make as councillors between the wants of the community and the costs of satisfying those wants,” he said. “So if there is a significant proportion of the community that wants this project to move forward, they would be prepared to pay for it when it’s a bighit item.”
Mauro said during his many past CIP budget discussions this has never been done for any other projects. He said “hurdle after hurdle” has been “thrown up” against this project. If they’re going to add a tax increase to fund this project, why not treat other projects equally, he wondered. This proposed amendment was also defeated 5-3.
With all four amendments defeated, Mauro’s resolution to include Exhibition Park’s Trade, Convention Centre & Agriplex in the draft CIP stood as it was first presented. A tie vote of 4-4 struck it from the books, for now.
Another 21 unfunded Community Capital Projects remain up for discussion. Finance Committee deliberations are scheduled from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. today. All are welcome to attend or watch the deliberations live online at www.lethbridge.ca.
A draft version of the 2018-27 CIP is also available online. It is expected to come before council for final approval on May 23.
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