The biggest bit of news to come out of the mayor’s State of the City speech last week was not that taxes are going up -- we all knew that was inevitable, it’s just a question of how much -- but rather his answer to a question from the audience about leisure facilities.
Whether the rest of council knew it or not, apparently Mayor Greg Dionne is interested in planning for a new leisure complex, including a swimming pool. The idea of a new pool, or other new recreational facilities, is not new; what’s new is the idea of planning for one.
Given that the question came from the Saskatchewan Rivers School Division table at this Chamber of Commerce event, the underlying question could have been about city support for the existing Frank Dunn Pool, which is jointly funded and operated by the city and the school division. Carlton High School and the attached pool are 30 years old.
Major upgrades are needed, or the evitable will happen and the pool will be closed. Yet, the city always seems reluctant to talk about repairs to facilities. See the Harry Jerome Track as a second example.
Maybe this reluctance to discuss repairs is what leads us to major capital building projects, often without the full planning that should accompany them. It’s far more appealing in politics to build something new than to keep something existing in good repair. Politicians at all levels love a ribbon-cutting event.
Plus, it’s easier in some ways to raise the funds for a new building than to repair an old one. People like to donate money where the results are tangible. Your name on the wall in the lobby of building is something to see and feel good about. Money donated, or given through taxes, to keep a facility in repair doesn’t rate a name mention.
In the past decade or so, Prince Albert has had three major leisure facility projects; the Rawlinson Centre construction providing a place for the arts; the Alfred Jenkins Fieldhouse construction, providing a place for soccer and other fitness activities; and the campaign to retrofit the Comuniplex into the Art Hauser Centre as our main arena. There are lessons to be learned for council from these projects.
Each one was planned, but not fully planned. There was clearly a plan to raise the money for capital, through local donations, taxes, and senior government contributions, but none had a clear plan for operations. Rather than debate the merits of the various models used to run these facilities, let’s just cut to the bottom line; a new leisure facility will cost the taxpayers about half a million dollars extra as a starting point, even after user fees. In planning for a facility, this point needs to be considered upfront. Will the taxpayers be willing to pay more, year after year, to have this new amenity?
If the answer is no, where will that $500,000-plus come from? Will an old facility or other services be shut down? If so, what will we do with that existing facility? Taking aquatic centres as an example, Prince Albert has a poor record of planning. The Memorial Pool, next to the Margot Fournier Center, was shut down in the 1990s due to the price of needed repairs and to save costs. The fenced pool sat forlornly for years before the property was purchased and the owners of next-door Gateway Mall put up a parking lot. If a new pool were planned now, what would be the future of the Frank Dunn Pool or Marion Aquatics, our existing pools? Again, we need a plan for repurposing what won't be used, rather than leaving chunks of space to decay and be bulldozed eventually.
And, we need to plan for location. The two present pools are located next to high schools and can be easily used by students as well as the public, but unlike other communities, most leisure facilities in Prince Albert stand alone. The model elsewhere is to group activities together by having an arena, a gym, and a library in one facility, for example. That allows a whole family to take in activities together despite different interests. Prince Albert could do the same. The initial plan for the fieldhouse included a much wider range of leisure services than what we ended up seeing there, but was scaled back to focus on soccer. The second part of location is serving the whole city. Right now, leisure facilities are clustered in the southeast quadrant of the city, with no major city-run facilities in the West Flat and few in the East Flat. Where would a new leisure complex go?
The chamber of commerce has been gently prodding the city to think ahead, including thinking about leisure facilities. Representing the business community and often painted as only concerned about taxes, the chamber members do recognize the value of spending on recreation as contributing to tourism and the quality of life. Rather than get hit with a massive tax increase such as happened this past year with the base tax, however, they would like to be part of the conversation and decision making. It appears, perhaps, the mayor has listened.
Let’s have some discussions about our facilities -- open discussions about the current state, needed repairs, cost of operation and need for replacement -- and let’s do it in a rational, logical way. Instead of just looking around wildly for funding to come from a major donor or senior government and letting that make the decision for us, let’s first understand what we have, what we want as a community, and what we can afford.
Barb Gustafson is a lifelong resident of Prince Albert and a former managing editor and publisher of the Prince Albert Daily Herald. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org