By COLLIN GALLANT on January 6, 2022.
A shaded sea-can marketplace will move ahead at the 603 First Street parking lot after council members approved a development permit Tuesday but raised questions about the scheduling and budget of the city project.
In late 2020, council approved a federal grant application to repave the parking lot across from city hall and convert a portion to event-ready festival space.
Construction has been ongoing at the site since early July, but unlike paving, a permit to place the shipping container market stalls and create a shade canopy required direct council approval.
That was issued after a half hour debate Tuesday, but not before councillors elected last October asked city’s Invest Medicine Hat office why the sea-cans were already in place with a permit still pending, and further questions about budget.
“I’m not feeling very engaged or included and I’m on council, and that’s probably why I’m receiving a considerable number of emails (from residents),” said Coun. Shila Sharps. Her campaign focused on calls for more public consultation on the city’s Waterfront District project, including the Towne Square.
The original project budget was stated at $2 million, though the construction contract was awarded to a bid worth $2.5 million, while administrators now say other related work on streets and lane ways will be paid out of municipal works’ ongoing projects budget.
City manager Bob Nicolay said under the requirements of the grant program, action needed to be taken quickly.
“It necessitated a hurry-up capital plan,” he said. “That was endorsed by the previous council, and immediate action was taken by administration,” in order to meet a one-year deadline to complete it.
Eventually, only eight of 14 planned sea-cans that are fitted with power hookups and ventilation were ordered, for a $200,000 cost.
Those will be leased to vendors or businesses to operate in the spring, summer and fall, and the income will eventually repay the working capital account from the city’s land department, which is financing the difference.
“I’ve never hid my dismay about this project,” said Sharps, who eventually was the only councillor to vote against the permit, adding, “This wasn’t a bad idea, but it’s about how it’s being executed.”
Coun. Darren Hirsch said “there were an immense number of strings attached to the grants, and I understand the optics.”
Councillors were generally enthusiastic about the site plan.
Coun. Allison Knodel called the design a modern update to the area that would be welcome, though containers may seem unusual.
“They’re fairly industrial in appearance, but they’re affordable,” she said. “It’s different from other things we’ve done.”
Coun. Cassi Hider said “it’s refreshing to see some outside the box thinking in Medicine Hat.”
Officials from St. John’s Presbyterian Church wrote a letter in support of the project but queried why a washroom wasn’t included.
City project manager Ian Hakes said a public washroom was removed from the initial plans to bring the budget into line. He said water and sewer lines have been extended onto the property, and could be added at a later date and makes the property more valuable and marketable in case of resale to a developer.
Coun. Alison Van Dyke said it would be important to consider a washroom included in public space projects to relieve pressure on area businesses and residents.
Mayor Linnsie Clark also took issue with the grant list during the campaign, stating that money for several projects could have been better spent on maintenance needs rather than new facilities.
On Tuesday she said she hoped the area would prove successful, but said project selection was still a concern.
“Regardless of the rush at the time, it’s hard for me to believe these were the only projects that qualified (for grants),” she said.
Council approved the work among a list of projects in Dec. 2020 that would comprise application to the federal municipal stimulus program.
Together with a similar Alberta government program, the city received about $18 million for pathway expansion, campground upgrades, a pickleball facility at the Big Marble Go Centre, and upgrades at Athletic Park, along with several roof maintenance projects at city buildings.