February 21st, 2024

Towne Square plan questioned, again

By COLLIN GALLANT on January 18, 2022.

cgallant@medicinehatnews.com@CollinGallant

It may be repaved and redone, but the parking lot at 603 First Street isn’t yet provided a clean slate after the first work at the site in four decades.

The Towne Square development was the focus of a series of tense exchanges at Monday’s city council meeting, which included a overview of the project and others green-lit under grants.

That follows pointed questions on it as council heard an requested update on all “COVID Stimulus” grants allotted by the province and Ottawa in early 2021.

It stated almost all projects are finished or nearing completion, but rekindled criticism of the downtown lot-turned festival space.

Mayor Linnsie Clark and Coun. Shila Sharps both centred on the Towne Square for a third straight meeting, while administrators again defended the budget and execution.

“I want to make sure that we’re proceeding in a way that’s respectful of taxpayer dollars,” said Clark.

She said the project – started prior to the last election – is almost complete and could be an overall benefit, but again heavily implied the city staff and the previous council dropped the ball by allotting it funds.

“We’re 55 per cent over budget on what’s an inferior project than what was proposed, is that a success?” she asked city manager Bob Nicolay during the meeting.

He replied: “Looking at the whole $250 million worth of capital construction that we did in the middle of a pandemic, yes.”

He said the ultimate worth could be measured if the property is sold for more intensive private sector development. In the meantime, it is a more enjoyable festival space that would draw Hatters downtown.

Based on the strict timelines, and unforeseen supply chain problems, the budget rose from a $2 million grant request to above $3 million even while some features like a public washroom were removed for cost savings.

Nicolay too said the lot has been in the city portfolio for 40 years, and had seen eight separate formal development proposals fall through.

New work had cleaned up contamination from a former car dealership on the site and removed “a major impediment” of previous sale attempts.

According to conditions on the grants, the improvements paid for must remain in place for at least five years, council heard during budget discussions in December.

Coun. Shila Sharps said the process hadn’t been explained properly, and the result doesn’t live up to billing.

“We have a $3.5 million parking lot, that we now in five years want to turn in to medium to high density development,” she said.

Coun. Darren Hirsch defended the process by which the projects were selected saying that required timelines and qualifications meant quick turnaround coupled with supply chain issues and inflation.

Specific to Towne Square, he reiterated that it was considered a first phase of the larger “Waterfront District” project announced by the land department in early 2021.

“It’s not a value proposition in isolation,” said Hirsch, noting analysis “missed the bigger picture.”

City director of city assets Joe Cartwright said the fast-paced nature of the applications meant prioritizing and executing on new, previously unbudgetted projects.

Coupling the project with $360,000 worth of previously planned city infrastructure work helped cut down on design and engineering costs.

A further $1 million was allocated from the city land department’s working capital account that would essentially act as a repayable loan to the city’s asset management department. That final portion should only be $710,000, said Cartwright.

“It was felt that if we cut anymore, we’d really have just a parking lot,” he said of the repaved space that maintains about two-thirds of the previous stalls, while adding a canopy, seacan market and food truck alley.

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