Recreation Centre facts come into focus

·6 min read

There has been much community engagement and debate over the proposed Cardston recreation centre through recent letters to the editor and social media posts. The Temple City Star conducted interviews with municipal CAO’s this week in an effort to get straight to the facts, and tidy up any confusion.

When a municipality has a large capital project in the works, it can take years to work from conception to completion. During the process, administration inquires with different vendors for preliminary pricing, gets an idea of community need (town halls, surveys and discussion), and researches where to best elicit funds (grants, partnerships, reserves, levies, or a tax increase) before council makes any concrete decisions about the project and approves the tendering process in which companies can bid for the job. As CAO Jeff Shaw shares, the indoor recreation facility project has been somewhat different because “we have a community champion in Gibb Schaffer, and council wants to support the project while we have the momentum.” Still, there are processes that legally have to be followed by any municipal level of government, and the red tape can be confusing to untangle.

Town councillors have been interested in building a recreation center since the 2018 election, and a committee of council began pursuing this idea in 2019 with a very large indoor recreation center in mind. The intention of the committee was to commence public consultation in 2020, but due to COVID, the public consultation had to be cancelled. In the fall of 2020 major discussions on the specifics of an indoor recreation building were resurrected around the council table when Mr. Schaffer asked council to pursue it more assertively. As it stands, the Cardston Town Council has made very few official resolutions regarding the project, only those resolutions which direct administration to seek information regarding community need, project scope and size, and preliminary pricing. The recreation center is still just a proposal, but one council is actively seeking more information about before committing fully. Council recently created a short survey gathering community interest in a general use indoor recreation center which includes questions about potential user fees and tax impacts.

The potential project scope and size has yet to be determined, as discussions around the council table have ranged from the building being an 8,000 square foot structure to a 19,000 square foot structure. According to CAO Jeff Shaw, the “survey attempts to grasp at basic community need and interest… we can shape what the building will look like once we understand the need better.” Hasegawa engineering group has been consulted as a third party to help determine preliminary costs of a larger building, and these were presented in a public meeting.

Cardston town council has publicly, and informally, committed 1 million dollars to the capital funding (or building costs) of the proposed recreation centre, contingent on other funding covering any capital expenses over and above their contribution. At this time it is expected that $700, 000 of the town’s portion of the funding will come from reserves that have been put away for the recreation department, and $300,000 will come from Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI) dollars. MSI is funding received from the provincial government to support local infrastructure projects, but has recently been on the chopping block in provincial budgets. Every year town councils wait to set their municipal budgets depending on the ramifications of the provincial budget, so these numbers are not yet set in stone for the year. Even if the 2021 provincial budget does not decrease council's expected MSI dollars, the recreation center would still require other funding in order to go ahead as Shaw has shared that “council isn’t willing to extend themselves past the first million.”

In discussions with Mr. Shaffer at council meetings, much has been mentioned about easing the financial load by working with local contractors who are willing to donate time and materials, soliciting funds from other partners, and from private donations. However, Cardston Council first needs an idea about the total scope of the project, and the potential price, then they will make a decision about tax rates for the year, all before they will start to officially solicit funds from other partners. As previously reported, Westwind school division has already declined the invitation to become a financial partner this year. In last week's front page article, it was reported that the County was “willing to set aside $250,000 for the project.” Clarification on this point comes from Cardston County CAO Murray Millward, who says that “the County has not received any official funding requests from Cardston, and they will not act until a request comes through the official line”. If they do receive a request, Cardston County may also want to conduct a survey of citizens to gauge the desire for county support. The County has heard Mr. Shaffer’s presentation on the matter and would consider recreation donations for the project. Their recreation funding to any adjacent municipality is determined by an Inter-municipal Collaboration Framework (ICF), and such an agreement with Cardston has been underway and will soon be signed by both councils. Any donations to the recreation center would be over and above the ICF agreement. However if county council votes to not assist in funding the project, and the town of Cardston decides to go ahead with it anyways, the county would not be on the line for future operational costs for the center.

Operating costs for most recreation centers make building restrictive to many small municipalities, which is why you don’t find a full sized swimming pool and gym in every single small town. There is sometimes an assumption that the charges to enter a recreation facility cover the operational costs for that facility but this is often not the case. Estimating the operational costs of the facility cannot be done until size and scope are determined, which will not be decided until council receives feedback from the survey about community interest.Once feedback is received, and the taxation levels for the year decided in the budget, then the council can go ahead and solicit funds from partners, knowing more precisely how much capital and operational help they require in order to get the project off the ground.

Once enough capital funds have been gathered, it would be time to go ahead with the tendering process, which is when commitments become real and cannot be backed away from (without major financial consequence). It is mandated by trade agreements that council go through a formal process to get bids on jobs that are above a certain price threshold, and this project will inevitably be above the threshold. It is the hope that, if the project goes forward to tender, local contractors would bid for the job, and include the very generous donations of time and labour that some have discussed with Mr. Shaffer during his initial legwork attempting to reduce costs. Contractors willing to donate some of their time and supplies because they believe in the project could score favourably in the evaluation process. However, the financial magnitude of the job disallows the town from favouring any bids by local contractors. The financial magnitude of the project is heavy on the council's mind and has kept them from jumping in with both feet at this point. Time will tell, and budgets dictate, what the future is for this proposal.

Elizabeth Thompson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Temple City Star