On Monday, September 13, the Municipal Centre Ad Hoc Building Steering Committee presented an update of their work to Whitecourt Town Council. The committee is creating a public education campaign and detailed design so that Council, and the public, can have all the details.
The committee includes representatives from Woodlands County Council, Whitecourt Town Council, Town Administration, Whitecourt & District Public Library, Performing Arts Society, and public members. Committee Chairperson Norm Hodgson was present to answer questions and provide the update. The proposed brochure scrolled on the screen during the virtual meeting, allowing those in attendance to see it. Hodgson explained that the committee had also discussed how they would get the information to residents.
"This will include testimonials, video clips, and this brochure along with various activities that include community presentations and open houses. We feel that this Municipal Centre would be a tremendous compliment to our community offering enhanced library services, conference possibilities, and cultural services, as well as our administration building." Hodson further explained that more detailed plans would become available to the committee in the coming weeks, enabling them to gather costing information. "That will lead us to some considerations for council regarding tax implications, and that will all become part of our public education campaign. Those pieces are essential to explain this properly to the public on what it could look like and how it could impact the public moving forward."
Councillor Ray Hilts said he felt there was a disconnect. "I'm disappointed with the resource materials for the campaign, and there appears to be an exceptional amount of materials and activities. Considering the size and scale of this project, my frustration is that there are people in the community that we have to convince this is a good idea, and for a number of reasons. The tactics and the materials don't lend themselves to doing that."
He spoke for several minutes about how he expected those advocating for the project to door-knock the information. He also referenced a past Council conversation. "One of the things that council agreed to a long time ago when we talked about this information campaign was a vote. That our community would vote on this. That was a couple of years ago, and I know we did that because I brought it up." He said that all he saw was money being spent on materials. "Where do we get in people's faces and talk about the merits of this project in a real hands-on way? At the end of the day, people may not show up (to the open houses)."
Hodgson responded. "We are still waiting for costing, and we are still waiting for information on the impact on taxation to enable us to have a complete picture to go and embrace educating the public. "He explained that the committee was following a similar mechanism used when planning for the Allan & Jean Millar Centre. He also mentioned that the planning process for the Municipal Centre has been ongoing for over ten years and that numerous public events had already taken place.
Though both are significant and comparable projects in the community, Councillor Hilts didn't feel following similar steps was conducive. Mayor Chichak questioned Administration on if door-knocking was one of the ideas put forward by Council when planning the public education plan before starting the committee. "We came up with a public education plan, and I don't remember the door-knocking piece being a part of that."
Deputy Mayor Derek Schlosser spoke up and agreed with the mayor. "I don't remember agreeing to a public vote on this. Maybe I'm deluded. If you could point that out Councillor Hilts, whatever meeting it was that I agreed to that." Schlosser said that he anticipates many people will want to door-knock and encouraged the mayoral candidates, of which Hilts is, to go door-knocking with the material. Schlosser, who is also on the committee as one of two Council reps along with Councillor Connell, stated that there wasn't an exact mechanism specified for how Council wanted the information campaign to roll out.
Councillor Connell spoke to the tax implications for residents and asked Administration for a rough completion date if the project were to start in six months; he was told roughly two years. "So, we are looking at two and half years, if not three years, for tax implications (to start). I think that's an important component of this. I am supportive of it. I think Whitecourt's had a lot of success being a trailblazer, such as the Allan & Jean Millar Centre. At the end of the day, it does run at a deficit but, man, what a great addition to the community. I see this as maybe the next big thing."
Councillor McAree said he felt the committee had "a really good handle on it," stating that he liked what he saw. "There's going to be great conversation throughout the community, but that won't take place until all the information is available. It's going to be generating its own excitement because it's a very exciting project."
CAO Peter Smyl stated that it wasn't about who supported it or not but rather about seeing what the committee had come up with thus far. "I think what the committee is doing here is to make sure that we are covering all the bases and if there are areas that need to be expanded. If that has to be tweaked for the community, then this is the time to tweak it so that we can provide direction for the committee."
Mayor Chichak said that there have been many moving parts over the thirteen years of planning and that things have evolved. "I think we are on the right steps. I don't think that you can go to the public with a half-hearted campaign that lacks information. Some have already made up their minds whether they will vote yes or no, and that's fine, but I believe it's up to the next council to make that decision and get educated and educate the public. The information that is contained within this document, I think, is going to be fantastic, and I hope our community gets engaged and reads it." She then called the vote, and the motion to approve the information campaign passed. Residents will see a rollout of information in the coming months.
Serena Lapointe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Whitecourt Press