Though the Municipal Centre project remains up in the air for completion Council needs the correct information to make the final call. At the end of last month, Whitecourt Council had to decide if they wanted to go ahead with the project's next phases. In 2016, Council signed a contract with BR2 Architectural Services for the design process of the Municipal Centre.
CAO Peter Smyl explained that the agreement enables them to stop momentum at any time through any of the seven planned phases. In 2020, the Town of Whitecourt received over $15.5 million in grant funding through the Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program. "Now, we are required, regarding the grant that the Town of Whitecourt received, to pass a resolution to proceed with phases two and three, with three being the office building, the next phase with BR2, for $515,931.43 plus GST. As per direction from council, the information on the process will be used later this year for the public process and will be brought to Council over the next few months."
Councillor Ray Hilts asked how they could engage both the current and future councils and the public on the project's design elements. "I know we have a theoretical design. I've been involved in other projects where you try to get a vision of that organization incorporated when considering all the things you want in the building."
Smyl said that a lot of work went into the project. Director of Community Services Chelsea Grande elaborated further. "We started back in 2006. Council put together a committee. Not only did that committee work together, but they reached out and engaged all the users and public in the community that wanted to add input. They held several community gatherings where the information was compiled and put together. After that, they went to community conversation cafes where they had all of the users and members of the public that wanted to attend. RC Strategies put that together in a report which Council has seen."
Grande explained that a building committee was also formed and included members from the Performing Arts, Whitecourt & District Public Library, Town and County Councils, Town Administration, and public members. "That committee has been meeting regularly. Through the RC Strategies report, they also did some surveying, and we have the compilation from all the community groups on what components they want in it. There has been extensive community consultation from the beginning. Different components were put in and then taken out with the feedback or adjusted again. That is where we are right now."
On top of that, Grande mentioned that each representative on the committee takes the information they learn back to their sub-committees to share it and receive feedback. "It's a long process with many moving parts. Council has also gone out several times, along with members of Woodlands County council, members of the Performing Arts Society and sub-committee for buildings have gone out and visited and toured multiple sites throughout Alberta; some have even visited in Saskatchewan. We brought all those components back on what we liked, what we did not like, and what might need improvement," she explained.
She said that the process of including all user groups would continue. "No one's ideas are left out. They are always considered to see if it makes sense in the scope of the project." Councillors Derek Schlosser and Matt Connell are the Town Council reps on the committee. For Woodlands County, the representative is Councillor Jim Rennie.
"As you can see, there's been a ton of really good public consultation thus far," said Councillor Schlosser. "We will need to re-engage the public moving forward as we get into the next council. The reason for doing Stage two and three here is that we really have to nail down the numbers of the exact costs for the next council to decide what they would like to do. Certainly, there has been a ton of public consultation."
Schlosser said that one of the cool things for him was that even though user group consulting happened a bit ago, it is still just as relevant. "It's not like because they occurred three years ago that they are no longer relevant. They are, and that is the thing I'm excited about. I'm thrilled with the process. I hope that we will get more public engagement as this rolls out in the new council year to see where we want to go with this project."
Councillor Tom Pickard said that public input is prudent. "It is a significant expenditure for our community, but I think they have to be an informed public when they make the decision. I see steps two and three as being very important, certainly critical steps on whether it advances beyond that. In fairness to all the work done and all the people involved, we have to educate and update the people in the community. (We have to) show how we are going to pay for it and where the money is coming from."
Pickard said that the decision could not just come down to the six councillors and mayor without going through a significant educational process for the public. "I'm very excited to see this. It will be an opportunity for everyone to learn where we will pay for this, what it's going to look like, where the money is going to come from, and what opportunities will be there for the community as we move out of the pandemic. This is a project where the timing of it might be just perfect. I do feel that without steps two and three, we can't make that decision, and neither can members of the community," he said.
Councillor Pickard made a motion to have Council enter into a contract with BR2 Architectural Services to complete Phase 2 of the Arts and Culture Centre and Phase 3 for the Town Office, Public Library and Arts and Culture Centre, as outlined in Council's Strategic Plan, for up to $515,931.43 plus GST. The motion passed unanimously.
Serena Lapointe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Whitecourt Press