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More work and more money for earth-moving project

Land clearing near Bold Center digs up emotions and $450,000 from council

LAC LA BICHE - A week after letting Lac La Biche County councillors know that the million dollar budget to get municipal land ready to attract new developers would need "a little more money," the County's Infrastructure Services boss says about $1.2 million more should do the trick.

The land is a 12-acre parcel adjacent to 91 Avenue and Beaver Hill Road near the Bold Center.

Lac La Biche County's Associate CAO of Infrastructure Services Ron Frasier told elected officials at their Sept. 5 meeting that unforeseen expenses relating to increased manpower and time, issues arising from the quality of a haul road taking materials from the property, as well as a larger than expected amount of topsoil had increased the million dollar budget approved by council in February for the project.

A week later, on September 12,  Frasier was again in front of council, presenting a number of options — and new funding requests — to get the property suitable for possible developers. The new ask includes $75,000 for a concept plan of lands around the Bold Center, $50,000 for engineering, design and tendering costs, $90,000 for engineering and construction supervision, and at least $725,000 for intersection development and improvements at Beaver Hill Road and 91 Avenue that could include new turn lanes and property access points The new figures also estimate that $350,000 will be needed to move overhead power-lines around the project underground.

As discussions on the funding were taking place, a one-acre parcel at the southwest corner of the property is being negotiated for sale with a potential developer. That sale, and conditions associated with the ongoing discussions, are also part of the latest funding increase, says Frasier.

A temporary access road through the entire property, that will also allow access to the one-acre lot, has a cost of $80,000 and utility connections to the property are estimated at $150,000. 

Lac La Biche County Mayor Paul Reutov said the $1.2 million ask was "putting the cart before the horse." Fully in support of new development, he preferred to get basic infrastructure in place for the developer currently in negotiations — but to hold back on any significant work and expenditures until deals were signed.

A commercial developer himself, the mayor said that if the developer changes their site plans — which can happen —  then dollars and time spent putting in the costly infrastructure will be wasted. Without approved plans, he said it was too early for the municipality to spend that kind of money.

"We don't have an agreement, we don't have a site plan ...I  see it as premature ," Reutov said.

Councillor Jason Stedman saw it differently.

He said spending the money for permanent turn lanes, access points,utility lines and intersection improvements shows the current developer and future ones that the municipality is open for business.

"It's economic development, and it's our number-one priority as a council. It's everything we talk about," he said, admitting that spending the money up-front "sucks", he said it will reassure potential developers. "They want to see that we have a plan and we are moving forward with it. They are looking at what path we are going and how we are going to support them." 

Making a formal request to spend the additional $1.2 million to create infrastructure ready for commercial developments, Stedman said was like "pulling the Band-aid off" and just doing it.

More details needed

Discussing the spending proposal, councillor Darlene Beniuk questioned where the funds would come from, and what arrangements had made with the current developer during what she called "Top Secret" land negotiations.

In accordance with the Municipal Government Act, land negotiations involving municipal bodies can be held behind closed doors. There have been several in-camera meetings with council, administration and developers over the last year in regards to the parcel of land. Beniuk said she must've missed something, as the rush to spend county funds was new to her.

"I'm basing my ideas on what I know - which is basically nothing about this development. It seems to be top-secret. I don't know enough," she said.

Deputy Mayor Sterling Johnson also took a swing at the process — and the administration. He said the request for funding was convoluted and didn't have all the answers.

Despite their comments, both Johnson and Beniuk have been part of several discussions about the property over the last year. According to municipal records, the piece of land — Lot 3 Block 3 Plan 1320611 — has been a specific item listed on council meeting agendas seven times since last September. Johnson and Beniuk are recorded as voting on the issue relating to the land at each meeting. The two most recent discussion on the land prior to last Tuesday's meeting were at the July 25 and September 5 regular council meetings, attended by both Beniuk and Johnson. 

Even with that background, Johnson didn't think he had enough information to make a good decision — and let municipal administrators know it.

"The only way we can make good decisions is when we have all the information. If you don't want to give us all the information, then you get shitty decisions - simple as that," Johnson stated flatly.

With emotions rising, councillors went behind closed doors to further discuss the issue.

Some agreement

Coming out of the latest round of discussions a short time later, councillors voted in favour of some of the funding request; approving a spend of $75,000 to create a concept plan of lands around the Bold Center, and to approve a budget of $375,000 this year to bring water, sewer and natural gas to the one acre property and to build a temporary access road to the lot currently being negotiated.

"These interim items, totalling $450,000, can be achieved in 2023," Fraser told the Lac La Biche POST newsroom following the meeting. "The $375,000 will only be spent if (and) when the land sale is concluded."

If the land sale does not go through, project funding, build-outs and scheduling will be determined by the concept plan. 

Rob McKinley

About the Author: Rob McKinley

Rob has been in the media, marketing and promotion business for 30 years, working in the public sector, as well as media outlets in major metropolitan markets, smaller rural communities and Indigenous-focused settings.
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