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Tough questions coming for Lac La Biche Main Street businesses

Council turns to business community for response to downtown construction plan schedule.

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LAC LA BICHE - Like pulling off a bandage, it's a choice of taking the pain all at once or a little bit at a time.

As many downtown Lac La La Biche businesses continue to make their way through challenging economic times made worse by a global pandemic, plans may still be in the works for a massive downtown construction project that will rip into the street that runs through the retail core.

An hour-long debate by Lac La Biche County councillors over the need to upgrade dilapidated cast-iron water and sewer pipes under Lac La Biche's Main Street, resulted in some mixed reactions around their council table on Tuesday afternoon — but all agreed that the business community needs to weigh in as well.

The project, which has been on the books for several years is a necessity, says Mayor Omer Moghrabi and other council members, was part of an over-arching discussion on possible funding shortfalls in next year's budget. The conversation began with the mayor suggesting the deferral of some planned budgeted projects this year as a way to save money next year when he fears a double-digit per cent reduction in tax revenues will land on the municipality due to new assessment formulas for industrial ratepayers.

"The assessments for 2021, we are looking at — in my opinion — up to 18 per cent less of assessment, with most coming from industrial. That will be between an $11 million and $12 million loss," the mayor said, suggesting a few project planned for this year's construction season could be deferred to next year.

While the majority of council disagreed with deferring projects that were budgeted back in December and are already in some process of being started, the downtown water and sewer line replacement project was highlighted as a project that could be fast-tracked to this year — since it is already a tough year.

"Our businesses in downtown Lac La Biche are suffering. They are really hurting. This has been a bad, bad year for them," said councillor George L'Heureux, who is in favour — if the business community agrees as well — to go with the 'full rip' when it comes to the bandage. 

Projecting little if any 'tourist season' for downtown retailers due to the COVID pandemic and the economy, L'Heureux said it would be a "double whammie" to wait until businesses began to regain financial stability and then  dig up the Main Street.

"So let's do it , and try to reduce it to just one "whammie" he said.

Other councillors believed the area would be busy with Albertans opting for stay-cations since there are restrictions on travel through most provinces. Businesses who have seen an uptick in local traffic may also continue to have a busy summer.

"We do need to create a consultation process with the businesses. This isn't about the budget impact, it's the impact on our businesses. I think there will be a lot more tourism this summer. I was planning an out-of-province family trip, but with COVID, I'll be spending my budget locally now. I think we are going to see some traffic downtown, and I"m scared that if we start the project now, we might affect that," said councillor Colin Cote.

Council was split on the idea — especially since the overall plan is to replace the not only the 60-plus year old main utility pipes, but also the sidewalks, streetlights and pavement on the road.  The plan is part of the preview unveiled last year when council approved municipal staff to create 'mock' enhancements to the downtown that included concrete barriers to replicate 'bulb-outs' on sidewalks, picnic tables and patio heaters to represent plans for downtown pedestrian sitting areas.

Not only does the project not all have to be done at once, but the utility pipe replacement could be done on a smaller scale with less downtown disruptions, offered councillor Sterling Johnson. A one-time director of the public works department with the Town of St. Paul, Johnson said if only the main water and sewer lines were replaced and the service tie-ins to the downtown businesses were left, the construction zone wouldn't be as disruptive.

"Most of the problems are on the old mains, so for just that, you wouldn't have to touch the sidewalks," he said.

Coun. Lorin Tkachuk said the overall project — if done piece by piece — would just create more stresses each time a new part of the project is worked on. 

"We need to do it all at once," he said.

Others around the table thought the whole project could be completed this year, with sidewalks being rebuilt a block at a time and sections of the downtown roadway being partitioned as the work was done.

The reality, however, according to councillor Jason Stedman, was that the project might not get completely finished, leaving the main business corridor as a "war zone,"he feared, using as an example the current downtown utility and paving project east of KFC that has been ongoing for three years.

"What are the businesses going to be stuck with for the fall and winter and spring of next year? What are we going to give these businesses to live with for a year before we can come back to do something else?" he asked.

Ask the businesses

With so many questions about costs, timeframes, economies and the COVID-19 pandemic, council decided to let the business community have their say. What form that feedback will take was not specified, but municipal administrators and council members have pledged to get the answers.

"We need to engage the business community. We need to ask them if this is a good time," said Tkachuk.

A formal plan for feedback is expected in the coming weeks. Councillors expect to receive a lot of feedback on the issue.