John Ponto plans to put the former Deer Park fire hall up for sale since he can’t turn it into a commercial site. (Photo by LANA MICHELIN/Advocate staff).

Owner of former Red Deer fire hall says he will move his city insurance business to Red Deer County

John Ponto said he wasted six months trying to get the city’s approval for his development

The former Deer Park fire hall is going back on sale.

And its owner said he now intends to relocate his city business to Red Deer County, following city council’s rejection of his commercial plans for the facility.

“I’m so disappointed,” said John Ponto of city council’s refusal to allow his insurance operation to move from the downtown and into the decommissioned fire hall.

Ponto said he spent six months and $30,000, in mortgage payments alone, on his failed effort to create a commercial operation out of the old emergency services building.

He now feels he will move his SurePath Group insurance office out of the city and to the county, which he believes is more flexible and development friendly.

“I tried to do something nice for the City of Red Deer and thought I was doing a good thing…”

On Monday, city council narrowly overruled his plans when councillors Dianne Wyntjes, Lawrence Lee, Tanya Handley, Frank Wong and Buck Buchanan sided with 15 Deer Park neighbourhood residents who opposed the development out of concerns about traffic and disruption.

Wong felt that allowing more office space to spill out of the downtown could create an “empty wasteland” in the city’s core.

But Ponto feels that rather than prescribing where businesses should locate, city council should be dealing with the social problems that are spurring so many businesses to leave the downtown.

“My staff are scared,” he said of the indigent people who are openly drinking alcohol on a public bench near his building, and throwing used needles and other debris in the alley.

“I am constantly phoning that there are guys drinking on the bench…”

Ponto doesn’t believe traffic on 39th Street, which is where the former fire hall is located, is heavier or faster than on many other roadways.

And he doesn’t believe Deer Park residents could have known when they first moved to the neighbourhood that the fire hall would be decommissioned after barely 20 years after another station was built in a more favourable location.

Ponto noted city planners had endorsed his plans to create a quaint “Station 39”-themed commercial site that highlights Red Deer’s historic fire and emergency services past.

A small coffee shop that he felt “could benefit the community” was removed after some residents complained it would add to traffic.

Instead, Ponto applied to only relocate his insurance office there, telling council there was adequate on-site parking and a low amount of client traffic.

Mayor Tara Veer — who voted in favour of Ponto’s proposal, along with councillors Vesna Higham, Ken Johnston and Michael Dawe — called this the lowest-impact plan area residents could expect.

Even turning the fire hall’s land into five residential parcels would result in more traffic, if every household had two or three vehicles, said Veer.

Ponto believes the large two-storey structure would be no good as a single residence — it’s much larger than surrounding homes at 6,000 square feet, it sits on a corner lot next to an arterial road, and would be very costly to renovate.

He, therefore, plans to sell it to another buyer who could chose to subdivide the land.

But he added that if city councillors wanted multiple residential lots instead of a commercial site at this spot, then the city should have demolished the fire hall and subdivided the property in the first place.

Ponto believes it will be a shame to wreck an attractive, newish building that cost city taxpayers $3 million to build.

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