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Red Deer city council’s self-imposed debt limit is hindering aquatic centre project: proponent

The $80- to $100-million project remains outside the city’s 10-year capital plan
The envisioned exterior of the future Red Deer Aquatic Centre, by GEC Architects. The $80- to $100-million project remains outside the City of Red Deer’s 10-year capital plan. (Contributed image)

Red Deer will never get an aquatic centre, as long as city council keeps its debt limit at 75 per cent of what the province recommends, says a pool proponent.

Roy van der Sluis said he was disappointed, but not surprised, to see no municipal financial commitment for constructing a future aquatic centre in the proposed 2023-‘24 budget released this week.

A corner of land bordering 30th Avenue and Crossley Street remains pegged for the project — but “what’s the big deal” about this, he questioned, when the aquatic centre still remains outside the city’s 10-year capital plan?

Developing a “bare bones” Olympic-sized 50-metre pool for swimming competitions, synchronized swimming, water polo and diving would cost an estimated $80- to $100-million.

Van der Sluis stressed such large ventures simply cannot be done within the current debt limit, which was self-imposed by the previous city council about seven years ago.

“No other city that I know of has capped its debt at 75 per cent of what the province allows,” said the Red Deer resident, who hoped to see the cap raised to 80 per cent, which he feels would have signalled the city was serious about constructing an aquatic centre sometime soon.

Right now, the City of Red Deer is already nearing 75 per cent of the debt load the province recommends for municipalities. Among the recent unexpected expenses was a $20 million bail out of the cash-strapped Westerner Park.

Van der Sluis believes keeping the exhibition grounds viable was essential to Red Deer’s economic recovery. But he also feels having an aquatic centre would also advance the city’s finances, regularly drawing visitors for various competitions.

This weekend, Calgarians will drive to Edmonton for a swim meet, when he’s sure they would rather have held the competition midway in Red Deer if that was possible.

Mayor Ken Johnston said he’s a “huge supporter” of the aquatic centre project, which would certainly boost local tourism and recreational opportunities — but he’s also a realist.

While the mayor would be personally comfortable with raising the debt cap by a few percentage points, he said he’s just one member of council.

And it would be easy to argue that, at a time when provincial financial support of municipalities is being reduced by up to 35 per cent by 2024 and cities and towns will have to start paying for 10 per cent of any weather-created damage, it’s wise to remain extra prudent with spending and debt accumulation, he added.

Red Deer is, so far, the only Alberta municipality that maintains a self-imposed debt cap at 75 per cent of a provincial guideline that recommends municipal debt not exceed 1.5 times of its revenues. Many other communities have debt that even exceeds this guideline.

But Johnston noted today’s rising inflation and interest rates are other disincentives for starting such expensive building projects.

At the same time, he’s aware the local pool situation far from ideal for competition-level swimmers.

In a Nov. 4 letter to city council, retired Canadian Forces member Kelly Carter, who holds the Canadian record for the 100-metre swim, stated Red Deer pools close too early and have too few swim lanes for serious swimmers in need of competition-level workouts.

“This is (almost entirely) a result of a lack of aquatic facilities in Red Deer,” Carter wrote.

None of Red Deer’s multiple pools are big enough or deep enough for swimming or diving competitions, or could support a water polo team. The city’s 50-metre outdoor pool has aging infrastructure so it wouldn’t pay to enclose it, said van der Sluis.

Johnston said city council has an opportunity to revisit the debt cap during budget discussions from Nov. 28 to 30.

But he really believes two other changes are needed to set the aquatic centre project in motion — more population growth in the city and a more thriving economy.

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