The city’s muddled handling of the fate of the Arlington Inn is a case study in how not to make public decisions.
From the moment the City of Red Deer announced it was taking ownership of the decrepit hotel last summer, every step and misstep of the process to ultimately tear it down has been examined and re-examined in public.
The $1.5 million the city agreed to pay was a valid jumping off point for public discussion, as were the legitimate questions about why the city was seemingly intent on becoming a retail property developer.
However, very little of the public examination that has occurred has been done in an official fashion. It has taken place in letters to the editors and in a student essay contest. It has sparked petitions and fundraising events. It has inspired private citizens to mount campaigns at personal cost and no small effort.
But there have been no public meetings, no open planning sessions, no general survey process driven by city of Red Deer officials, either elected or hired.
No overt consultation of local groups and stakeholders took place until after public outcry forced an examination of the building’s historical value.
By the time the city sent letters to local historic societies looking for input in late February, the fate was all but sealed (it could come down by the middle of this month). The request for input included a months-old city evaluation of its historic worth, which it said was of “low integrity.”
City administration has long been fond of hiring consultants, arduously creating master plans, holding public meetings on any number of policy and planning possibilities and conducting surveys to get the lay of the land.
But the decision to buy and knock down the Arlington Inn was anything but transparent.
It is not too late to examine the project in a way that does service to the expenditure involved, engages the public, and is consistent with the Greater Downtown Action Plan.
On Monday, pro-Arlington crusader Tim Lasiuta will ask city council to reconsider a plan to demolish the building.
He has evidence and analysis provided by local architects that says the building has value beyond its veneer.
Under the mock-Tudor facade, the 110-year-old building is made of brick construction, they say, and represents an integral part of the city’s past.
How stable the building is is not revealed by Lasiuta, and that may be at the core of the Arlington’s fate. Duane Lalonde, who owned the Arlington from 1997 to 2004, says he bought it “to refurbish . . . and designate it as a historical site.” The province refused his application, saying the building lacked merit. He also believes, from seven years of ownership, that portions of the building are near collapse.
But hundreds of people have signed petitions protesting the imminent demolition of the hotel.
And Red Deer citizens want to know how the city plans to proceed as a property manager and developer — no small issue, given the west downtown lands now being opened for development by the move to new civic yards.
It’s likely that a full examination of the Arlington will reveal only one reasonable fate: knock it down.
But a full examination has been lacking from the start. Council and city administration owe at least that to voters.
John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.