Reg Warkentin: City council sends a bad message to businesses and investors

In their Monday council meeting, councillors Lawrence Lee, Tanya Handley, Frank Wong, Dianne Wyntjes and Buck Buchanan voted against a private development that would have seen the abandoned former fire hall in Deer Park converted to an insurance office.

The project, which originally included a coffee shop, would have highlighted Red Deer’s historic fire and emergency services past and been a truly unique and novel addition to our city.

The anti-business decision made by the councillors cited traffic concerns, along with the concern that “other businesses could be brought in (the) future that could be a challenge for the community.”

On the issue of traffic, the developer stated he has 10 employees who would work between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. and would see an average of two to eight clients per day.

Keep in mind, area residents were no doubt accustomed to the regular screaming of ambulance and fire truck sirens at all hours of the night.

For context, the insurance company currently has its office downtown — an area where numerous insurance companies, accountant offices and other business services have already chosen to leave for Red Deer County’s notoriously business-friendly Gasoline Alley.

Like so many others, the dejected project proponent has said he now intends to relocate to Red Deer County.

Saying this decision is disappointing to the business community would be an understatement. Accountability of our council and the success of our business community is measured by decisions such as this.

Unfortunately, for the future of our city, this sends a message that our city is unwilling to work with investors and developers on creative or flexible solutions to the demands and trends of the free market, and clearly there is a strong trend of businesses wishing to leave the downtown core.

Until the root issues plaguing business and development downtown are resolved, it is a fool’s errand to use zoning restrictions and land use bylaws to try and keep them there.

It is paradoxical that on the same day the Advocate ran a front page story about the city’s cash crunch resulting from COVID-19 and the weak economy, members of council chose to deny an application that would have undoubtedly increased the value of the property, grown the tax base and sent a positive message to investors considering a project in the City of Red Deer.

It’s also disappointing to note that in this instance, the councillors chose to go against the advice of the city’s planning department, who noted in their March 16 report that, “Administration recommends Council consider supporting First reading of option 1 Bylaw 3357/A-2020 as it is consistent with existing C3 sites throughout Red Deer.”

As mentioned by Mayor Tara Veer and the other councillors who were in favour of the redevelopment proposal, the conversion of the old fire hall to an insurance office is the “lowest-impact plan area residents could expect.”

If councillors are not bold enough to support such a simple change to land use, there little hope they will make the much bolder decisions required to attract businesses to our struggling city.

Reg Warkentin is the policy and advocacy manager with the Red Deer & District Chamber of Commerce.

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