Abbotsford city council has approved in principle a $17.5 million project with YMCA despite some strong opposition from residents and a number of councillors on Monday night.
The proposal involves building a community centre that would include a pool, sports gym, fitness area and meeting rooms along with recreational and social programming on Fraser Health land at the old MSA Hospital site on McCallum Road.
The city would contribute 10 per cent of the total project, or a maximum of $17.5 million, which is equal to half the capital costs to build the facility.
All the operating costs would fall to the YMCA, which is expected to result in savings to the city more than $47.5 million over a 40-year period.
However, council also passed a motion that outlined a number of conditions that would have to be met before moving forward with the project.
Mayor Bruce Banman stressed the city was not 100 per cent tied to the project as yet, but simply moving the process forward.
"We're just kicking the can further down the road," Banman said.
Council called for the preparation of a business plan, as well as a report from YMCA on the community benefits of its programs and that the organization demonstrates it has secured the land for the project.
Any future legal contract or memorandum of understanding (MOU) also has to include clauses that ensure reasonable community access to the facility, that the YMCA will reimburse the city's investment if the centre closes and the city has no responsibility for any cost overruns or operational funding for the centre.
- Resident input
It was standing room only, as more than 150 people packed a conference room at the Clearbrook Library for the council meeting on the issue.
More than 30 people spoke, with two-thirds of them opposing the plan.
Most critics said they had no objections to the YMCA, but believed the city could not afford to take on the project given the state of the economy, the costs already being borne to subsidize the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sport Centre and Heat hockey team and the strain on the city's already overburdened capital reserves.
Resident and former Abbotsford city manager Gary Guthrie disputed the city's claim that no new taxes would result to pay for the YMCA project.
Guthrie argued the money would come from the capital reserve, which is already insufficient to meet all of the city's needs.
City staff has repeatedly stressed the need to implement a capital levy on taxpayers to replenish the city's capital reserve, he said.
"How can staff, on one hand, support the city gifting capital funds and, on
the other, tell council the city doesn't have enough money for capital
projects and a tax increase is required to fund the shortfall?
Other residents, including a fitness centre owner, said the YMCA would draw patrons away from the city's own community recreation centres and private sector operations.
While others suggested the city would be better off granting funds or establishing such partnerships with recreational groups already doing work in the community.
Many residents said they weren't willing to support the YMCA project, as they were still paying to cover the costs associated with the AESC project.
"People on council come and go but the projects stay and guess who pays for them?" asked said Sukh Kahlon.
"The YMCA provides good services, but can we afford that in light of the projects we've taken on in the past?"
However, many supporters of the YMCA spoke about the benefits the non-profit organization would bring to the community, including meeting the demands of a growing population.
"This is an exceptional project that will provide us with quality of life for years to come," said resident Jim Cox, noting the YMCA was pledging half the costs to build the facility.
"We'll need to provide recreational facilities to meet [population growth]," said Cox.
"If not with the YMCA, we'll have to pay 100 per cent to put them in place."
Others stressed the dire need for a pool in the community, noting competitive swimmers are often forced to go outside of the community to train.
However, speakers expressed reservations about the small size of the 25-metre pool being proposed in the YMCA proposal.
- City staff and council views
Mark Taylor, general manager of Abbotsford parks, recreation and culture, said Abbotsford doesn't have enough aquatic space and there are waiting lists for lessons and demand by swim clubs can't be met.
A YMCA facility is the most cost-effective means to develop a new recreation facility and an athletic pool in Abbotsford, he said.
The project isn't expected to impact ARC and MRC revenues beyond a two-year period and programming offered at the YMCA wouldn't overlap with services already offered in the city, said Taylor.
City financial staff told council a revised figure of $12 million for the project can been earmarked for 2015 from within the city's capital reserve, leaving $5.5 million to be raised.
Salman Azam, director of finance, said the remaining funds may be gleaned from future further cuts or deferrals to other capital projects, but more likely from new increases in revenue or spending efficiencies.
Regardless, councillors Henry Braun, Simon Gibson and Moe Gill objected to the project, saying it would compete with existing public and private facilities.
They urged fiscal restraint and sustainable capital spending.
Braun also expressed concern about the details of the MOU with the YMCA and whether the agreement would be a good deal for the city, which has no ownership interest in the centre.
The YMCA would be an additional burden on a constrained capital program, and would result in capital cuts, borrowing or tax levies, he said.
However, other councillors such as Bill MacGregor and Les Barkman stressed the importance of providing positive, recreational choices for Abbotsford youth.
Coun. John Smith said the YMCA deal would contribute to the social fabric of the community and made financial sense.
"Everybody knows the real cost of recreational facilities are operating costs," Smith said, noting the city is subsidizing the MRC and ARC to the tune of about $2.4 million a year.
"The YMCA says they'll carry that [operating] risk. Maybe they could take over the ARC and MRC," he joked.