|Lethbridge Regional Police Chief Tom McKenzie speaks with media during a press conference Wednesday afternoon regarding the cancellation of the police college in Fort Macleod.
Herald photo by David Fuller
The town of Fort Macleod is devastated by a "kick below the belt" decision to cancel construction of a high-tech police training centre in the small southern Alberta community.
Long-anticipated plans for the new police training centre came to a screeching halt Wednesday when the provincial government shocked southern Albertans by announcing it won't pay for the proposed multi-million-dollar police college.
"Everyone's been dropped down an elevator shaft here," said Fort Macleod Mayor Shawn Patience, fresh out of a 1.5-hour emergency council meeting Wednesday evening. "We believe our municipal and our provincial and our federal leaders need to deal from a place of integrity, and that their commitments whether they're verbal or written, need to mean something. And today that definition has changed dramatically. I've lost a lot of confidence and faith in the system."
The province, which first announced it would build the centre in Fort Macleod six years ago, now says the project is an unnecessary waste of taxpayer money. If built today, the centre would cost $120.7 million, according to Jonathan Denis, Alberta's minister of Justice and Solicitor General. The government has already sunk just under $2 million into the project for architectural designs and construction site preparation, Denis said, although Patience argues much more money has been invested.
"Given the large price tag, it's not in the taxpayers' interest to proceed with this large project, nor in the interest of law enforcement," Denis said. "The police college is not something that's necessary to continue with the quality of training that we do have. We can accomplish this through existing facilities and frankly, I think the money is better spent elsewhere."
A persuasive letter from the Alberta Association of Chiefs of Police, which argued existing police training facilities in Calgary, Edmonton and Regina are sufficient, changed Denis' mind about the project, he said. After he received the letter in July, the minister asked police forces across the province for their feedback on the proposed Fort Macleod centre and found that a majority saw no need for it.
Asked why the government didn't seek input from law enforcement agencies earlier in the planning process, Denis said only that cancelling the project was one of the most difficult decisions he's had to make as minister.
"I can't speak for previous ministers. I've been in this position about 10 months. But I can tell you that this was a very difficult decision to make, but I believe it's the correct one," he said, adding he was influenced by police from Calgary, Edmonton and the RCMP, whose members comprise most of Alberta's police. "When 94 per cent of your stakeholders are telling you something, that weighs very heavily on the decision-making process."
The much-delayed Alberta Public Safety and Law Enforcement Training Centre picked up momentum just last month when provincially-contracted architects unveiled impressive designs for the expansive campus, billing it as the first high-tech police training centre of its kind in Canada. Contracts were awarded to Bird Construction and Stantec Architecture Ltd. to complete the centre by Aug. 2014. Architects - hired in July to draw up plans for the centre within a $95 million design budget set by the Solicitor General's office - boasted that the state-of-the-art centre could attract recruits from across Canada and even the United States.
The Lethbridge Regional Police Service (LRPS) and smaller municipal police departments in the region had been eagerly awaiting the completion of those plans, which included a high-speed driving track, indoor and outdoor shooting ranges, urban and rural training properties and a mock courtroom.
"We could have gained a lot of advantages by having this high-tech, fully advanced training centre that close to us," said Lethbridge police chief Tom McKenzie, who said the LRPS wrote a letter in support of the project when the Solicitor General asked for feedback last month. But the concerns expressed by larger police forces with different priorities for policing ultimately tipped the scales toward scrapping the project.
"I guess that's politics," said McKenzie, who added the province heard some opposition to the new training centre since it was first proposed.
"I feel that we were consulted. Were we consulted effectively and efficiently to the point that we should have (been)? No. But it's difficult with any project," he said diplomatically.
The sudden Conservative government cancellation prompted provincial opposition members from the Wildrose, NDP and Liberal parties to accuse the province of axing the project because Fort Macleod is represented by a Wildrose MLA. Livingstone-Macleod MLA Pat Stier did not return calls for comment by deadline Wednesday, but he issued a statement on the "devastating news" in a Wildrose press release.
"This government led us down a path, made us believe this facility was coming, told us how important it was, even announced a construction company and design firm, and just like that it's all gone. I'm appalled and extremely disappointed."
Mayor Patience echoed that bitter disappointment, mourning a project that had been hailed as a saviour for the town's economic slump - a project he'd poured his hopes into for years.
"Right now, I just have a community that's extremely devastated and the rationale behind it is so hollow that it doesn't even allow for anything to lean on," he said. "You know what, we're tough out here and this process has made us stronger and it's united this community. I want to ensure that the community stays united. As for the provincial government, if that's their rural development strategy, then I suggest they take a hard look at it."