EDMONTON - Just weeks after Alberta government awarded the construction contract to build a long-awaited police training college in Fort Macleod, Solicitor General Jonathan Denis cancelled the project Wednesday, saying it was not viable.
"This was a very difficult decision for me and the rest of the department, but it's one I believe is in the best interests of the taxpayers as well as law enforcement," Denis told reporters.
Opposition politicians immediately denounced it as political payback. Fort Macleod, near Lethbridge, is in the riding of Livingstone-Macleod. It had been a longtime stronghold of the governing Progressive Conservatives, but residents voted in a member of the opposition Wildrose Party in the spring election.
Denis said politics had no part in the decision. He said recent discussions with the Alberta Association of Chiefs of Police over recruiting and training was the tipping point that decided the fate of the proposed Alberta Public Security and Law Enforcement Training Centre.
"The communication that I received and some discussions that we've had raise some serious concerns about whether this college is required," he said.
"The (police) chiefs themselves have indicated it would be underutilized but also one way or the other would not affect the quality of actual policing.
"So our concern is that it would not be adequately used."
The government announced last month that the construction tender had been awarded and spades were soon expected to turn earth.
Fort Macleod Mayor Shawn Patience was furious about the decision.
"I'm more than distraught at this moment," Patience said.
"The effort that this community has put it in, to see this evolve after the contract was awarded, absolutely not only unbelievable but, I'm at a bit of a loss for words."
The agricultural hub town of 3,000 fought hard for six years to keep the college on the government agenda. There were numerous delays after it was announced by former premier Ralph Klein's government in 2006.
To prepare, the town donated the 136 hectares of land for the site. It also bolstered its sewer, water and other infrastructure, including developing a new residential subdivision, in anticipation of the college.
They had even adopted a new motto for the college: the Latin phrase “A Terra Nos Surgere” or “From land we rise," reported the Fort Macleod Gazette.
"I've asked the solicitor general to take this back to the premier for reconsideration," Patience said. "I really don't even know what to say at this point, this absolutely blows me away."
Denis said he called but did not reach Patience before Wednesday's announcement.
The training centre, according to the Gazette, was to feature a five-storey residence building, classrooms, a mock courtroom and arrest processing unit, two indoor shooting ranges, one outdoor range, and mock urban, rural, and forest setups to run training scenarios.
The plan was to train 1,350 police and peace officer recruits beginning in the fall of 2014.
Wildrose Justice critic Shayne Saskiw said the fault lies squarely on Premier Alison Redford's government.
"They've been completely incompetent," said Saskiw. "There has been no due diligence. It's fiscal irresponsibility."
"It looks like under Premier Redford they're completely flip-flopping and don't have a grip on priorities or fiscal responsibility."
Saskiw wouldn't say if he believes the shutdown was politically motivated.
"We'll let people decide," he said.
However, Wildrose house leader Rob Anderson answered the question on Twitter, labelling the decision "Breathtaking incompetence and vindictiveness."
The opposition Liberals and NDP agreed with him.
“I am not surprised that this government has sunk to this level," said Liberal Justice critic Laurie Blakeman in a news release.
Blakeman said that politics aside, the numbers never added up for the police college, given that solid training facilities already existed for police in the major centres.
But Blakeman said it's still the people of Fort Macleod being left holding the bag.
"I’d say this is the right decision being made the wrong way," she said.
NDP critic Rachel Notley said the police chiefs have been questioning the viability of the facility on record for years, not just recently.
“This government appears to be throwing rural southern Alberta under the bus, and we have to assume that they’re doing so because southern Alberta almost threw them under the bus (by voting for Wildrose in the last election)," said Notley in a news release.
"Redford’s claims that she would do things differently appear to mean only that she’ll play the same old Conservative games more often.”
The decision to end the project came almost six years to the day when then solicitor general Harvey Cenaiko announced on Aug. 30, 2006, that Fort Macleod had beat out Camrose, Lac La Biche, and Red Deer County to build the college.
At the time, Cenaiko said it would be a state-of-the-art facility that would train members for front-line police work along with techniques in surveillance and wire-tapping. Not only municipal police, but sheriffs, prison guards, and fish and wildlife officers would also be trained there.
Cenaiko said it wasn't a political decision, even though the Tory MLA for the riding, Dave Coutts, joined him on stage for the announcement.
The Edmonton Police Association, representing rank and file officers, questioned the decision at the time, saying it didn't make sense to have police officers travel such a long distance to train.
Cenaiko insisted Fort Macleod was viable and such a centralized college imperative.
"It doesn't have to be in a centralized location. Police officers from Prince Edward Island have to drive to Regina if they want to join the RCMP," he said.