|Herald photo by Katie May
Fort Macleod Mayor Shawn Patience addresses a crowd of media and citizens Thursday to respond to the provinceÕs cancellation of the proposed police training centre. Construction at the site for the Alberta Public Safety and Law Enforcement Training Centre began three weeks before the province cancelled the project.
LETHBRIDGE HERALD - Fort Macleod
Gravestones protruded in the foreground as construction crews carried on installing service lines beside a cemetery for a now defunct provincial police college in Fort Macleod.
The symbolism wasn't lost on more than a hundred residents in the southern Alberta community of 3,100 who gathered Thursday afternoon at one of the sites where their town has invested more than $4 million to see the $122-million Alberta Public Safety and Law Enforcement Training Centre rise up as a cultural and economic boon to the region.
As their mayor spoke to a huddled pack of reporters, residents watched and waited, mourning the sudden death of a project the province had been planning for 13 years. It was a project local residents had hoped would spur local jobs, raise their property values, attract new residents and freshen up the frontier town's historic image. The site of Canada's first mounted police outpost would also have been a high-tech training ground for future police recruits.
Some, including eight-year Fort Macleod resident Gordon MacIvor, wore black arm bands to display the community's core-shaking sadness.
"This is like a death in the family," he said. "We've been betrayed."
The town is considering suing the province in the aftermath of the Alberta government's "devastating" decision Wednesday to scrap the police college, Mayor Shawn Patience said at a hastily organized press conference in front of the service line construction that the government approved just last month. It alone cost the town nearly $4 million and it's already half-finished, so Patience said the contract will be completed.
"We will now seek legal assistance to deal appropriately with this issue. We will explore all of our options on behalf of the taxpayers of this community not only to cover our losses but to mitigate potential future losses that have come as a result of this decision. We will do everything necessary," he said.
"There's a lot of people in this community that purchased homes, expanded businesses, bought businesses based on the fact that (as of) July 3 this project was announced that it would move ahead. We don't know yet what, if any, effect this will have on market values in this community. There's so much more to this. There's a moral aspect that I find appalling."
On Aug. 29, six years after choosing Fort Macleod as the home of the proposed training centre, Alberta's Solicitor General and Justice minister announced the government would pull the plug on funding. The project, deemed unnecessary and a waste of taxpayer money, would be cancelled.
Some large police forces, including in Calgary and Edmonton, and the RCMP backed the decision, saying they wouldn't have used the centre to train their recruits because of existing training programs.
Rod Knecht, president of the Alberta Association of Chiefs of Police, said he wasn't surprised by the government's decision.
"Money is tight for policing right now and the police college was talked about in the context of those priorities. I would say that some police chiefs considered it a high priority and others didn't," Knecht said, adding one of the top priorities for law enforcement in Alberta should be transportation of prisoners. "There's a number of pressures."
The decision still baffles Patience, who has nothing in writing apart from the Solicitor General's press release issued Wednesday afternoon.
"There were certain police agents in the province that weren't strongly supportive of this from the beginning, however, that has been widely known for seven years," he said.
"This really is an issue of poor planning at its finest and I gotta believe there will be repercussions far beyond our walls," Patience added, refusing to speculate on what those repercussions might be.
Fort Macleod remains united, the mayor emphasized - to a hollering of applause - and will keep fighting. The town plans to ask for a meeting with Premier Alison Redford.
"We're giving the premier a chance to reverse this decision. This is not being accepted well all over this province," he said.
"Municipalities and the people within them deserve a lot more respect than this community's been shown in the past couple of days and we are Albertans just as much as those that live in downtown Edmonton or sit on the Hill."
Town's businesses sent into a talespin
At the 320-acre construction site just south of town Thursday afternoon, crews loaded up their gear and retreated from the newly-built, fenced-in construction headquarters, having just received word they were no longer needed.
Jake Banman, a truck driver with Southern Excavating and Trucking, was part of a small crew abandoning the site after working for the past three weeks to prepare it for a multi-million-dollar construction project.
"We found out yesterday," he said. "It's pretty shocking that it ended so quickly."
Political leaders in the region aren't willing to accept that it's all over.
Wildrose Livingstone-Macleod MLA Pat Stier said his party expects to raise concerns about the Tories' fiscal management every day once the legislature starts back up in October.
"We're going to be working pretty hard on investigating this thing and looking at every avenue to oppose the decision," Stier said.
"If it's just a money problem, then why shelve these things? They were good projects, they were reconfirmed as late as just only a few weeks ago and we think that these kinds of projects should remain on the books and should be there waiting for when times are a little better, if that's the problem."
Reeve Henry Van Hierden of M.D. of Willow Creek said some in the region still hold out hope.
"We're in a vacuum right now," he said. "Everybody was watching the progress, everybody was happy that finally it was going. This is hard to describe, but it's a blow to everybody. Unbelievable."
Meanwhile, the bubble of new development the police college was to bring has burst.
Plans for new home-buyers and businesses to move into Fort Macleod - ideally to reap the proposed police college's economic spinoff - are falling through and fading away.
A big hotel chain was in talks to set up shop in town with a 60- to 80-room hotel and adjoining restaurant, according to Fort Macleod's economic development officer Martin Ebel. Now, it's just one of the dreams the town is kissing goodbye - along with a small retail store and at least one three-year-leased duplex for construction workers.
"Now we're the community that lost the police training centre, and then suddenly, you know, is Fort Macleod really that special in people's eyes? Well, hopefully, but we lose a big draw in that sense," Ebel said. "I've got other projects on the go, but nothing nearly in this scope. This was really a once in a lifetime kind of thing."
Earlier this year, the town had purchased a 33-acre plot of land to develop into a commercial and residential subdivision. Now, it won't be in high demand.
Dan Burrows, a real estate associate with McNab Realty Ltd., said his company had two real estate deals fold within hours of the province's cancellation announcement.
"It's tough to put a number on the economic disaster that's happening, but we don't get a lot of good things that show up in Fort Macleod and this (the college) was a pretty major deal for us," he said.
Now, fewer people are looking to buy in Fort Macleod and those trying to sell can expect to take a loss, Burrows said.
One of those people is Scott Norlin a longtime small business owner who sits on Fort Macleod's municipal planning commission. With plans for the college pushing ahead, he'd thought it would finally be the right time for him to sell his house and upgrade. Now, he's thinking again.
"It's been said that Fort Macleod will die because of this. But the thing is, we functioned beforehand without it," he said, retaining a sliver of optimism.
"We will slip backwards somewhat, and I hate to think that's going to happen because I'm a business owner here, but I think it's a reality. The wind is out of your sails now," he added.
"I hope that this is not the end. I hope that the premier will at least answer or respond to our mayor's comments today. I think we deserve some answers."