PHOTOS: An architect’s drawing of the St. Albert Chamber of Commerce’s proposed tax-subsidized building. Below: Downtown St. Albert – the arrows mark the location of the proposed structure; a detail of St. Albert’s beautiful City Hall, across the street from the prime lot the Chamber wants us to give it for $1 a year for a century.
ST. ALBERT, Alberta
Tax and spend conservatives – the way they see it, there’s never a bad time to ask for a handout!
Alberta may be suffering what our premier insists is the gravest financial crisis since Bible Bill Aberhart tried to save us from the Great Depression, but the local Chamber of Commerce here in St. Albert is asking, literally, for a century of subsidies to build itself a luxurious new headquarters across St. Anne Street from City Hall in the city’s downtown.
If I read the story in yesterday’s edition of the local community newspaper correctly, the St. Albert Chamber of Commerce wants us taxpaying citizens to pay for its new five-storey headquarters; give it the prime city land on which it would be built for a dollar a year for the next 99 years, or just for a dollar; give up our free parking at City Hall, the Arden Theatre and the public library; pay it through subsidies and fees for the replacement parking it wants to build as part of the development; and rent space back from it for city offices.
“Proposed Chamber building designed to make money,” says the headline on the St. Albert Gazette’s website. No kidding! But for whom? Not us taxpayers, that’s for sure.
As a spokesperson for the Chamber told the local paper, “we are trying to grow and expand and this is a long-term way of doing that and providing sustainability.” Their sustainability, that is. Not ours.
Readers need to remember that St. Albert is a bedroom suburb of Edmonton, with a population of about 65,000. For all intents and purposes it is part of the metropolitan economic area. There are advantages to being a separate municipality, but there are also real costs and disadvantages.
St. Albert’s municipal taxes are among the highest in Alberta, borne mainly by residential taxpayers, and this has been a constant source of complaining among a large number of voters, including, I would wager, almost all members of the Chamber.
The Chamber will no doubt argue that by subsidizing it through our taxes, which would certainly have to grow to finance this dubious project, we would help increase the number of businesses in town, and therefore the percentage of taxes paid by businesses.
But this is highly unlikely. As the Chamber admits, about half the businesses in the city aren’t members, and it can’t sustain itself through its membership fees and fund-raising activities like the St. Albert public market, which it runs with a substantial if invisible subsidy from the city.
It also claims a new downtown headquarters would increase revenues for businesses already in the neighbourhood. This is probably true, but the impact would be small and limited to a few addresses in a restricted area.
Businesses that can serve any part of the Edmonton region, meanwhile, are going to continue to locate in cheaper parts of Edmonton. A luxurious new headquarters for the St. Albert Chamber, no matter who pays for it, is unlikely to change that.
If the Chamber is in such difficulty it can’t operate without tax subsidies, it should raise its membership fees or petition to join the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce.
We also need to remember that the Chamber of Commerce is a classic special interest group. It boasts about this, with the local paper telling us it’s “strongly involved in advocating on provincial and federal levels.”
Indeed it is. It pushes for increased and easier access to temporary foreign workers, for example, with a presentation by a local fast-food business owner on its website. It lobbies for lower business taxes, part of the financial problem locally and province-wide. It even advocates allowing business owners from out of town to vote in municipal elections!
It goes without saying that most members of the local Chamber are fully supportive of Premier Jim Prentice’s talk of cutting the salaries, reducing the pensions and restricting the workplace rights of the thousands of nurses, teachers and other public employees who live and pay taxes in this community. Its members also doubtless support raising the university tuition paid by those taxpayers’ children, the ones who will have trouble finding jobs in a tighter economy thanks to all those TFWs Chamber members love to hire.
So, to summarize, the Chamber wants us to give it probably the most valuable single piece of land in our community for $1 a year for 99 years. Or just for $1, period.
It wants us to continue to pay the freight for servicing that land throughout that 99 years.
It wants us to give up our free parking in front of our main municipal building, one of Alberta’s greatest cultural assets and public library in return for access to their indoor parking stalls, for which we will have to pay each time we use them in perpetuity. We’ll also, by the way, have to pay for the higher policing costs of a darkened, multi-storey indoor parking garage hidden from the street.
It wants us to rent office space from it for city departments – presumably at commercial rates that will increase as the oil price trough fades into memory.
It wants us to front the money it needs for the $40- to $50-million cost of the building, not just through our municipal taxes, but through provincial and federal taxes as well.
And it wants us to pay for everything for the first 20 years – a time line that is bound to recede over the horizon as the end draws close.
Oh, and if the project fails, it wants to be sure it’s us left holding the bag!
What’s wrong with this picture? More to the point, what’s not wrong with it?
If the City of St. Albert needs a new building, it should build one itself.
Heaven knows, interest rates have never been any lower, and we taxpayers would own the asset. We could even rent space back to the Chamber of Commerce and produce a little revenue to keep our high taxes down!
In addition to more municipal office space, for which a good case can be made, we could build the new public library St. Albert desperately needs.
And we could do it all for considerably less than the cost of building a Taj Mahal for a well-off special interest group, then paying for the next century to keep it in operation so it can lobby governments to cut public services and throw even more of the tax burden onto municipalities.
There’s a very vocal and active anti-tax group in this city that in the last municipal election managed to elect two of its activists to city council, one for a second term, one for a first.
Now, the anti-taxers and the Chamber, while they share a conservative philosophy, do not agree on every single point. So it will be very interesting to see where their two councillors come down on this expensive scheme. If they are true to what they said when they were campaigning, and what they’ve said ever since, they will oppose it.
Council’s other five members, including Mayor Nolan Crouse, haven’t yet indicated where they stand on this idea since the Chamber made a presentation to them at last Monday’s meeting. They need to do the math and oppose it too.
The Chamber’s spokesperson, meanwhile, told the local paper he’s “not heard one person say this is a ridiculous idea.” He was referring, as you would expect, just to the Chamber’s 900 members. Just the same, let me be the first: This isn’t just ridiculous, given the timing it’s thoroughly offensive.
If the Chamber wants a building, let it buy the land itself for its true value and figure out how to finance the project. That’s how the market its members love so much is supposed to work, isn’t it?