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?

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      1. Sorry; couldn’t pass up Blooszy’s bent ideas on socialism. He’s obviously Alberta born.

        Alberta is compared to Norway, A country which has had a socialist government in place since its origins when it broke away from Sweden. At that time they never had a common or national language! Dialect changed from village to village. Wasn’t anything like you have seen on TV.

        This same socialist government initiated the oil industry in Norway (by now they had installed a national language) and they have hundreds of billions of dollars in offshore banks, put off shore to protect their smaller industry in the country. They are now the Bankers for Europe!

        They live with an economy of scale. (You usually hear this term when Conservatives are making excuses) A hamburger will cost you 50.00; the person serving you makes 100,000 dollars a year and McDonalds pulls it all together as do other small businesses!. They offer free university education for those who want it!.

        The Alberta Conservatives got a majority Government in place with 23% of the vote! Norway turns out 70% of the vote every election! They keep their Governments honest.

        Conservatives cut services as being too hard on industry many of which don’t’ survive a year.

        In our present situation our Government is broke having ripped off over 700 billion from the Heritage Trust fund using it as tax money of which oil was the biggest benefactor.

        The 10% flat tax hits the lower and middle income people for the bulk of this provinces taxes while industry skates! Prentice says he will not change our tax system to the same as the rest of Canada uses (a progressive tax system.)

        That means he has no new income unless he taxes individuals, you and I. He has done this by tapping into the power line construction for a billion or so.

        AIMCO are not prone to error. Yet they just declared a billion dollar error in pipeline cost estimates.

        #His latest move is to tap the power line build for billions for operating capital.

        AESO tellus us our power bills are going up 30.00 a month with no time limits on how long this charge will stay on and no reasons given for the charges.

        There are 1.5 million meters spinning in this province that is 45 million dollars a month; 540 million dollars a year and 2.7 billion over the next 10 years.

        He has no mandate to do that either but it doesn’t stop him from hitting the middle and low income families for his finances. Yet, he refuses to put our corporate taxes at the same level as other provinces!

        Also he has a small army of posters out now to counter posts either by sheer weight of numbers or by making stilly tin hat posts that run the subject matter off the pages.

        Stelmach said it best in his last debate “We are Conservatives; we are not like these other guys”

        You have an election coming shortly; if you want to pay all the taxes this crew levies on you don’t bother to vote. If on the other hand you would like to shape this province like Norway with its hundreds of billions in the bank, get off your arses and vote! If you want a change where working people get a representation, vote NDP with me. They need a healthy industry as does every other party. They are not the scary beasts the Conservatives in their great fear would have you believe.

    1. So you think he’s a socialist because he thinks subsidizing rich business groups with tax money is not the place of government?

    2. David, you and I see eye to eye on this one. The Chamber of Commerce, which is set up to serve its members, wants the taxpayers, vast majority homeowners to pay for its palace. We spend money at the businesses to support them. They are supposed to make a living from us. Then their chamber which they pay dues to represents them. So the Chamber (the business owners in St. Albert) want the taxpayers to anted up again and pay for a building to do what? This is utterly ridiculous. I may not see eye to eye on every issue with you, but you can be darn sure I am on this one. If our council decides to ante up 500K to $5 million for this project, they are either stupid(the thing I am thinking right now) or corrupt (maybe?). Where does it end. David, any idea where there are towns close to us we can seek refuge in?

      1. Ted: I think this is unfair to Council. We don’t know how they’re going to vote on this. Hopefully, common sense will prevail and they will say, “thanks, but no thanks.” It’s very helpful that people are speaking up with their concerns. As for potential places of refuge, nearby or otherwise, we’d have to go a long way to escape ideas like this. DJC

  1. What would the chamber say if the local district labour council made the exact same proposal? Hypocrisy and entitlement, pure and simple.

    1. This is a great idea, Todd. I’ll talk to the Edmonton & District Labour Council. I’m sure they would be happy to move their offices to St. Albert for a nice building like this. And they could offer a much better deal … say, $2 a year for a century! How could local businesses complain? Lots of labour guys in this town, remember.

  2. ^ Brian: How would you characterize these requests from a supposedly conservative organization as anything other than socialist? Isn’t socialism where “everybody” pays for the wishes of the “leaders”? Seems like you’re supporting the very thing you’re attempting to criticize.

  3. Very interesting, it seems the public loses either way. The chamber gets there building paid for or we end up building more city office space for a library that is rapidly becoming obsolete.

  4. This is so typical of fiscal conservatives and business. They complain loudly about public funding of services but are first inline with their hands out out for public funding of their projects. Sounds more like capitalism than socialism. If the C of C want this building let their members build it with no pubic funding and rent out space. Interest rates are low and surely with the business acumen present in the C of C it can work out a solid business plan and obtain financing.

    I would like to know where the St Albert Taxpayers Association stands on this issue. The SATA battle cry to keep taxes low is built on the ideas of public funding for needs, not wants, that benefit the majority of taxpayers and not pandering to special interest groups. How does this project measure up against these criteria?

    Council discussion of this should be interesting. I wonder where the two fiscally conservative councillors whom many residents feel are the only ones that truly represent residents and who are likely favoured by C of C and SATA members, will fall on this issue.

  5. I walked down to city hall after I read this story and was shocked to see how close the outsized structure proposed by the Chamber would be to our beautiful, historic city hall. It would literally overshadow the building designed by Douglas Cardinal, a major tourist attraction for St. Albert, and would leave the front of city hall in shadow almost all day long all year round plus make St. Anne St. look like a dark canyon or something you’d find in lower Manhattan. The architect’s drawing handed around by the Chamber (intentionally?) makes the building look smaller and more open than it would in fact be. Local news stories also suggested the Chamber was talking about building an elevated walkway to city hall. You can forget that too. The architect has an agreement from the city that no such changes to his building can be made without his approval, and there’s no way he would agree to such an ugly monstrosity as an add-on. A parking lot may not be the best use for the space across the street from city hall, but this idea sucks bigtime!

  6. What an ARROGANT group. Have we heard this type of rip off before. YUP Katz and Edmonton’s Arena. If taxpayers do not speak up they get what they deserve. Too bad the rest have to be dragged along.

  7. Great job on this post, David-and as Ted Durham indicated, St. Albert Taxpayers Association supporters would be right there with you. I’d be shocked if the SATA supporters on Council voted in favour of this-if they’ve held true to their roots, they would be just as opposed to this as you and I are. This goes against the grain of what SATA tended to typically oppose, namely expensive projects that benefit too few people to really justify the expense, particularly when those limited resources would be better spent on things like infrastructure and social services, including supports for the disabled and lower-income families, that would benefit a much larger share of the population.

    P.S.: Brian, you’re an idiot. David may not have gotten elected to Council, but even after following his blog for the last few years I can’t say I’ve ever seen him advocate for nationalizing the economy, which I’ve always understood to be one of the hallmarks of socialism.

    Besides, if you actually bother to look at the election results, David finished squarely in the middle of the pack, ahead of more conservative candidates like Mark Cassidy and Norm Harley. Harley, especially, made the idea of eliminating two city departments the main plank of his platform…

    …and he came in dead last.

    1. Jared;

      As one who voted for Norm, I don’t think you can classify the vote total purely on ideology for a council race. Many of us urged Norm to invest more time and money in the campaign. If he had done so I know he would have had a better result. For Malcolm Parker and Dave Climenhaga I think they ran about the best campaigns they could have. In there case I think Ideology did come into play. The public is tired of economic development spending (IE this chamber building) in the case of Parker and in the case of Climenhaga we have had enough of politicians enriching government unions at our expense.

  8. David, it would be interesting to hear what Douglas Cardinal would say in regards to a 5 story building across from St. Albert’s City Hall. An interesting observation has anyone noticed any artist concept of this Chamber monstrosity is taken ‘looking down’ on it. If one was to see what the site would look like at ground level with both buildings in the concept, perhaps one would see just how overpowering it would be. I think Moffat and her gang should styay just where they are.

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