Alberta Politics
The Grande Prairie Regional Hospital construction site (Photo: Alberta Health Services).

The Grande Prairie Hospital saga: PC political motives, terrible planning, and past ministerial meddling haunt project

Posted on August 03, 2018, 1:57 am
10 mins

The battle between Alberta government officials and a Calgary construction company over long delays building a new hospital in Grande Prairie that boiled over this week is more than a mere political he-said/she-said story.

There’s a backstory that started the late days of Alberta’s 44-year Tory Dynasty – partly acknowledged earlier this week, interestingly, by a former Progressive Conservative infrastructure minister who now sits as a United Conservative Party MLA.

NDP Infrastructure Minister Sandra Jansen (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

How bad are the delays and cost overruns at the still-unfinished regional hospital and cancer centre in the northwest Alberta oilpatch supply centre?

Well, the $763-million-plus facility was initially supposed to cost $250 million. Later that became $520 million before costs escalated to their present estimate. They will likely be higher by the time the dust settles. The hospital was supposed to be finished circa 2015. Now 2019 is starting to look like a reach.

The seemingly never-ending saga officially became a brouhaha on Monday when the province announced it had issued a notice of default to Calgary-based Graham Construction, giving the company 15 days to come up with a plan to get the job done or face termination.

Former PC premier Ed Stelmach (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

“This is a very serious step and not something we are doing lightly,” said NDP Infrastructure Minister Sandra Jansen, who used to be a Tory, in the government’s press release. “We have worked closely with the construction manager to resolve the issues but the bottom line is simply that the hospital is not progressing as it should.”

Yesterday, Graham Construction pushed back, saying in a statement to media the delays are the fault of the province, the result of “slapdash planning, poor budgeting and bad faith negotiations,” as the Canadian Press summarized the complaint.

The Infrastructure Ministry’s approach is just going to make things worse, the company argued, asserting the government is shooting the messenger because the department refuses to address “the real issues, including design management, budget alignment and the responsibilities and obligations” that are its job under the contract.

Later yesterday, Ms. Jansen responded, saying Graham Construction shouldn’t have signed its amended contract with the government in 2016 if it didn’t feel the job could be done on time or within budget.

The most interesting twist was added Tuesday, though, when Wayne Drysdale, UCP MLA for Grande Prairie-Wapiti and Progressive Conservative infrastructure minister under premiers Alison Redford and Dave Hancock, was surprisingly frank in an interview with a local news website called Everything GP.

Maybe it was because he doesn’t plan to seek re-election in the provincial election expected next year. Whatever the reason, Mr. Drysdale old Everything GP reporter Glory Przekop that the project was in trouble from the get-go in 2011.

“It was a different way of doing a project, it was kind of a fast-tracked thing, a design and build as you go,” he explained. “Given the circumstances, they wanted to fast track it and tried something different.”

Former PC infrastructure minster Wayne Drysdale (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

“It was a poor way to build a project to start with, but we didn’t know that at the time,” Mr. Drysdale went on.

Surprisingly for a Conservative MLA, he even came to the defence of Ms. Jansen, who is hated in some quarters of the UCP for crossing the floor to join the NDP after she was hounded out of the PC leadership race by supporters of Jason Kenney. Mr. Kenney, of course, is now leader of the UCP.

“Unfortunately, this got dumped on us, including the now-minister,” Mr. Drysdale said. “She’s got it dumped on her and is trying to get it finished.”

I don’t have to tell regular followers of the Alberta political scene how unusual this kind statement is, even if Mr. Drysdale is being a little too charitable to previous Conservative governments in his interpretation of the process.

It was fast tracked all right, but not as an experiment in construction management. It was prematurely announced and hurried into construction in 2011 by a PC Party that faced a serious challenge from the Wildrose Party on its right.

Desperate to beat back the Wildrose challenge, the government of premier Ed Stelmach announced five major hospital projects in areas outside Alberta’s two largest cities – in Grande Prairie, High Prairie, Edson, Lethbridge and Medicine Hat.

It was a cynical (if politically understandable) ploy to shore up PC support in ridings that were vulnerable to the Wildrose Party led by Danielle Smith, which was being portrayed by mainstream media as an upstart conservative party “soaring” in the polls. (One poll for much of that time actually, but panic is as panic does.)

Former PC Premier Alison Redford (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Remembering this is the key to understanding the problems that have bedevilled the Grande Prairie hospital project ever since – under Ms. Redford’s calamitous leadership from the fall of 2011 to March 2014, under the brief Tory premierships of Mr. Hancock and Jim Prentice, and under Rachel Notley’s NDP government since the spring of 2015.

The PCs rushed to have equipment dig holes so they could pose in front of them. Planning seems to have been so poor they actually started construction before they knew exactly what they planned to put in the hospital, and where. You could argue that was an innovative approach to contract management, but at this point surely such an innovation must be deemed a failure!

To compound the problem, a series of Conservative infrastructure and health ministers kept moving the goalposts, changing the scope and priorities of the plan. So this part of Graham Construction’s complaint, at least, seems justified, whether or not company officials like Alberta Infrastructure officials working for an NDP government holding their feet to the fire now to get the job done.

Through 2011, developments in the Grande Prairie hospital project and those in the other communities were regularly updated with a stream of enthusiastic government press releases as the Stelmach and Redford governments geared up for the spring 2012 election.

In the event, though, Ms. Redford’s government wasn’t saved by hospital construction sites. It was redeemed by a Lake of Fire, the notorious bozo eruption in the 2012 election campaign that burned the Wildrose Party’s chances to the ground.

Safely in office for another term, Mr. Drysdale was quoted in an October 2012 news release lauding the “innovative” nature of the Grande Prairie project. In the same release, health minister Fred Horne said, “details on the services that should be provided by were developed after extensive consultation with area health professionals.”

Maybe so, but if so they also seem to have been developed well after the hole was dug, and the sign touting Ms. Redford’s leadership was installed. But then, perhaps that’s what passed for innovation in the late days of Alberta’s long-ruling Conservative dynasty.

Are there any useful lessons here?

One is probably that the Infrastructure Ministry and the NDP are not wrong to take a hard line to get the project completed and the hospital operating as soon as possible without burning through any more money than necessary.

Another might be for us to think about what Mr. Kenney is really saying when he criticizes the governments of NDP Premier Notley and Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for wanting to do the preparation work on the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project properly before they start laying the pipe.

Who knows where that pipe might end up if we followed past Conservative project planning practices?

10 Comments to: The Grande Prairie Hospital saga: PC political motives, terrible planning, and past ministerial meddling haunt project

  1. Bob Raynard

    August 3rd, 2018

    Kudos to Mr. Drysdale for his candour. Jason Kenney will be ticked, however, since it undermines his opportunity to blame it on the NDP.

    I can’t get my head around what the construction contract would have looked like. Build to this stage then we will negotiate the next phase? What if they can’t reach an agreement on Phase II? Hire a second contractor for Phase II, then wait while the 2 contractors blame each other for deficiencies? (The reason the walls Contractor 2 built cracked is because Contractor 1’s foundation was inadequate)

    I am also wondering about why Graham was willing to be involved in this scheme. At first I thought they had a cozy relationship with the PCs, so they knew subsequent negotiations would go well, but if the Wildrose was nipping on the heels of the PCs, did Graham also have a budding relationship with the Wildrose?

    This article took some digging on your part, David. Thanks for doing it.

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      August 3rd, 2018

      An archive of Alberta Infrastructure news releases is found here: http://www.infrastructure.alberta.ca/3875.htm

      Infrastructure news releases under the NDP government are found here: http://www.infrastructure.alberta.ca/2980.htm

      What is very striking from the first list is how many news releases the Stelmach Government and the Redford Government in particular published on the topic of hospital developments in 2011 and 2012. By comparison, the NDP Government (unwisely?) has been much less inclined to use government services to toot its own horn.

      DJC

      Reply
  2. Mike

    August 3rd, 2018

    Mr. Drysdale is a down-to-earth, straight-shooter, no B.S., honest, respectful, humble person. Too bad he’s retiring as an MLA, because our province could use more MLAs like him.

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      August 3rd, 2018

      Completely agree. DJC

      Reply
  3. Jerrymacgp

    August 3rd, 2018

    As a longtime resident of the Grande Prairie area, as well as a health system insider, I can add to the backstory on this saga. The new hospital currently under construction on a site roughly across the old Hwy 43 bypass from Grande Prairie Regional College (GPRC), is not the original plan announced by the former Peace Country Health (PCH) board in 2007 (https://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/move-over-fort-mac-a-new-boomtown-is-born/article17995996/; http://www.assembly.ab.ca/lao/library/egovdocs/2008/altrb/164449.pdf—see page 42 of PDF file). I still recall attending a presentation for PCH staff, held in the Auditorium of the QE II Hospital at the time.

    The plan then was for a site in northwest Grande Prairie, on the north side of the 132 Ave and 108 St intersection, east of the Bear Creek Golf Club. There was a 60-acre parcel of land, owned by a local developer, Henry Hamm, who had offered to donate 40 acres to PCH for the hospital; the rest of the parcel was envisioned to be developed into a retail & service campus for the hospital area—pharmacies and the like. That area of the city was still largely undeveloped and road access was expected to be easily expanded to accommodate the needs of the hospital. As for the facility design itself, I don’t recall much about it, except that it was to have a roof-mounted helipad and express elevator to Emergency, ICU & the OR. Parking was also expected to be generous, which is a major limitation of the current QE II hospital on 98 St.

    Not longer after the formation of AHS in 2009, however, this entire plan was kiboshed by the new organization. You may recall that early in its existence, AHS pursued a concerted campaign to erase from history anything that reeked of “l’ancien régime” (well, I may be engaging in a bit of hyperbole here, but this was a theme that continued…remember “We Are One”?). IMHO the new Grande Prairie hospital project was a casualty of that campaign. When they announced the current site in 2011, it was as though the previous plan had never existed. Construction didn’t actually begin until the Alison Redford era, and in fact her name didn’t come off the signage outside the site until earlier this year.

    There are both advantages and downsides to the current site. One positive is its proximity to GPRC. Nursing and other health care students will have ready access to the new hospital. One negative is that it sits very close to the glide path of one of the GP Airport’s two runways, and so has to be built low (only three storeys), and cannot have a rooftop helipad. This combined with new hospital construction standards mandating 100% private rooms, means that it has a huge, sprawling footprint, looking much bigger than its roughly 200 beds. Anyone seeing it could easily mistake it for a tertiary care centre. Road access will also be interesting. The current site is on the old bypass, which the city’s phenomenal growth has rendered a joke; there is now a new Hwy 43X bypass (one quarter of a ring road) being built far outside the city limits, from Clairmont to west of the airport. The current bypass, which will be handed over to the City once the new one opens for traffic, is a very high-traffic corridor for everything from commuters, retail and shopping traffic, and heavy industrial traffic. Not all of that will end up on the new highway: the current “bypass” also connects to Hwy 40, which runs south to Grande Cache and Hinton and is a major oilpatch and forestry corridor.

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      August 5th, 2018

      Thanks for this, Jerry. Very useful history. DJC

      Reply
  4. Bob Raynard

    August 3rd, 2018

    This issue has me thinking more about Mr. Drysdale’s candour, and his retirement circumstances. Mr. Drysdale has been in politics long enough that he had to know his candour would deprive the UCP of scoring some political points, yet he made his comments anyway. I went back and read some news stories about Mr. Drysdale’s retirement, and certainly got the same impression Mike expressed above. I suspect both Mike and our host would be happy to accept a friendly amendment of adding ‘classy’ to the description.

    I am wondering how comfortable Mr. Drysdale is in Jason Kenney’s caucus. Mr. Drysdale did not support Mr. Kenney’s leadership bid, and when he (Drysdale) was a minister it was with fairly progressive premiers. It is certainly plausible, then, that Drysdale and Kenney did not see eye to eye politically.

    Assuming Mr. Drysdale’s nice guy persona is real, it must also be difficult for him to watch Jason Kenney’s sleaze tactics, especially with regards to the bullying Sandra Jansen endured. Given the years he spent in caucus with Ms. Jansen, it is probably safe to assume they had a cordial personal relationship. He must have felt dirty after caucus meetings when Kenney et al shared their comments about a woman Drysdale knew to be a good person.

    When announcing his retirement, Mr. Drysdale made positive comments about the UCP and Jason Kenney, as a classy person would in a retirement announcement. Was he motivated by true feelings, or just not wanting to tarnish his departure with shots at Kenney? How much of Mr. Drysdale’s retirement is motivated by not wanting to have to deal with Jason Kenney? Speaking in Sandra Jansen’s defense on the hospital issue allowed Wayne Drysdale to stay on the classy high ground while giving him the satisfaction of undermining Mr. Kenney.

    Reply
    • Jerrymacgp

      August 4th, 2018

      Mr Raynard: having met Mr Drysdale on a number of occasions, not least because he’s my own MLA, I think I can assure you his “nice guy persona”is indeed genuine. There is no artifice with Wayne. He’s an example that there can be decent conservatives.

      Reply
  5. Mike in Edmonton

    August 3rd, 2018

    Amazing, isn’t it? So many times, people get fed up with conservative governments and give them the boot–and then blame the progressive government they voted in for problems the conservatives caused. (Usually with a push from neocon media!)

    Reply
  6. Steve

    August 5th, 2018

    Having live in the capital region for many years and worked on so many Gov projects, unfortunately disastrous project is actually quite a norm and One can even smell it before it happens (it’s like common knowledge apparently). As much as there are responsibilities that are cause by the vendor, the other party that never gets mentioned are the bureaucrats who are responsible for managing and governance of these kind of projects. The problem is they tend like to play internal politics, build their fiefdoms, then shift blame when things go sour so they can protect their job. It just unfortunate that things like these gets into the media, the elected officials then have to show their face but really don’t have the context as to how something like this could happen.

    I think they really need to tie bureaucrats performance with project performance regardless of who is to blame.

    Reply

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