By Rob Vogt, Local Press Writer
The Town of Claresholm’s Facilities and Infrastructure Planning Committee has changed the town’s draft parks and recreation master plan to include two exercise parks with the formal approval of the chamber of commerce, one each on the east and west sides of town, which is an increase of one on the east side.
The decision came at the committee’s Aug. 24 meeting at the Claresholm Community Centre, which almost 20 people attended.
Donna Courage, president of the Claresholm and District Chamber of Commerce, then appeared as a delegation to discuss her proposal for fitness parks.
She said town council has always been on side with the parks, but wondered why the parks and recreation master plan contains one park and not the two she proposed and has been raising funds for.
She outlined what she has done so far, including having 200 surveys on the plan filled out by citizens, and gathering 459 signatures for a petition to have the two exercise parks.
“All I want to know is why?” she asked of the reduction in the plan from two parks to one.
Mayor Rob Steel, who chaired the meeting, then opened the floor to questions and comments.
Howard Evans asked if all the committee members were elected.
Steel replied they were all members of council with the exception of Doug Priestley, who is a member at large from the public. He also noted much of the council’s work starts at the committee level first.
“This is committee work we’re doing today to send something to council,” Steel said.
Iqbal Nurmohamed said he has seen these parks in other communities, and observed there is an opportunity with grants, for two parks.
“Why don’t you take this opportunity?” he asked.
Paul Champion asked the committee why free is no good, in terms of the proposal for two exercise parks at no cost to the town.
Harold Seymour said if he ever lived at the Porcupine Hills Lodge, located on the east side of town, it would be enjoyable to go to an exercise park on the east side. He felt Courage had done a lot of work, seen one at Okotoks, and it seemed the parks would not be a lot of work to maintain.
“Hopefully this council will give that a second thought,” he said.
Vivienne O’Neill also asked why the change from two exercise parks to one.
Ali Shivji said this issue has a lot of emotion, and everyone there was passionate about the community.
“I know everyone’s working hard and for the people of Claresholm,” he said. The issue seemed to be zero or two parks, based on grants, not one.
He asked if there was sort of compromise. Could the parks be phased in? Maybe the parks can be put in the plan and one can be built now and one later, within the parameters of the grant. That way the town can assess how much the park is used.
Steel then addressed the issue of process. In February, Courage came to council on behalf of the chamber. Council was receptive to her proposal, responding to support the idea and refer the whole idea to committee.
In his 10 years as mayor, he has never seen a process more open.
“This has been one of the most inclusive processes,” Steel said.
“We respect your input,” he later added.
However, other input has been these parks are not needed or wanted.
The process was to continue, but Steel said it was de-railed by an inappropriate affront to town council by a special interest group.
He then asked Marian Carlson, the town’s chief administrative officer, to explain the process. She said it started with council asking administration to develop a recreation master plan.
“It’s all encompassing for recreation needs in the community,” she said.
At the time of Courage’s proposal, the town was meeting numerous organizations in town to talk about the plan. “We have garnered public input from the beginning of the development of this plan,” she said.
The town looked at design and potential location for the exercise parks amid this process. It then went to committee for discussion and amendment.
A lot of public input was received, via an online and hard copy survey.
“We tried to be as inclusive as we possibly could,” Carlson said.
It was a months-long process, with the feedback now being taken back to committee.
From a governance perspective, she continued, the plan works through committee to council. Once the plan reaches the council level it is beyond a draft, and ready for approval.
“No one has ever opposed two fitness parks,” Steel said, adding the concern is no one will even use them. He suggested starting with one and seeing what happens.
“It should never have got to council yet,” he said, because it is still in committee.
He was also discouraged by the way council was treated.
“It was very disappointing to me,” he said.
Steel then said he will be candid. He has heard lots of comments in the community these parks are an odd fit for the chamber.
“It’s a bit of a stretch,” he said. “Projects of the chamber could be better directed – that was my thought.”
He also wondered how much support the project had from its members.
“I’m not sure there is a great groundswell of support from the chamber of commerce,” Steel said.
He added the town cannot support a project if it is not officially adopted by that organization.
He referred to groups such as the curling and golf clubs, minor hockey, and the Kin groups who are involved in recreation projects.
“We know those groups are supporting them,” Steel said.
He then read from chamber minutes and found no motion supporting the exercise parks, and asked if there is one to show it to him.
Steel also stressed it is not only important to support fitness parks but also to support local businesses.
People pay to go to exercise facilities in town.
“I thought it was important those people need to be consulted,” Steel said.
He said he spoke with them and they were not happy with the proposal, or happy with the process within the chamber which they said was not democratic.
“We need to support our local business,” Steel said, adding they need to communicate with the people involved.
Val Umschied said she pays to belong to the chamber, and the president chose to do something in complete opposition to what the chamber should be doing.
She said she had been called petty and myopic by a letter in the newspaper, and is not either of those. She is objecting because this project is not something the chamber should be doing, nor is supported by its members.
Courage said every president has a personal project, and this is hers. It will not cost the chamber anything. Moreover, without community you have no business.
She pointed to the 32 letters of support she has received, including some from local businesses. She also noted a lot of communities have fitness parks and gyms, and no one has gone bankrupt.
She added the fitness park could be a stepping stone to a gym membership, and it is not hurting them.
Courage also pointed out she is not bringing being chamber president into this, but is doing this project as a citizen, and she does not want to forget the citizens on the east side.
Steel said that for clarity, this came to council as an initiative of the chamber.
“This is my project,” Courage said, adding the chamber executive supports it and it was discussed at the chamber.
Steel asked if a formal motion was approved. Speaking from a procedural perspective, a motion is needed.
Champion asked if the chamber brought in a new business, would the committee ask all the other businesses if that was okay? He also asked if the committee was determined to stand on procedure.
Steel said they were seeking full community input, and they would not be bullied into any decision by a special interest group.
“My friends and council were bullied at the last council meeting,” he said.
He repeated he is not opposed to fitness parks, just supports one not two.
Nurmohamed said if you look at the 400-plus signatures on the petition, surely other businesses support the fitness parks. Plus, a chamber in a small town does get involved in the community. He pointed to several community initiatives the chamber has donated financially to.
Steel said a formal motion is required in order to apply for grants.
“It can be construed as fraud (otherwise),” he said.
He also does not like to discriminate east or west, or seniors or other potential users, noting it divides the community.
“It doesn’t build community,” Steel said.
He then read a letter submitted by Shauna Anderson, because she could not attend the meeting.
She said the president spearheading this project puts her in direct violation of the purpose of the chamber, which is to promote the businesses of Claresholm and to encourage and attract new businesses. She asked if the chamber supported the project and if a vote was taken.
She also said she was assured the owner of a gym was supportive, but Anderson knew for a fact they are not supportive, and said Courage had engaged in at least one bullying and unprofessional tactic to get people to sign her petition.
Courage responded she suggested these people could put up signs at these parks or hold fitness classes there.
Coun. Jamie Cutler then said everyone should sit quietly to let everyone else speak, which was not always happening. The only time someone is allowed to speak is when the chair recognizes them.
Later, Shivji asked if the project can be approved as pending, because there is a timeline for grants.
Steel responded there is no point in supporting a project if the sponsoring group does not support it.
“I’m not doing this for myself, I’m doing it for the town,” Courage said, adding if she needs chamber support she will get it.
Cutler then spoke for some clarification. The project started in October, and came to council in February. None of this would have occurred if the organizers consulted with council right away.
“We have a process we have to follow,” he said, and cannot fast track any proposal.
Cutler went on to say council was never against parks nor giving two parks. In fact, council gave a letter of support for the parks with further review by administration.
At the last town council meeting, when Courage’s contingent appeared, Cutler said council could not speak because it only speaks to items on the agenda, and it had to start, by law, at 7 p.m.
As for letters in the newspaper, accusing him of being rude, nowhere was there rude or ignoring behaviour.
“We would never say do not come,” Cutler said.
He concluded by saying there is no such thing as free parks. They are paid for by grants, and the town’s part is the contribution of land, maintenance, and upkeep.
Craig Zimmer said everyone had a steep learning curve on this issue, and suggested maybe one park is the way to go for now. He asked if the process can be started for one now, because even if built this season, few would use it in November.
“Maybe we can start a new grant,” he said, observing all this head butting is getting nowhere.
Steel asked Courage if this compromise would work.
“No,” she responded.
Susan Holland asked if Courage was informed she needed chamber approval, and that she would not be on the town council agenda.
Steel replied she was informed because the issue had not reached the council level yet.
Holland then asked if the petition could be presented as a sign of support.
Cutler said there is nothing to petition yet, because no decision has been made.
He also said they are looking at only one fitness park because Patterson Park on the east side is not even equipped for exercise equipment.
Champion asked if the committee is bound and determined not to approve this proposal.
Steel said it was still in the discussion phase, emphasizing they were talking about a draft plan.
Coun. Betty Fieguth then moved to change the parks and recreation master plan to include two fitness parks to be done in 2017 conditional on the chamber of commerce approval of this project and subject to funding.
Cutler said he does not want to lose any grants and would like to further investigate if the grants are tied to location and timeline, or if one can be built first.
The committee all voted in favour except Steel, who was opposed, and Coun. Shelley Ford who was absent.
Steel said he was opposed because the local fitness businesses were not consulted and one park seems reasonable.
Coun. Lyal O’Neill said he supported the motion because this is still a draft plan and there will be more discussion.
By Rob Vogt, Local Press Writer