RMWB council approves DRIP expansion, but concerns raised about costs

Council approved expanding a program that already spent $9.1 million downtown, but concerns about the program’s costs and effectiveness were raised.

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Council has approved a $2.4-million expansion of a grant program that improves the look of downtown buildings.

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Supporters of the program told council the program has been a success since it was approved by council in June 2020. But concerns were raised about the costs of the program and whether it has been a success for bringing people downtown.

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The Downtown Revitalization Program (DRIP) has been used for everything from painting facades and upgrading patios to commissioning murals and starting gardens. As of Tuesday’s council meeting, DRIP has approved $9.1 million for 275 projects at buildings across downtown Fort McMurray.

The grants fund up to half of a project’s budget. Funding is provided after construction and an inspection by the municipality. The expansion includes 18 months to complete projects instead of 12 months. Projects for improving accessibility and safety are now also eligible for grants.

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The provincial building and Jubilee Centre viewed from the corner of Main Street and Franklin Avenue in Fort McMurray Alta. on Saturday January 30, 2016. Vince Mcdermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network Photo by Vince Mcdermott /Vince Mcdermott/Today Staff

Public presenters dispute DRIP’s merits

DRIP has historically been praised effusively by presenters at council meetings. But Fort McMurray resident Rene Wells argued the program has failed to accomplish its goals, and does not address the root causes of problems like crime or vacancies.

He feared DRIP was making some recipients dependent on the municipality for aesthetical improvements, and accused some business owners of benefiting from DRIP while doing well financially. He was also frustrated with DRIP’s price tag and listed multiple failed projects to prove “past councils have been addicted to spending.”

Wells said council could support downtown’s economy by investing in programs encouraging entrepreneurship, supporting young entrepreneurs and boosting local pride.

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“I would urge council to focus on the long game, not on what some may believe are quick and easy fixes. Handouts that exclusively benefit a few at the expense of everyone else is not getting that job done,” said Wells. “It’s left to you as politicians and leaders with the difficult task of growing our economy. DRIP funding doesn’t do it.”

Michael Durocher, chair of the RMWB’s downtown revitalization committee, also called the program a benefit for downtown. He said DRIP could improve safety by funding streetlight and security projects. Robbie Picard, owner of Robbie Picard Media, said the program has its faults and agreed with many of Wells’ concerns about funding. However, he felt DRIP “is by far the best program I have ever seen.”

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“We need to treat businesses in this community a lot more likely to treat the social profit sector,” said Picard. “We’re not like any other community. Our tax base is mostly industry. If we want people to live here, we need to reinvest.”

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Downtown Fort McMurray, Tuesday April 2, 2019. Photo by David Bloom

Council supportive, but criticisms acknowledged

Councillor Allan Grandison agreed DRIP brings value to downtown and shared many of Picard’s arguments. He also felt Wells had valid criticisms. He did not like that there aren’t similar grants for struggling businesses elsewhere in the community.

“We’re responsible for all of the taxpayers in the region, not just the ones in downtown and that I struggle with. I truly do,” said Grandison.

Councillor Kendrick Cardinal said he agreed with Wells’ comments and shared Grandison’s concerns. He pointed out that council has been warned that revenues will tighten in the near future.

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“When are we actually going to say no? Everything that comes to this council is yes, yes, yes,” he said.

Mayor Sandy Bowman and councillors Stu Wigle and Jane Stroud pointed out the funding has already been approved and the motion is to expand the program. Wigle argued DRIP has helped stop businesses from relocating outside downtown. New businesses have also shown an interest in moving downtown, he said, and the program shows the RMWB “is committed to downtown.”

“I do see the improvement in the downtown and I think our downtown has gotten kind of a bad rap for quite some time,” said Bowman. “It has become more viable for people to move into the downtown.”

Cardinal was the only councillor opposed to the motion. Councillor Loretta Waquan was absent from the meeting.

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