A mayoral forum conducted with grade 11 and 12 students at Ponoka Secondary Campus has shown the students’ main areas of interest for the future of the town lie in recreation opportunities and concerns about the vitality of the downtown core.
As Rick Bonnett and Doug Gill answered the students’ questions, it became clear that the two areas are tied closely together, and the ideas of providing more services within the town and attracting more people to settle here are directly dependent on each other.
Brandt Ceibel wanted to know the new town council would address the viability and variety of recreational outlets for the town.
Ceibel, who also works at the Aquaplex, which he feels is “going down the drain”, made it clear Ponoka needs more recreational options for youth when he told the candidates he frequently travels to Hobbema to use its rec centre.
Bonnett says Ponoka needs an indoor field house that can be expanded upon over the years to satisfy a multitude of recreational needs. Expansions would include a pool because Bonnett feels Ponoka’s pool will have reached the end of its life in the next five to 10 years.
“This is a $20 million facility I’m talking about. We’d need a big chunk of land to do it on too,” said Bonnett.
He knows his vision for the future is to go ahead with the multiplex field house but Bonnett told the students he’s just one voice on council and just one voice in the town and it would take the whole town coming together, organizations and the Alberta Government to make the project possible.
Gill feels having a large multi centre would have to be phased into the community. “At present we’ve started allocating reserves for recreation, not only for maintenance but for new facilities.”
As the town’s reserves grow Gill says town council will feel the pressure to raise taxes to make the project happen. Town council is using the funds they have to maintain current recreational services. “So the tax increase reflects what we need in new funds.”
Grade 12 student Jenny Massing was concerned how the project would affect taxes. “A bunch of us girls would like to know how much you would have to raise the taxes and for how many years to get the facility?”
Bonnett touched on the idea of raising the membership fees of sports organizations and a portion of the funds could go into a “slush fund” for the rec centre.
He says he’s already talked to a few organizations such as soccer and minor hockey about the idea. “Each and every one of those organizations said ‘we’re in’. To me this says we’ve got to move forward toward this.”
Bonnett doesn’t expect to raise taxes an exponential amount, rather a slow increase to reflect the town’s growth as services become more plentiful.
An increased tax base would benefit other sectors of Ponoka, says Bonnett. When businesses look at coming to town they also evaluate the recreational opportunities, which play a part in employee retention.
Gill says how taxes increase depends of the type of amenities a rec centre would include.
“You raise the fees for user groups, guess what? They’ll say we can’t afford to curl, we can’t afford to play tennis. So it’s a double sided sword and you have to be really careful how you manage that,” he explained.
With more recreational opportunities and businesses more people will move to Ponoka, and as more people move to town an increased number of businesses will locate here.
More residents will also mean further recreational project opportunities because of growth to the property tax pool.
However, with business growth comes issues of another variety.
Gill says council has often been criticized for allowing too many of one kind of business. But under the pressure of residents to attract businesses to town they don’t find the sense in turning those interested away. “We’re concerned about the number the empty stores councillor Bonnett has alluded to a number of times.”
Gill feels a large factor in the number of empty stores in town is the landowners; who aren’t
Some of the buildings sit empty because they’re more valuable to landowners that way. “If they have an agreement and somebody vacated the store but paid the lease for five years why rent it out?” Gill explained.
Gill says the solution to revitalize downtown is to attract stores that compliment each other and attract the same crowd. Sylvan Lake and other summer villages use clusters of tourist destination businesses to attract visitors and retain them for a healthy amount of time; a day, weekend or longer stay.
This solution would require downtown to be designed with the parking space and public washrooms.
The students want other popular destination events in town, such as the Ponoka Stampede to be used to circulate the tourists through the entire town.
“The Ponoka Stampede does a great job of getting tourists here, we do a terrible job of getting them in other places,” said Bonnett.
Gill is concerned because the stampede is only one week out of the year and with Summer Sendoff already canceled the ground sit empty most of the time. He wants the them open to other events during every season.
“During the winter we could have an ice carnival there with ice sculptures and ski-doo races and whatnot,” he explained.
Gill also wants to further expand on the potential of the Calnash Ag Event Centre. He told the students an equestrian announcer from the United States said the centre one of the top five buildings of its kind in the northwest — tied for first place — and cannot be matched by any other in Canada.
“We need to capitalize on it. At one time high school wresting was held in the barn,” he said.
Town council already has plans to expand Ponoka’s trail system by connecting Lucas Heights to the trails, expanding trails north of town and to the Hudson Green area.
When using the trails to create more recreational events, such as a Mud Heroes race an audible ripple of excitement — the only one of the forum — swept over the students.
After the forum Massing approached the candidates with an idea of her own. Massing competes in high school rodeos and in Nanton, at the Canadian High School finals; the town came together, closed off downtown and created a tourist attraction atmosphere to take advantage of the 400 people that came into town for the rodeo.
Bonnett told her to bring the idea to council in the spring when provincials are held in Ponoka.
Massing thinks it’s important the mayoral candidates took time to talk to the students because many of them are graduating this year and in the next two years all will be able to vote. “They need to know our input, even though we can’t vote. We’re the future vote.”
“It’s good that you hear what they have to say, it’s good that you hear their concerns. They’re legitimate and I ask you to remember that,” social studies teacher Ron Labrie told the candidates.