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White Rock leaders resurrect plans for Spirit Square

White Rock bureaucrats scramble to shift focus of federal-grant request to waterfront.
White Rock’s Memorial Park could see a million-dollar upgrade after council voted to apply for a federal grant that would see the unsuccessful 2008 Spirit Square proposal revived.

The City of White Rock is resurrecting previously abandoned plans for a million-dollar Spirit Square at Memorial Park on the waterfront, in light of a grant opportunity from the federal government.

City staff presented a report at Monday’s council meeting, outlining options for projects the city could use to apply for a Canada 150 Community Infrastructure grant – a program celebrating the country’s 150th anniversary that offers federal grants of up to $500,000 for “projects that celebrate our shared heritage, create jobs and improve quality of life for Canadians.”

Based on criteria for applications – due to be submitted within two days – staff recommended council endorse three proposals, in order of priority: a civic-plaza upgrade near city hall, a Centre Street walkway and parks-trail signage replacement.

Members of council, however, had other plans.

Coun. Grant Meyer said he had “a bit of a problem” including the Centre Street walkway project – which is already a part of the city’s financial plan at a cost of $800,000 – noting that preliminary discussions have already taken place for a “funicular” (hillside people-mover) that would negate the need for the walkway.

“I don’t think it would be wise to invest any money in a walkway until we get some initial planning and reports on (the funicular),” Meyer said. “I would like to include… a renovation and rehabilitation of Memorial Park down on the waterfront. We all know White Rock’s waterfront is the jewel of the city.”

Coun. Lynne Sinclair agreed with Meyer’s suggestion of a waterfront project on the grassy area near the pier, pointing out that several community festivals use the site.

Sinclair said that when she heard days earlier about the grant opportunity, she spoke with Surrey-White Rock MLA Gordon Hogg about a previous proposal for a Spirit Square at Memorial Park that never came to fruition.

“It seemed natural to me, if there was already work done on such a plan – and it turns out there is, there’s an architectural beautiful plan,” Sinclair said.

“I would prefer that one be the number 1 priority.”

Mayor Wayne Baldwin said he was “very conflicted” about how to proceed, noting that although the waterfront “made a lot of sense,” the past controversy was cause for concern.

“I didn’t follow the stuff that went on, but it was a very divisive discussion, I was told by the council of the day, and it failed,” Baldwin said. “There must be some reason it failed.”

Baldwin weighed the fact that Memorial Park is not city-owned land – the BNSF lease is set to expire in 2023 – and the fact that council was being pressed to decide on a “million-dollar question” on such short notice.

The mayor also said he felt government grants such as the one being offered “seduce you” into projects that aren’t in the city’s current plans.

“You end up spending public money on something that wasn’t a priority in the first place, but now because a grant is available, all of a sudden it becomes a priority, and I don’t think that’s right,” Baldwin said.

Plans for a Spirit Square at Memorial Park first came to council in 2008, when the provincial government offered up a grant to share half the cost in celebration of the province’s 150th anniversary.

The project, spearheaded by Hogg and then-councillor Matt Todd, quickly became a source of controversy; opponents included residents who preferred the grassy area owned by BNSF remain as is, business owners who were upset over lost parking spaces and at least one council member who preferred other locations be explored for the project.

Ultimately, council voted against Spirit Square in a 4-3 vote, and Hogg told Peace Arch News that his colleagues in the legislature were “laughing at me” over the “debacle.”

Responding Monday to council’s suggestions of a waterfront project, the city’s chief administrative officer, Dan Bottrill, noted that of the options explored for the federal grant, the civic-plaza upgrade best fit the criteria.

“Quite frankly, from a staff perspective, when we’re looking at grant applications, we take a look at the financial plan and what council is already providing in the financial plan,” Bottrill said.

“We’re trying to achieve maximum grant funding that’s available, but we’re also trying to figure out what would help our chances of getting approved.”

Bottrill pointed out that if council chose to include a Memorial Park project on the application, the financial plan adopted in March would need to be amended.

“I would suggest that the amount would be a million dollars, as the amount (of the Spirit Square project) was approximately a million dollars in 2008,” Bottrill said, noting that with 50 per cent of the funding covered by the grant should the application be approved, “the cost to the taxpayers would be a million-dollar asset for $500,000.”

Application requirements –  due June 17 at 2 p.m – included confirmed funding in the form of an approved financial plan, documentation confirming a long-term lease of the land on which the project will be constructed and approval of the landowner.

Bottrill told PAN Thursday that staff included one of the three designs proposed in 2008, although he could not confirm which one.

“The application would have merely indicated that it is simply a preliminary design and that further work would need to be done in order to complete a final design,” he said.

Bottrill said that landowners BNSF have not yet approved the plan, but that the city is “working with them… It’s only been 48 hours.”

Coun. David Chesney, who said he had a “vague memory” of the Spirit Square proposal from seven years ago, said he was unsure Memorial Park would be the right location for such a project.

“My concern would be putting that kind of an investment on a piece of property not owned by the city,” Chesney said. “I’m not fully sold on the idea that this is the location, given the close proximity to the railway track.”

Baldwin voted against the motion – along with Coun. Helen Fathers and Chesney – to include Memorial Park as the first priority. Couns. Meyer, Sinclair, Lawrence and Knight voted in support, and the motion passed.