BANFF – A controversial $9.5 million construction project to turn Bear Street into a permanent plaza-like area is going ahead in a bid to help stimulate the local tourism economy that has been crippled by the global COVID-19 crisis.
Banff council plans to open its 2020-29 capital and 2020-23 operating budgets in the coming weeks to look for cuts and tax relief, but has decided to stick with the plan to redevelop the 200 block and make it more of a tourist attraction like Banff Avenue.
“I really see that this is an important stimulus within our economy,” said Councillor Grant Canning at a council meeting Monday (March 23).
“This construction project is going to be very disruptive for those business on that street. If there was ever a summer to do a project like this, this is probably the summer.”
The Town of Banff, which has a signed contract with Canmore-based Bremner Engineering, is going into short-term debt to fund the $9.5 million project, which envisions a better balance of the needs of pedestrians, cyclists, and low-speed motor vehicles.
A $554,000 communications and marketing plan that aimed to lessen the impact of construction on Bear Street businesses – which had expressed angst about lost revenue – will be scaled back because many are closed anyway due to the coronavirus crisis.
Coun. Canning said he realizes there are concerns about taking on more debt during these uncertain times, but noted borrowing rate for the Town of Banff is low at currently 1.16 per cent.
“Now is the time to take on debt to do projects like this, not only because of low interests rates, but also because we need all levels of government to continue stimulating our economy and putting people back to work,” he said.
A different view was held by Coun. Ted Christensen.
“I think it’s not the prudent thing to borrow money at this time for this project,” he said. “We don’t know what our financial needs will be. We are on a decline now.”
While he understands the project will cause less disruption this summer given many businesses are closed due to COVID-19, Christensen was worried it would add more strain on the businesses staying open.
“What if further disruption causes some of the existing businesses to get to where they have to close their doors because further disruption will cause less public to come in?” he said.
Coun. Brian Standish voiced support, noting he was pleased the Town of Banff had reached out to Bear Street businesses and stakeholders at a meeting last Friday (March 20) to hear their input or concerns.
“It’s no secret about my opposition to this project from the start … but I believe this is the right time to move ahead on this project,” he said.
Coun. Corrie DiManno, who is in self isolation after returning from the United States and called into the council meeting in order to take part, said halting the project would be a “rash decision.”
“I think it’s great leadership to review the operating and capital budgets, and I think removing a project like this wouldn’t help bring any relief to the tax rate at this point,” she said.
“When we get through this crisis, this project will be a very important part of our economic recovery because I believe it continues to be an investment in our product and in our offering.”
Coun. Peter Poole, who declared a conflict of interest during discussion on Bear Street because he owns properties and businesses there, welcomed the move to reopen the operating and capital budgets.
He said he alerted his businesses several weeks ago to start planning for different revenue scenarios given the COVID-19 pandemic would hit the tourist town’s businesses hard.
“A reasonable revenue drop was like 50 per cent and deep dive would have been 80 or 90 per cent revenue drop – it’s worse than that,” said Coun. Poole.
As a business owner, Poole said he’s knocked his variable costs down to almost zero and is reopening some contracts for negotiation – and he wants the Town of Banff to consider doing the same when it brings back the capital and operating budgets.
“Those will entail departing from some of our strategic priorities and those will entail departing from some of the levels of service that we agree to in our service reviews and budget – and I think that’s OK,” he said.
Redevelopment of the 200 block of Bear Street, which has been on the books since the 1992 downtown enhancement plan, aims to help the street become a growing tourist attraction and boost business.
A shared street has its origins based in the concept of a woonerf, which is a Dutch term loosely meaning "street for living."