UPDATE: YMCA delegation draws crowd

Presentations on proposed YMCA project bring out local residents

Fred Thiessen delivers a public delegation about the proposed YMCA to council as a large crowd looks on.

Fred Thiessen delivers a public delegation about the proposed YMCA to council as a large crowd looks on.

A public delegation on the proposed YMCA project brought about 150 residents to city council on Monday afternoon.

Fred Thiessen, a local businessman with the Stonecroft Group, represented the interests of opposed citizens and business owners. He spoke against the city’s proposal to contribute half of the construction cost – $17.5 million – of a YMCA facility in Abbotsford. The land would be granted by Fraser Health, on the site of the old MSA Hospital on McCallum Road.

Thiessen assured council he has no objections to the YMCA as an organization, only the feasibility of providing money and a property tax exemption. Thiessen also raised the question of whether such a facility is needed in Abbotsford, as well as concerns surrounding competition with existing public and private facilities.

“Buying something you don’t need at any price is foolish.”

Thiessen asked whether the city would spend more than the proposed $17.5 million on the project, explaining that the city has a “poor track record” of finishing projects on budget. Theissen said that even with a cap on spending at $17.5 million, the city still does not have the funds.

“The City of Abbotsford needs to get its financial house in order.”

Thiessen was given a standing ovation from the crowd.

John Woolgar, general manager of facility management at the YMCA of Greater Vancouver, also made a presentation to council. He explained the benefits of building a facility. He said that as a growing city, Abbotsford will have more demand for recreational services, which they would help provide. Woolgar said that as a not-for-profit, the organization gives back to the community.

He said the YMCA has studied the feasibility of the project and is prepared to commit if the city does.

He confirmed a tax exemption would be requested, as all YMCA facilities have such agreements with municipal governments.

Coun. Henry Braun raised concerns about the tax exemption, stating the loss of tax dollars increases the real cost of the project for the city.

Both delegations were received by council.

Mayor Bruce Banman said the city will continue the debate.

“We will have the discussion. We owe it to the community.”

Banman emphasized that the city currently has a non-binding memorandum of understanding with the YMCA and can leave the deal at any time.

The project will be considered by the new city manager, George Murray, who begins in February. His review will extend the decision-making process into April.

Mark Taylor, general manager of parks and recreation, said if Murray does not feel the time is right, the city may “gracefully back out” of the understanding.

Braun said that puts enormous pressure on Murray. He suggested a motion calling for council to terminate the memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the YMCA and reassess the deal.

That was defeated, with councillors expressing concern over the effect on relations with the YMCA.

Coun. Bill MacGregor said it was premature and “tasteless” to terminate the MOU when the YMCA moved in good faith towards a deal.

The organization now plans to engage with the community about the proposed facility.

Braun worried that this puts “the horse before the cart,” creating questions and expectations that may not be met.

Thiessen told The News that he was “very disappointed” with council’s defeat of Braun’s motion. He said he has no problem with council continuing to assess the proposal, but that council should scrap the current understanding and “start again.”