MLA office building draws fire

By Darcy Henton, Calgary Herald January 28, 2013

EDMONTON — As Premier Alison Redford warns Albertans to tighten their belts for a tough March budget, tenders are going out for completion of a $275-million renovation of an environmentally friendly office to house MLAs and bureaucrats.

The massive expenditure, while Alberta braces for its sixth consecutive deficit, has Alberta opposition parties questioning the government’s priorities and its timing.

Wildrose critic Rob Anderson said the fact the government is pressing ahead with the building renovation at the legislature in Edmonton while the premier is preaching fiscal austerity is “just beyond belief.”

“This is the type of complete fiscal ignorance that has got us into the hole that we’re in right now — this inability to put needs before wants,” he said. “Clearly this is not a priority for Albertans.”

He said spending $275 million — and likely more than that when the final tally is in — for an office building MLAs could do without is “a graphic reminder of how incompetent and irresponsible this government has been with managing our finances.”

Liberal Leader Raj Sherman said elected officials have to show leadership by getting Albertans better value for their tax dollars, starting with the legislature grounds.

“My concern from Day 1 about the whole Federal Building project was that before MLAs give themselves fancy new offices, let’s make sure we have full-day kindergarten for our children, let’s make sure our seniors are looked after and let’s make sure we have enough front-line staff in education and health care to look after the social needs of the people,” he said.

Sherman said $275 million would go a long way to addressing some of the social issues facing the province.

The re-development of the 11-storey Federal Building, which sat empty for more than two decades after it was acquired by the province, began in 2009 and was supposed to have been completed in 2011, but the ground-up restoration had to be deferred while the structure was reinforced, according to Kent Phillips, Alberta Infrastructure project delivery branch executive director.

Just before Christmas, the Conservative-dominated all-party member services committee gave the green light to a $4-million visitor centre with museum-quality exhibit space, a gift shop and an 80-seat theatre on the main floor of the building.

The expense was approved the same day Finance Minister Doug Horner held a news conference to tell Albertans the low price the province is receiving for oilsands bitumen compared with West Texas Intermediate crude was having a major impact on resource revenues and that cabinet ministers were going to have to make tough decisions about their programs.

“We’ve just had an update by the provincial treasurer, the minister of finance, and there’s a heap of trouble out there,” Wildrose MLA Heather Forsyth warned fellow committee members before the vote at the Dec. 19 meeting.

Infrastructure spokeswoman Jeannie Smith noted the project was started long before the province got into financial turmoil.

“We’re being fiscally responsible by redeveloping this building,” she said. “An engineering study found it was more cost effective to renovate the building than to demolish and replace it with a new building of similar size.”

Phillips said the last of the major interior work required will be put out to tender before the end of March.

He said there would be little point in deferring the remaining construction at this point.

“It would make absolutely no sense because we’re about 75 per cent complete,” he said.

Phillips said the original budget was $356 million, but the costs were reduced because of the downturn in the economy.

The building will provide office space and committee rooms for 600 people, including opposition and backbench MLAs as well as legislature staff now housed in the legislature “annex” adjacent to the legislature building. It will also house finance officials from the nearby Terrace Building, Phillips said.

NDP Leader Brian Mason said he also believes it would be a mistake to stop construction now.

“I think it’s very expensive, but I think they have passed the point of no return,” he said.

Mason said he supports the concept of making the legislature more people-friendly.

“I think that if only politicians hang out in the building we have lost a real opportunity,” he said.

“There’s a need for more public education with respect to how our democracy functions.”

Brian Hodgson, visitor services director, said the visitor centre will feature 30 interactive exhibits that tell Alberta’s political history.

“It’s a legacy project in the sense that it will support a wider understanding of our provincial legislature,” he said. “I hope it will lead to a greater degree of engagement on the part of Albertans in what goes on here.”

In addition to the visitor centre, the main floor will feature a restaurant and bistro while the second floor will provide space for four committee rooms. The top floor will feature a roof garden. The building and an adjacent plaza with six gardens and a fountain will add 40 per cent to the size of the legislature grounds.

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Federal Building

Cost: $275 million

Size: 300,000 sq. ft.

Height: 11 storeys

Offices: for 600 people

Parking: 650 stalls

Restaurants: two

Committee rooms: four

Gift shops: one

Exhibits: 30

Theatre: 80 seats

Distance from Dome: eight-minute walk

Connection to legislature: underground pedway

Features: rooftop garden, energy efficient windows, granite floor

Plaza: six gardens, skating rink, fountain

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