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Concerned Citizens talk downtown revitalization with Estevan city council

Petition collected nearly 1,500 signatures, which would be enough for a referendum on the project.
Downtown business owners and members of the Concerned Citizens Estevan SK group attended Monday's meeting of Estevan city council.

ESTEVAN - The Concerned Citizens Estevan SK group says they have enough signatures on their petition that calls for a referendum on the downtown revitalization project in the 1100 and 1200 blocks of Fourth Street.

Appearing before Estevan city council on Monday night, spokesman Myles Fichter, who addressed council alongside Greg Curtis, said they had the support of 25 per cent of the city's electorate. Speaking with the Mercury and SaskToday after the meeting, Fichter said they had just under 1,500 signatures.

The group presented the petition Tuesday at city hall. 

In order for a referendum to take place, the petition needed to have the signatures of at least 10 per cent of the city's residents; according to the 2021 federal census, Estevan's population was 10,851 people, so the petition needed more than 1,085 signatures.

"The questions that we had came from the community, so when we see such an overwhelming concern of what the costs and the nature of this project are that haven't been answered to the general people, that was our mandate to go forward and seek these petitions," said Fichter.  

Everyone who signed has to be a voter of the City of Estevan and can only sign once. Fichter said they stopped collecting signatures on Saturday.

The petition was launched on March 13, two days after city council approved the revitalization project. Council moved forward with the project after the federal government authorized $7.75 million in support through the PrairiesCan Coal Communities Transition Initiative, and the city has to provide $1.5 million for underground infrastructure replacement.

The question on the petition would read "Should the City of Estevan proceed with the downtown revitalization project?"

Mayor Roy Ludwig said the city will have to talk to its legal department about the petition. The city has 30 days to decide the next step with the petition.

Some work has already taken place. Trees have already been taken down in the two blocks of Fourth Street, ASL Paving has been selected as the general contractor and Associated Engineering has been working with the city on a daily basis. 

"These contracts are in place, so there are certain liabilities in place in trying to break these contracts," said Ludwig. "And that will be a council decision after talking to legal.

"First off, we have to take a look at the petition when it comes forward, and then we have to check it out for validity, and then we have to go through council and our legal [team] and make of some decisions, because right now we're on the hook contractually."

Curtis expressed some concern about ASL's submitted value of more than $10.66 for the work, but council said they would be able to remove items from the project, and Ludwig hopes it can be knocked down to $7 million, leaving the city with some contingency.

Ludwig said council couldn't wait until after a referendum to move forward with the work downtown because of the tight timelines. The city has until March 31, 2025, to spend the $7.75 million in federal money.

"You're not going to get a lot of this work done, needed work done, in the winter. It's going to have to be done between now and the fall," said Ludwig.

The trees have to be done in early spring because if birds are nesting, then Ludwig said the trees couldn't be removed until next year.

Both Ludwig and Fichter said they appreciated the tone of the meeting. Fichter was pleased with council's willingness to answer questions.

"We felt that we were treated seriously and respectfully, and so I commend council for that and answering questions as much as they can with the information available," said Fichter.

He would like to see the referendum happen as soon as possible due to the expediency of the project.

A large crowd attended Monday night's meeting. Many of them were members of the Concerned Citizens, but there were also some members of the Downtown Business Association who support the project.

Fichter began by explaining the Concerned Citizens' position. He noted that in January, a member of their group brought the downtown revitalization project to their attention. Considering the city's current long-term debt and the capital overruns that have occurred with other major projects, they wanted to learn as much as possible. They emerged with more questions than answers, so they created a video with their concerns.

Fichter noted that Concerned Citizens conducted a survey of the businesses in the 1100 and 1200 blocks of Fourth Street, and found that approximately half of the businesses were not consulted about the project and roughly half were not in favour. Based on the responses, they proceeded with the petition calling for the referendum.

Those they spoke to about the petition felt they were ill-informed or completely unaware of the project; they wanted to know how much this will cost the taxpayer; and they weren't sure if replacing the underground infrastructure was necessary.

"Why is it pressing that only these two blocks need to be replaced. Aren't many other streets in the same area the same age, such as the courthouse block?" asked Fichter.

Fichter added many thought the project deserved its owner mailer from the city or information could have been inserted within utility bills. Council members agreed that a mailer could have been sent for the project, although there were three open houses and three surveys issued, and plenty of information was provided on the project.

"We saw 168 responded to somebody putting out an unscientific survey. One hundred and sixty-eight people out of 11,000? And the response to it was 75 per cent were on board, but if you actually read it, that's not true," said Curtis.

When the topic of phases 2-8 came up, Curtis asked if anything in Phase 1 that would force the city to do Phase 2 or other phases.

City manager Jeff Ward replied electrical conduits would be installed, but those wouldn't be for Phase 2.

Concerned Citizens members have also heard questions about maintenance and upkeep costs, and the expected return on investment.

Ludwig stressed the work on Fourth Street is the first phase, and he's not sure the other seven phases would occur.

"For this council, this is it," Ludwig said adamantly. "The new council, will they go to stage 2? Probably not. Will they get the money [from the feds]? Probably not."

Other council members also thanked the Concerned Citizens for appearing before them, and explained their reasons for supporting the project.

"The concern you have about us going over budget is the same concern we have, so maybe we could ask you to come to the table," said Coun. Lindsay Clark. "And we need to meet with the [business] owners on a regular basis while this is going on to make sure we're discussing the costs and discussing what we're doing."

Clark later asked if the project is on budget, and if council doesn't do further stages, would the Concerned Citizens still be opposed?

"For 15 per cent of our money, we're getting 100 per cent of the job. So are you against the project just because you're against the project, or are you against over-spending in the long-term?"

Fichter said the referendum isn't to kill the project, it's to involve the citizens on the decision making.

Coun. Rebecca Foord wanted to know if the members had approached city hall with their concerns, and if they had addressed those concerns with city council members.

Curtis replied that he approached city clerk Judy Pilloud for information, but was told he'd have to submit a freedom of information request. The group did receive information from city manager Jeff Ward.

"I personally, have not been reached out to by anybody in this group," said Foord, who has spoken with the Downtown Business Association and those who are for and against the project.

Foord also noted the city will be able to handle the maintenance costs of the project, such as snow removal.

Coun. Shelly Veroba said this project would be something that everyone can be proud of.

"These businesses have been the pillar of our community and I believe they deserve two blocks that are rejuvenated," said Veroba.

Coun. Tony Sernick said the project's "bells and whistles" could be reeled in to reduce the costs. But he also stressed the importance of making improvements after underground infrastructure is completed, citing Souris Avenue North and King Street near the Estevan Market Mall as projects where that didn't happen.

"What we have before us is an opportunity to upgrade the infrastructure down below, and make the top improved," said Sernick.