Don Maynard Park: Opinion on Council Decisions
by Shaun McLaughlin
Since the long-running drama related to Don Maynard Park is at an end, I want to get some opinions off my chest.
One: the decision by the last Council to sell part of the park was the most ill-advised decision Council made during my term as mayor.
Two: reversing the sale by the new Council is on the same spectrum of bad decisions.
In April 2016, Council debated a motion to spend $850,000 on Gemmill Park upgrades and to sell a park to help pay for it. (The park was not named then, but we knew which one.)
I was the only person to vote against that original motion. I agreed that the town needed a skateboard park and a splash pad, because we lacked both. However, I argued we did not need another play structure (we had about 10) and we could refurbish the old washroom instead of paying to tear it down and build a new one. With my changes, we could have paid for the reduced upgrades without selling a park. The vote was 10-1.
Following the quite understandable public uproar that arose once the town named the sacrificial park, Council did some back-peddling. Instead of selling the park and adjoining lot, the town would sell one-third—enough for five building lots. Six councillors backed that new plan and four voted against selling any part of the park. Those two sides hardened and did not budge. I believe that the mayor should reflect the will of Council, so I sided with the majority.
Fast forward to 2019. The four new members of Council voted to reverse the decision. It was an emotional and political choice, but a foolish one from the view of fiscal sense and parkland valuation.
Gemmill Park upgrades finished last year and the bills have to be paid. The new Council decided to borrow a half- million dollars to cover costs plus overruns. All town residents will pay for that choice for the next 20 years. The debt load did not have to be that high.
Based on recent local land sales in town, the five proposed lots on Gale Street would have brought in at least $400,000. (In 2017, the town sold a residential lot on Harold Street, not far from the park, for over $80,000.) Viewed another way, the new Council agreed to pay $400,000 to save one-tenth of an acre of parkland that 99.9% of residents will never visit.
Is that good value for the money? Consider the following.
In 2015, I tried to get Council to buy 100 acres of forested land on the edge of Almonte. The purchase included two kilometres of Mississippi River shoreline. I viewed the purchase as an investment in the future—as Almonte expands on both sides of the river in coming decades, such a park would be an oasis for thousands for generations.
Given the dearth of waterfront in public ownership, I expected to get approval. No so. Several Councillors were already planning to pump money into Gemmill Park and didn’t want a prior park purchase to restrict the budget. When we suspended negotiations, the suggested price for that acreage and shoreline was just over $600,000.
Compare the two. Six hundred grand for 100 acres with waterfront versus four hundred grand for a fraction of an acre of grass. Strip emotion from the decision—was that $400,000 well spent?