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Some Edmonton city councillors questioning why Blatchford needs more money

Costs to make Blatchford green start to add up
WATCH: Questions are being raised as the costs add up to make the Blatchford community a green one. Millions have been spent so far and the city is being asked to spend much more. Vinesh Pratap reports.

A new report released just prior to Edmonton City Council’s utilities committee meeting Thursday calls for another $52 million to be invested in Blatchford’s district energy system.

That investment would be on top of the $115 million that appears in the city’s 2019-2022 capital budget that was released last week and that is already preapproved by council.

The cost escalation is prompting some serious second-guessing for some members of the committee.

“We’re so deep into this right now,” Councillor Sarah Hamilton. “We’re talking about huge investments in infrastructure to make it work.

“I think we need a really good look at how we’re going to recoup our costs on Blatchford, because the story has been that we keep putting money into it and we don’t really have a good plan about how we’re going to start to get that money out.”

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The Blatchford development plan is for the site of a former airport. The city has said that in 20 years, it projects Blatchford will house up to 30,000 people. The aim is to make it a sustainable community with its own geothermal district energy facility.

Even Councillor Michael Walters, who’s been a longtime supporter of the project, is starting to wonder when things will stop.

“The numbers have never been the same in subsequent updates,” he told Global News. “So we’ll hear one number and the next time it comes before us, again the numbers are changing and that always has caused me some anxiety.”

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Walters, the vice-chair of the committee, postponed discussing the item until the November meeting because the report came so last minute. He said he wanted members to have time to review the document.

The report recaps what work has been done so far.

In March, the business case and assumptions were updated, allowing city council to reduce the non-refundable cash infusion from $98 million to $93 million. Walters said that money is intended to keep the monthly utility rates for homeowners roughly the same if they live in Blatchford with a district energy system, and in net-zero designed homes.

“We didn’t want people’s rates to go up higher than what they would pay living in any other part of Edmonton,” Walters said. “Where that non-refundable cash infusion is coming from is still a mystery that has to be answered before we proceed.”

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Walters added that the city has not received a grant from Ottawa in order for Blatchford to be a test case on a large-scale, environmentally friendly neighborhood. He said he wants to make sure Edmonton’s environmental goals remain the focus of the development.

“I still remain committed to that and don’t want us to lose our nerve, but we have to be very detail-oriented in understanding the numbers.”

Hamilton said times now are different, and Edmonton is facing a tough budget cycle.

“That was a plan created at a time when the economic situation in this province was much, much different,” she said, “when our MSI funding was a lot different [and] when our growth numbers were a lot different.

“I think — for maybe our own perspective — for the long-term, we have to talk about future-proofing our own ambitions on this, to make sure that we aren’t planning for good times and hoping the bad times never happen.”

The report, now to be debated in November, calls for an additional $30.2 million to be spent between 2019-2022 and an additional $22.6 million to be spent in 2023 and beyond.