Opportunity to develop long awaited seniors facility downtown gets support with successful land transfer of Willow Square

MLA Don Scott announces the land transfer. PHOTO: Megan Wilson

MLA Don Scott announces the land transfer. PHOTO: Megan Wilson

By Lindsay Ducharme

Christmas came early for the municipality and local seniors as the province announced November 20th the successful land transfer of Willow Square. The transfer, which has been over two years in the making, now means the long awaited plans for seniors downtown can move forward.

“Alberta families and seniors deserve accessible, comfortable and affordable housing options close to home. For that to happen in such a rapidly developing region like Wood Buffalo, land must be available and brought on stream for development. This agreement will provide the municipality with the tools it needs to meet the community’s varied housing needs,” said Jim Prentice, Premier of Alberta.

“This (land transfer) was critical.  This was something that we have been working on for a long time, it’s something that the community had asked for, the local MLA’s were asking for,” said Alberta Minister of Seniors Jeff Johnson.

“We certainly had some challenge in dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, but those were more technical and logistical.  We know we need more affordable housing and more affordable senior housing and supportive living space in Fort McMurray.  For the last three or four years, this was always going to be a piece of the solution.  I’m really happy we were able to execute on this,” he continued.

“Technical” difficulties included many near deals that never came to completion due to a variety of reasons. MLA Don Scott, a strong supporter of Willow Square from the onset, described three separate unsuccessful attempts to acquire the land.

Scott explained that the first effort involved the federal government trying to transfer Willow Square along with 17 other properties to the province of Alberta; however, they would all be subject to a “French language clause”, a deal breaker for the province.  Scott then travelled to Ottawa to meet with CMHC in an effort to have only the Willow Square property transferred under their conditions or keep all the properties together and modify the terms of the language clause; CMHC declined both offers.

MLA Mike Allen was excited for the community. PHOTO: Megan Wilson

MLA Mike Allen was excited for the community. PHOTO: Megan Wilson

Last December a lease on the Willow Square property was offered to the Municipality by then MP Brian Jean, however, Scott said once again the terms were unreasonable.  “What people didn’t talk about was one of the clauses in the lease were the payment terms.  The terms were you had to pre-pay in advance for 50 years on the day the lease was signed and that you had to pay commercial market rates in Fort McMurray.  I would estimate that would be double what a purchase price would cost. How does commercial market rates make any sense.”

Both Scott and Johnson credited newly appointed Alberta Premiere Prentice, as well as Prime Minister Stephen Harper as the driving forces in making the transfer a priority.

“Premier Prentice, Prime Minister Harper and Minister Johnson made this land transfer a priority. Now we can move forward and help provide much-needed housing options for seniors and lower-income residents in our community,” Scott said.

“It’s really only due to the good leadership of the Premier and the Prime Minister that we finally got it resolved and a mere weeks after the Premier took office, so that’s a pretty good testament to him.  You’ve got a Premier that is putting senior’s issues as a major priority for government.  This is something that is moving forward and moving forward very quickly after he took office.  I think it’s a major statement to seniors in Fort McMurray and seniors right across the province that this is going to be a priority to the Prentice government. Seniors should be encouraged by that,” added Johnson.

In addition to the province “gifting” the Willow Square land to the municipality, the province has also provided approximately $3 million in funding to the Wood Buffalo Housing & Development Corporation for development.  Johnson said the development itself, including when and what will be constructed, is now in the hands of the municipality and residents.

“I think that’s up to the Wood Buffalo Housing Authority and the Municipality.  The province had announced some time ago that a long term care facility was going to be built at Parson’s Creek, but one thing we heard clearly was not only does the community need that, but they wanted the Willow Square to be dedicated to senior’s affordable housing and that’s what we’ve done here.“

“We went through the process to purchase the land through the federal government and then to gift it to the community along with some cash. Wood Buffalo Housing Corporation’s role will now be to do the proper consultation with the community.  It’s going to be up to the local seniors, the municipality, the Wood Buffalo Housing Authority to decide exactly what gets built and when, but our understanding is that there has already been a lot of work done on this, so our expectations are something would be constructed there as soon as possible,” Johnson stressed.

“(This) important announcement by the Alberta government provides the opportunity to develop Willow Square for the well-being of our seniors and residents. We look forward to working in collaboration with WBHDC and the Advisory Committee on Aging in fostering the facilities our seniors need and deserve,” echoed Mayor Melissa Blake.