$1M Calgary Chinatown cultural plan project rejected after price-tag questions

A proposal to map out a cultural plan that could help guide the future development of Calgary's Chinatown has been rejected by the city's finance committee after several councillor raised questions about its price tag.

Finance committee votes to delay decision, opts to debate closer to budget time

Terry Wong, pictured, is the executive director of the Chinatown Business Improvement Area. The City of Calgary has been working on a plan for the district. (Stephanie Wiebe/CBC)

A proposal for a cultural plan project that could help guide the future development of Calgary's Chinatown has been rejected by the city's finance committee after several councillors raised questions about its price tag.

According to the pitch, the full cultural plan project would cost $600,000 to develop, and come with a $400,000 contingency fund — a total of $1 million. It would have required moving money out of city's innovation fund, which the committee defeated in a three-three tied vote.

The cultural plan also failed in a three-three vote, which means the matter will move to full council at a later date.

Coun. Sean Chu, a finance committee member, said he questioned why such a large contingency fund would be required.

"That's why I asked the question and actually I'm not satisfied with the answer," Chu told reporters after the vote. "I got the message, people saying that, 'Did the city do this on purpose, make the price tag so high so that other councillors vote no?' I don't know. I don't have answer for that."

Chinatown's plan may require a large budget as it's a destination for Calgarians and has one of the highest density neighbourhoods in the city, Chu said.

However, he argued the cost could be lower than $600,000, and without a contingency fund, by considering other applications and including the Chinese community, who he said can be "very thrifty" to get things done.

"I like it to be as little as possible," Chu said.

Chinatown has been an important cultural hub in downtown Calgary for more than 100 years. This picture shows W.K. Restaurant on Centre Street South sometime in the late 1960s. (Glenbow Archives)

Coun. Evan Woolley also questioned the price tag, pointing to how the citywide cultural plan is costing $170,000 — far less than the Chinatown-only plan.

Woolley said he questioned the timing of the funding request, and wondered if the debate should happen during budget deliberations.

"I've grown up in this city my whole life. Chinatown is part of my own history, a super important cultural community," Woolley told reporters. "But in a budget year where we're having very, very challenging budget conversations, we need to have a better prioritization."

Other communities may want their own cultural plans in the future, he said, and the city must balance those with bills, like for snow removal.

The last major plan for the historic district of Chinatown was created about 32 years ago. The staff report warns that if funding is not secured for a new plan, the area will continue functioning under an outdated policy that doesn't align with municipal objectives.

"Chinatowns across North America are facing a number of pressures that threaten their continued existence," the report said.

"Calgary's Chinatown finds itself at a cusp whereby a new vision is needed to strengthen the community identity and provide direction on the suitable integration of new developments."

Sticking with the old plan could make future development planning applications unpredictable and costly, the report said.

The proposed consulting budget for the plan would include costs for developing the plan, holding workshops and open houses, and hiring translators.

With files from Scott Dippel.