TMR at odds over controversial plan to build sports complex in public park

The town held a public meeting Thursday to present an overview of the plan ahead of a referendum vote on Feb. 16.

Mayor works to win over residents who are concerned about property taxes

As the town plans to take out a 20-year loan, Joe Amiouny worries what the long-term impact will be as interest rates and the economy change with time. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

The Town of Mount Royal's administration has dug in its heels, refusing to pull the plug on a $48.7-million sports and community complex despite a wave of community opposition.

"They say two years to build this. Based on the size of this facility, I give it three and a half years and $75 million," said Peter Malouf, one of hundreds of TMR residents against the project.

"There's always going to be cost overruns and then what happens when they get the shovel in the ground? It's too late for residents to oppose it."

He's calling on the administration to rethink the project that, as presented, will take over a public park's soccer field and cost taxpayers millions to staff and maintain.

Touted as TMR's first municipal building to be constructed in a half century, the plan currently calls for three pools, a water slide, a double gymnasium, dance and art studios, an indoor track and even a weight room.

Malouf said he wants a smaller, less costly project that's better suited for the community's population of 21,000.

And he's not alone.

Back in November, 938 residents of the upscale Montreal suburb forced a referendum on the complex by signing a registry that required 931 signatures. 

The town held a public meeting Thursday to present an overview of the plan ahead of the vote on Feb. 16.

Mayor, supporters push forward 

Mayor Philippe Roy said it's not a deluxe centre when compared to other Quebec communities, but vowed to carry out the referendum, letting the population make the final call.

"We feel it's a very good project for the community," said Roy. "My hope is to convince everybody that it's a good project."

The current recreation centre and pool are in poor condition,not adapted to people with reduced mobility and require regular repairs, the town said.

While the sports complex may have a green roof, Peter Malouf questions the needs to turn a popular soccer field, which doubles as a hockey rink in the winter, into a sports complex. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

Residents will soon vote on the borrowing bylaw which, in September 2019, was set at $27.8 million. But with surpluses allocated and a $3 million grant secured, the requested financing has come down to $20.3 million, the town said.

If residents nix the loan, the grant money will be lost and there's no alternative plan, Roy said.

But some residents are concerned that if the facility is built, property taxes will rise in a community where the average single-family house in TMR is valued at roughly $1.4 million.

Much of the construction cost is covered, but the loan and maintenance expenses are expected to add an average of $289 per year to property taxes. That will bring the average tax rate up to $8,508 per year.

Roughly 200 people turned up to hear what the Town of Mount Royal has to say about its plan to build its first municipal building in 50 years. Many of them lined up to ask questions. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

"It's going to be about $2 a week of tax increase for the average home," Roy said. "It's not too expensive."

Some residents like Louise Yoshinaka aren't worried about the tax increase. She said the mayor's administration is on the right track.

TMR is an affluent area and the project is long overdue, she said, and a first-class sports centre would be an effective selling point for those looking to get top pricing for their million-dollar homes.

"It goes well with the value of our houses," she said. 

Lyette Soucy, a volunteer member of the Association municipale de Mont-Royal which strives to improve town life, said she and the association are in favour of the complex as well.

"It's an amazing project," she said. "We have a beautiful community here, but we don't have a proper sports complex."

Louise Yoshinaka says TMR is an affluent neighbourhood and needs a decent sports centre to ensure homes sell for top dollar. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

Predicted operating costs disputed

The town predicts the building's annual operating cost will be about $1.7 million.

But that's way too low, said Sophie Turpin, a TMR resident who has been involved in Quebec's aquatic sports community. 

Running three pools — including a heated wading pool and water games — will create extra maintenance costs, she said.

The three pools will also require extra lifeguards on duty in a time when pools are closing across the province due to a lifeguard shortage, she said. Even if the town manages to hire enough lifeguards to keep the facility open seven days a week as promised, she said salaries could run about $1.5 million a year.

 A single, multi-use pool would be more affordable and require less staffing, Turpin said.

Opponents of the project say they like the idea of having a new, indoor pool, but the plans as presented are too costly. They question the need for three, separate indoor pools. (Town of Mount Royal)

Beyond the cost, residents are also frustrated with the plan to take over a heavily used green space while building a large facility that has very little parking. 

After so many people voiced their opposition, longtime resident Joe Amiouny said town officials should have responded with alternative plans.

He said he would have liked TMR to proposed a second, smaller option.

"This project is too big for our city," he said. "Why do we need three swimming pools?"

with files from Simon Nakonechny