From packing bags to back to the drawing board? SaskPower backs off mega development plans at GTH, critics say

The Saskatchewan NDP and the Canadian Taxpayer's Federation believe SaskPower is walking away from initial plan to build a warehouse complex to house 1,100 employees on land it purchased at the Global Transportation Hub.

SaskPower prepared for employees not wanting to move: briefing note

SaskPower did not release any specific details about the development plan when asked by CBC News, including how many employees could be relocated. (CBC)

A plan to develop nearly 500,000 square feet of property for an operations centre and move 1,100 of SaskPower's employees to the Global Transportation Hub seems to have been walked back, according to Saskatchewan's NDP and the Canadian Taxpayer's Federation. 

SaskPower purchased 145 acres of land at the GTH in 2013 for $25 million. But according to the utility's CEO and president Mike Marsh, plans to build on the site were shelved as a cost-cutting measure because the initial price tag for the project came in too high. 

Recently though, he indicated a new plan was in the works. Marsh didn't divulge many details, but did say SaskPower planned to develop the site over a span of what could be 20 years. That means phasing in buildings over time, beginning with a warehouse, fleet operations building and storage space, he said.  

"We're at the stage where we again are looking at bringing a package back to begin to develop that site, but do it in a much, much smaller footprint than was originally envisioned the first time around," he said in June.

Doing construction in phases would save money, he explained. 

SaskPower purchased 145 acres of land at the GTH back in 2013 for $25 million. (CBC)

Big gap from then and now

"You couldn't see a bigger gap between what they were saying then and what they're saying now," said Todd MacKay, prairie director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. 

"Where was the restrained approach when they fired this process through and spent $25 million in a matter of months? They still haven't provided answers for that," he said. 

Rewind to 2013 when SaskPower purchased the land.  It announced plans to build nearly 500,000 square feet of property, which would include industrial buildings, featuring shops and warehouses, as well as a new logistics warehouse complex.

Construction on that warehouse complex was originally scheduled to be completed this year. 

A briefing note obtained through access-to-information legislation describes how the facility was supposed to become the central hub of SaskPower's operations, with 27 of its facilities scattered around Regina to be amalgamated into the new complex. 

GTH was to be SaskPower's operations hub —​ now what?

That initial plan also included moving 1,100 employees working around to Regina out to the GTH. 

SaskPower CEO and President Mike Marsh says right now the its looking at developing all of the land it owns at the GTH but that could change depending on what's decided with this phased in approach. (CBC News)

The note stated the centralization at the complex would allow SaskPower to streamline its operations and reduce overall costs. It did indicate, however, that some employees may not be in favour of relocating. 

'I like going to my favourite nearby restaurant at lunch,' People identified to relocate may be attached to their current location because they enjoy the amenities they work near.- Briefing note from SaskPower  Chief Commercial Officer to managers

An email sent from former vice president and chief commercial officer Steve Sousa to managers and directors —​ also obtained under access-to-information legislation — ​contained a communications plan for how to deal with employees resistant to the move. 

"Face-to-face communication with your employees is an instrumental part of the strategy —​ and your job won't end after the first announcement. Be committed to providing continual updates, even if this is nothing to share during your regular meeting times," it reads. 

SaskPower prepared for employees not wanting to move: briefing note

It also outlined to managers three reasons why employees may not want to move. 

"'I like going to my favourite nearby restaurant at lunch,' People identified to relocate may be attached to their current location because they enjoy the amenities they work near," the note reads. 

Another example: "'I've had this office for five years. I like it,' Those identified to relocate may be very comfortable in the space they currently have and may lack a desire to move."

Todd MacKay with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation says SaskPower's indecision about land use is costing taxpayers millions of additional dollars. (CBC News)

"They were packing their bags"

"They were packing their bags," said MacKay.  

"They were ready to roll and they were rushing this through and then suddenly years later we've got nothing but a field full of weeds and a phased in approach. Something here has changed more than overall economic circumstances."

Fast-forward to 2018 and Marsh explained SaskPower plans to consolidate "as many people into the head office building as we can" and move to the GTH "with only those people that we need to."

SaskPower did not release specific details about the development plan when asked by CBC News, including how many employees could  be relocated.

A spokesperson said its finalizing its long-term plan to deal with its many facilities, which includes a recommendation to develop at the GTH for logistics and fleet operations. 

An announcement will be made following the necessary approvals by SaskPower's board of directors as well as the Crown Investments Corporation and provincial cabinet, the spokesman added. 

Marsh said approvals could happen this fall. 

The NDP's Cathy Sproule questioned the GTH on its low income and high debt. (CBC News)

SaskPower is stuck with land, says NDP

"It's very clearly being walked back from the original vision," said NDP SaskPower critic Cathy Sproule. 

She said that if indeed, SaskPower goes ahead and only uses a small piece of the land parcel, the utility might find it difficult to sell off the remainder of land, as has been the case for the GTH to date. 

Marsh said its looking at using all of the land, but requirements could change with a phased in approach. 

Another unanswered question remains: Why is SaskPower recommending the GTH be developed instead of around 220 acres of land it owns north of the city, near Evraz? 

In an interview with CBC in 2017, Marsh said when it came to decision time, an analysis would be done between developing at the GTH and the other land, which were the two most viable options. 

"And at that point if we decide to go with the North land then we will probably exit the GTH and put it up for sale."

A year later and with a recommendation to develop at the GTH being presented to SaskPower's authority holders, no explanation has yet been provided as to what went into the decision making, with a spokesperson citing the fact the approval process is still happening. 

"This a matter of cart and horse because they bought the land at the GTH they now have to defend it," said Sproule. 

--With files from Geoff Leo

About the Author

Stephanie Taylor

Reporter, CBC Saskatchewan

Stephanie Taylor is a reporter based in Saskatchewan. Before joining CBC News in Regina, she covered municipal politics in her hometown of Winnipeg and in Halifax. Reach her at stephanie.taylor@cbc.ca