Stimulus projects face hard deadline

Local theatre has yet to begin construction

With winter setting in, municipalities across Quebec are rushing to finish numerous construction and renovation projects before funding from a 2009 federal stimulus package expires on March 31, 2011.

The projects are being financed by the federal Economic Action Plan (EAP), a two-year stimulus package launched at the start of Fiscal Year (FY) 2009-2010. Problems have arisen as the funding’s deadline approaches, however, as many projects have only just begun due to extensive provincial and municipal rules that govern their development.

Les Deux Mondes theatre is one such example. The company entered a partnership with the Théâtre Aux Écuries – a cooperative of seven artistic companies – to renovate the theatre’s existing space at 7285 Chabot. The partnership received $970,000 from the federal government and $2.4 million from the provincial government – about ninety per cent of the $4-million project – to bankroll the project, but due to legal requirements construction is yet to begin, with the deadline to use the EAP money just months away. The project will add one studio, three rehearsal rooms, and necessary utilities, as well as developing an existing building renovated in 1996.

“We officially got the support from the Quebec and Canada governments last November, [and] we rushed to be able to respect the deadline call,” wrote David Lavoie, General Administrator for Aux Écuries, in an email to The Daily. “But an architectural project is a complex thing…[with] the backs and forths needed to get the municipal agreements.”

“We finally got ready for the submission calls [from construction companies] three weeks ago. … That’s the fastest track we could make.”

Lavoie explained that many of the municipal rules around construction are designed to protect the public from rapidly approved projects that could affect their neighbourhoods, allowing residents to campaign against projects they may not want to see developed. For example, developers are obligated to inform the public of a given project and get feedback, a process that often takes three months to achieve.

“The information gets to us drop by drop,” said Lavoie.

Lavoie was confident that eighty to ninety per cent of the project could be completed by March 31, but also noted the danger of enforcing such a strict deadline on construction projects.

“We hope that the Canadian government will get conscious of the danger they balance on the companies like us,” he wrote. “But it’s also crazy to maintain that deadline: if we rush the construction companies to that deadline, our project will cost way more than we planned! Who wants it that way?”

The federal Department of Finance said they are working closely with their provincial and municipal counterparts to ensure that all projects are completed by the deadline.

“While some recipients have reported delays in construction starts in progress reports submitted to the Government, the forecasted completion dates provided, and attested to, by the recipients indicate that projects will be completed by the program end date,” wrote a Department of Finance official in an email to The Daily.

“The Minister of Finance [Jim Flaherty] has stated that [the] federal government will be just and reasonable for projects virtually completed by the deadline, but…it is still our expectation that the vast majority of these projects will be completed by the deadline,” said the official.

For FY2010-11 the EAP is funnelling almost $3.2 billion into the Infrastructure Stimulus Fund to develop provincial, territorial, municipal, and community infrastructure. $330 million has been earmarked for “short-term support for key sectors,” which includes the culture and tourism sectors of municipal government.

Lavoie said that if the theatre prvoject is not completed by March 31, and loses its federal funding, it will be shelved indefinitely until the necessary funding could be collected.

“We cannot build a theater venue dedicated to emerging artists without public support. No theatre has been built in Montreal for the past two decades, in the French community at least. And that’s not because there was not a need for it!” said Lavoie.

He also said that the hard deadline could have a significant impact on the Montreal art scene, which relies heavily on public funding for support. The cultural sector is receiving $158 million in EAP funds this year.

“During the last ten years (at least), the new generations of artists have found it harder and harder to get support from the governments, because the public investments are not increasing. Our artists are now producing at an exhilarating rate. So we’d like to facilitate their access to the tools they need to get to the next step,” said Lavoie.

Ottawa giving McGill $81 million
EAP also established the Knowledge Infrastructure Program (KIP) – money intended to improve infrastructure throughout Canadian universities – and are committing $1 billion for FY2010-11.

Provincial governments across the country have collectively matched the $1 billion. According to the Department of Finance, Quebec has received $458.4 million through the KIP, to support 295 projects throughout the province. McGill has received $81 million from the program for FY2010-11.

According to Jim Nicell, Associate VP (University Services), the University’s prioritized projects for the money include renovations to the Macdonald Engineering, McIntyre Medical, and Otto Maass Chemistry buildings.

Every level of EAP is designed to stimulate the economy by providing new jobs for Canadians, who are in turn expected to contribute to the economy as consumers.

“[KIP is] meant to have a rolling effect. Workers get salaries…[and] spend money,” said Nicell. “It stimulates and stimulates.”

The Department of Finance estimates that EAP is expected to create or maintain 220,000 jobs across the country by the end of 2010.

“Since July 2009, nearly 423,000 jobs have been created in Canada. That is more than were lost in the recession,” said the Department of Finance official.