The Town of Westlock needs an attitude adjustment, a group of local builders told council at the Feb. 28 meeting.
The town has an “anti-business” attitude and there is a very real risk local builders will simply choose to do business elsewhere because of it, said local builder Jim Wiese.
Wiese appeared as part of a delegation, which also included Morris Victoor and Roger Tinant, that came before town council to present a list of concerns. Councillors agreed to discuss those concerns with their economic development group.
Wiese mentioned several specific concerns, such as the town’s agreement to provide a “monopoly” on inspection services to Inspectors Group instead of allowing competition, and altering or repealing selected bylaws that present roadblocks to builders.
“We need to change the attitude of the town to a more pro-business attitude, that’s the big thing,” Wiese said. “All these other things would flow from that.”
With respect to building code inspections, they are currently done exclusively by Inspectors Group because of a contractual obligation with the town. This presents a problem, Wiese said, because not only are the inspectors often slow to respond they are often difficult to deal with.
“So much of what’s in the code is grey area,” Wiese said.
He pointed to an example where the inspector told him he had to finish a basement, when the basement was never meant to be a livable space and was only accessible through a small crawlspace.
Furthermore, he argued, the inspectors will often wait for a week or more to come do a particular inspection, which had contributed to a backlog of 180 pending development permits in town —so many that someone was hired to help address the issue, said Wiese.
“We didn’t realize there was that much of a backlog,” Coun. Marjorie Sterling Miller said.
With competitive inspection services, things can move faster, and that staff member would never have had to be hired, Wiese said.
CAO Darrell Garceau confirmed someone had been hired to “follow up” on some outstanding files, but could not say if there had been 180 pending permits.
“We just wanted to make sure our filing system was current and up to date,” he said.
Wiese also implied the town, in many cases, gives preferential treatment to out-of-town developers at the expense of local ones. As examples, he cited Skyrider developments, which is in charge of the new subdivision in town, and Melvac, the now-bankrupt company responsible for the unfinished condominium near the McDonald’s.
“How did they get the regulatory process approved so quickly to get on with these projects and then never get them finished, and why does it take us so long to get our projects going when we get them finished?” Wiese said.
Garceau said there was no preferential treatment, and as for why the two companies in question were unable to finish the projects, that’s out of the town’s hands.
“There are many people building, be it houses or commercial buildings, in the Town of Westlock that are neither backlogged nor have any problems,” he said.
As for an overarching anti-business attitude in town, Garceau said he believes that’s just not true.
“In my opinion, we’re not anti-business in any way. We’re trying to promote local business; we’re trying to bring business to town,” he said. “The intent of the economic development committee and planning department as a whole is to remove impediments that would prevent people from doing business in Westlock.”
He pointed to the town’s proactive approach in terms of providing television and print advertisements encouraging people to do business in Westlock.
Council agreed to further discuss the concerns and Garceau said they would consider each of the eight recommendations provided by the delegation.
Wiese said he felt the meeting with council was a productive one, although he stopped short of calling it successful.
“They’re an elected body, so they’re going to listen,” he said.
“Whether they hack down anything that we said or any of the recommendations we gave them, time will tell.”