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Seniors in Fort Smith butt heads with town over rec room

Renovations on the Community Recreation Centre in Fort Smith. photo courtesy of the Town of Fort Smith

A dispute over a lease agreement in the Community Recreation Centre (CRC) in Fort Smith is putting the town council and some of its seniors at loggerheads.

The Fort Smith Seniors Society is unhappy with the way the termination of its lease agreement in the CRC was handled by the town.

Last June the group signed a four-year lease with the Town of Fort Smith for exclusive use and management of the room inside the CRC, according to society president Mary-Pat Short.

It had paid for its own insurance and Northwestel TV connection in the room, and had rights over management of other groups' occasional usage of the room.

The lease was also signed with the knowledge of both the society and town that construction would take place in the CRC in early 2021.

“The lease with the town was signed in good faith,” said Short.

Seniors not consulted before lease cancelled

But on Feb. 4 the society received a letter from Mayor Lynn Napier announcing the lease would be terminated because of the construction in the building.

“We had a meeting with the mayor and some of the councillors a week later. We were given no transparent answer what had changed and why they wanted access to the Seniors Room. The mayor brought up the construction and safety, because they have preschool groups in the centre. That confused us,” Short said.

“There was no consultation with the seniors. It was all cloak and daggers. It (also) really upset people to hear that we were assured (the lease) could be replaced by a user group agreement. We asked for an explanation and we were assured by the mayor that she would write a letter and give us this information.”

Short said the society was supposed to receive that letter on Feb. 16 but it didn't come through.

“It's just another one of these lack of transparency issues. Seniors are getting more anxious.”

Napier admits she hasn't yet sent out that letter.

“It's been a busy time and I haven't been able to draft a letter that will include all the discussions we've had to date and the commitment to an interim user agreement,” she said. “We want to have an agreement with the Seniors Society where we don't charge them rent. Council is looking at the timeline for how long rent wouldn't be paid. The town would pay for their insurance.”

60-day clause

The decision to terminate the lease with the Seniors Society and with the Curling Club was in line with a clause in the agreement where either party can terminate it within 60 days, Napier said.

“We can't maintain the conditions in the lease while we're in construction,” she said. “We needed to allow time to cancel the lease and allow any user agreements to be drawn up and get a time for the contractors on when they can start (the renovations).”

Council discussed the lease and decided to cancel it in a special in-camera meeting on Jan. 28. Notice of the decision was sent by email to the Senior's Society and Curling Club on Feb. 3.

Short said the seniors were irritated to learn that decision was made behind closed doors.

“What is going on? These are the councillors representing the citizens of Fort Smith and we don't even know what they're voting on,” she said.

The society shared their concerns about the lease in a meeting on Feb. 17 with Indigenous leaders of the Fort Smith region. Short took from the meeting that those in attendance were sympathetic to the seniors' cause.

'Disregard' for seniors

Short acknowledges that the town's expanded renovations plan for the CRC includes in the Seniors Room a retrofitted kitchen, a new entrance and a glass atrium.

However, she feels there are bigger issues at stake that remain unresolved.

The town stated in a Feb. 24 press release on the renovations that $615,000 in added features were approved in a regular meeting on Feb. 16.

The additions will bring the renovation project budget to more than $4.2 million, of which $2.5 million is from the federal government’s Building Small Communities Fund. Fort Smith also received $250,000 in additional funding from the GNWT for childcare centre infrastructure.

“(Feb. 16) was supposed to be the day we received a letter from the mayor when she would explain what a user group agreement was and why it was necessary to cancel the lease, and other questions. To realize it was passed by the council (on the same day) seems to add another layer of disregard to the issues raised,” Short said.

Renovations on the Community Recreation Centre in Fort Smith are occurring as the Seniors Society says their lease in the building was abruptly terminated for unclear reasons. photo courtesy of the Town of Fort Smith
Renovations on the Community Recreation Centre in Fort Smith. photo courtesy of the Town of Fort Smith

In addition to the three additions approved to the Seniors Room, others in the CRC include:

  • a new ceiling for the existing main floor fitness room to create additional floor space on the second floor;
  • relocation of second-floor washrooms;
  • separate entrance to the childcare centre;
  • a fenced park area for use by the childcare centre; and
  • better acoustics throughout the facility and a book drop at the library.

The previously approved renovations include:

  • the relocation of the Mary Kaeser Library to the second floor of the facility from its downtown location;
  • creating a childcare centre on the main floor;
  • relocating a larger and enhanced Pete’s Gym to the basement from the second floor;
  • relocating an upgraded Fitness Room to the basement from the main floor; and
  • mechanical improvements for heating, cooling and air flow in the facility.

Meeting March 1

Short explained that the additions to the Seniors Room might have their advantages but appear to be aimed at accommodating other groups that will now be able to use the room.

“We had requested a safety door in order for seniors to get out fast in an emergency," she said. "But then (the town) said (the door) would allow organizations that had needed to get into the premises after the official hours would be able to access their room. We had said we would appreciate having more room. (But) an atrium doesn't exactly fit the bill.”

Napier said the society won't have to share its room with other groups and the curling area and that the Seniors Room would remain separate.

But the society will lose control over bookings.

“(With the lease terminated) we will have the ability to book the room when the Seniors Society isn't using it,” Napier said.

Once the renovations are complete, new user agreements would be negotiated with the groups.

The society isn't sure of its next step. Its members are still distressed over the termination of the lease and they hope they will receive answers soon, Short said.

At a meeting that took place on March 1 between the society, the mayor and Indigenous leaders, Short said "many perspectives" were shared but the main message was that the termination of the lease should be rescinded.

"The mayor listened and said there would be a town meeting where the concerns would be further discussed," Short said.