Magnificent Megaplex

TransAlta Tri Leisure Centre
Spruce Grove, Alberta

By Earl Hogan

Often a unique partnership produces unique results. The Alberta municipalities of Parkland County, the Town of Stony Plain and the City of Spruce Grove joined forces to produce the $28 million TransAlta Tri Leisure Centre (TLC). The facility was the fourth in a string of new facilities completed within a few years across Alberta, which now has three others under construction, as the trend seems to continue toward large, multiplex municipal recreation facilities.

The TLC serves as a year-round family fitness center; a much-needed indoor venue for hockey, soccer and other organized sports programs; and a popular social hub for participating communities. The participating governments share in a magnificent resource and never could have independently financed the megaplex.

"We've had inquiries about TLC from as far away as New Zealand," says Roger Smolnicky, managing director of the complex. "Our residents have a truly rare resource here, perhaps unique throughout the entire world."

The Tri Municipal Leisure Facility Corporation, a not-for-profit company and partnership of the three municipalities, developed and manages the facility. This partnership remains unique among the other new facilities in Alberta, and the collaborative approach could serve as a model for other local governments interested in a similar public-private venture.

Adopting Alberta's Part Nine legal provisions for TLC assured immediate and long-range benefits. These provincially legislated entities are intended to create not-for-profits and/or public/private sector ventures such as TLC.

"The benefits of operating the TLC as a Part Nine company relate to the decision-making and financial operations," explains Diane Hamel, manager of business and public affairs for Spruce Grove. "Although each municipality appoints two elected officials and one public member to the TLC Board of Directors, the board operates independently. The value to the municipalities resides in the community transparency, elimination of 'turf protection' and the ability to operate the facility as a business."

The TLC is earning acceptance as well as proving to be an economic stimulus.

"We already draw 1.2 million visitors per year," Smolnicky says. "The Centre has even attracted its first international event. We hosted the World In-Line Hockey Competition, a roller-blade event on bare ground, that had teams from nine countries."

In addition to strong patronage by residents, the 226,000-square-foot multiplex presents a marketable venue for tournaments, trade shows, festivals and other special events. The economic impact is evident in three new housing developments and expansion of a fourth. Interest also has emerged among commercial developers. Whereas "leap-frog" development occurred before TLC changed the landscape, this corridor of Spruce Grove, Stony Plain and Parkland County has enjoyed healthier types of infill projects.

"The city of Spruce Grove has experienced an average of 8 percent growth since the opening of TLC," Hamel says. "In addition, we have seen commercial land values adjacent to the leisure facility increase by 20 percent."

The results are no surprise for the architectural firm that designed the facility.

"This is typical of what we've found with all multiplexes," says Steve Barr, a principal with Barr Ryder Architects & Planners based in Edmonton, Alberta. "The level of development invariably increases substantially around them. A large multipurpose facility can quickly become a family activity center that brings them together at the same time, with each family member often using a different amenity."

Randy Conrad, principal with Randall Conrad & Associates, Ltd., served as a consultant and coordinated the project on behalf of the three municipalities. He attributes the success of the TLC to the process of sound community involvement where equity, trust and shared resources were mutually recognized as prerequisites.

Broad supports made this innovative project a reality. Conrad praises the committee of volunteers who first envisioned the complex and then undertook the footwork to start the process. The TLC Board provided an efficient development and operational entity. Of course, none of this would have happened without the general public and government administrations supporting a funding plebiscite.

"Steering a multi-jurisdiction project like this, while challenging, was indeed rewarding as everyone involved quickly worked through the issues of equity and shared responsibility," Conrad says. "The favorable public vote resulted from the trust and cooperation between governments and the input from close to 50 public meetings."

He also says that the TLC's successful design and ultimate operation emerged from sound feasibility work and from the process endorsed by the region. It was a five-year adventure that produced a facility program and predictable operational outcome long before the design team and contractors were retained to carry out the detail, ultimately producing a successful response to the region's wish list.

Amenities across three levels within the facility include the aquatic center with a 25-meter, 10-lane pool as well as a leisure pool with water slide, large whirlpool and steam room; family fitness facilities; community gymnasium; twin soccer field houses overlooked by spectator seating and a three-lane running/walking track suspended from the structure (one pitch has removable flooring for badminton and volleyball); two NHL-size hockey rinks with overhead spectator seating and adjoining leisure ice off the end of one competition rink; and more than 20,000 square feet of lease space that has already drawn a child-care center, leased food/beverage concessions, along with a sports physiotherapy clinic, administrative offices, meeting rooms, shops, community and cultural spaces.

All of this is packaged in an eye-riveting contemporary character clad in colorful metal wall panels with a generous glass fašade. A curvilinear tower at the entrance opens into a large foyer and concourse whose yellow serpentine floor graphic establishes the ground-level circulation spine. The people-friendly spaces throughout reflect careful planning for patrons of all age groups and ensure a barrier-free facility sensitive to patrons with special needs.

Robertson Building Systems served as the metal building systems supplier for the project's soccer and hockey field houses. The pre-engineered structural framing, metal wall panels and standing seam metal roof system were an ideal materials solution for the needed clear spans in these large components of the complex, while conventional structural steel was fabricated for the more geometrically complex elements at the front of the facility. The nature of metal building systems also delivered firm pricing, faster construction and more predictable control over the 15-month schedule.

A five-year effort

Before TLC opened in 2002, the last leisure facility built in the region was in the 1970s, leaving both public and nominal private recreational resources with inadequate capacity and diversity. Adopting a partnership embodied in the Part Nine company was not new to the three governments. They had participated in 50 cooperative ventures before they set out to assess recreational facilities for their 60,000 residents. In 1996, findings by a volunteer task force first set the momentum for a jointly developed regional facility.

Advocates emphasized that a regional facility would save initial development and operating costs and potentially spur economic growth. A consolidated facility would easily save an estimated $2 million to $3 million simply by eliminating redundant site acquisition, infrastructure and subsequent operating costs when compared to local governments independently developing their own centers.

Financing rates also ran several percentage points less for the governments than for private capital. Finally, the new facility would enable Spruce Grove to avoid $750,000 in retrofits and a $200,000 subsidy required for a municipal pool operating at the time. It also eased the burden on Stony Plain that faced increased facility demands and on Parkland County residents who would co-share development in both communities.

Following a strong public information campaign, voters overwhelmingly approved the necessary tax increase in late 2000. The municipal partnership stakes are approximately a 42 percent share for Spruce Grove, 33.5 percent for Parkland County and 24.5 percent for Stony Plain. The bylaws of the Part Nine Corporation ensure each local government a seat on the facility's governing board.

The project's construction cost was limited to the $21 million proceeds authorized by the formal plebiscite that was supplemented with a $7 million provincial grant. Because the plebiscite was for a set amount, it was essential to award the contract on the basis of a guaranteed maximum price, which was possible because of an earlier effort to attract a private developer for the megaplex. After the successful plebiscite, the municipal partnership hired Barr Ryder with Randall Conrad & Associates Ltd. to complete the design and jointly represent the ownership interests during construction by PCL-Maxam.

TransAlta, an international, non-regulated electric utility company, partnered with a substantial contribution in return for the naming rights and sponsorship for key events over the next decade. Other contributions have flowed from volunteer fund-raising and donor recognition programs to cover items not provided for in the original base funding. TransAlta and 19 other corporate sponsors have underwritten significant enhancements to the facility, such as higher grade floor surfaces and other finishes.

In addition to standard memberships, a corporate membership program has drawn a legion of other companies who offer it to their employees as a wellness-and-leisure benefit. The facility operates 363 days a year, from 5 a.m. until midnight, with 30 full-time and 90 part-time staff members.

Although the collaborative agreement included up to a $600,000 commitment from the governments to cover any operating deficit, annual revenues of $4.4 million find the Centre operating very close to break even.

"As a Part Nine, we are completely separate from the communities and have the ability to put $200,000 a year into a capital reserve account," Smolnicky explains. "We also put $100,000 per year into new equipment for customer use, including $65,000 per year into equipment replacement. Any surplus goes into a contingency fund. We had $140,000 left from the first year, so we've quickly become self-supporting. That has helped us preserve an economical rate structure."

Which makes it easier for more people to access the facility.

"People like this new generation of indoor leisure facility," Smolnicky says. "This facility would be well-supported anywhere."

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TransAlta Tri Leisure Centre:

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