Half of Hinton taxes deferred in 2020

Masha Scheele
Local Journalism Initiative

Around 25 per cent of municipal taxes were collected by June 30 this year, when taxes are normally due, as opposed to 60 per cent in 2019.

The remaining 75 per cent of outstanding taxation, which adds up to $11million, were either deferred or part of Hinton’s monthly payment plans.

“From this data we would conclude that a total of 54 per cent of our residents and non-residents chose to defer taxation payments this year,” said Carla Fox, Hinton’s corporate services director.

Some of the outstanding taxes, around 15 per cent, are part of payment plans. Removing the payment plans from the equation means that roughly 60 per cent (or $9,000,000) of the outstanding taxation were deferments.

In addition, roughly three per cent of utility customers deferred payments beyond July 1. Residents who deferred payments were required to pay by Aug. 31.

Beyond Aug. 31, roughly 25 per cent (or $3.6M) of taxation in the Town of Hinton remains collectable. Of that $3.6 million, around 75 per cent ($2.7 million) are on payment plan payments, meaning around $900,000 in taxes were left without payment after Aug. 31.

“So there is an amount expected and planned for through payment plans outstanding, but there is also an outstanding amount not anticipated through payment plans currently – though an owner could speak with us to start a payment plan to make up the amounts and penalties,” explained Josh Yaworski, communications coordinator.

Payment plans are not referred to as deferments, but are still part of the calculation relating to outstanding taxes as they continue to make payments each month of the year until December.

“In 2019, of the $3.4M outstanding after Sept. 1, approximately 83 per cent were anticipated payment plan payments,” said Fox.

This would mean that the number of unpaid taxes increased by approximately eight per cent compared to last year.

Hinton council made the decision to extend the deadline for payment of 2020 property taxes from June 30 to Aug. 31 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The decision to move back the tax deadline was made during a special council meeting on April 7.

Bills were sent out as scheduled, but residents could choose to defer their payments to a later date. Additionally, Town utility payments were deferred for a period of 120 days covering the billings for April, May, June and July 2020 including the cancellation of any associated penalties.

Penalties on outstanding tax and utility amounts will be charged after Aug. 31. 

Normally, a nine per cent penalty is applied to the outstanding balance of the current taxes once the due date has surpassed. 

At a later date, a six per cent penalty is applied, followed by a 15 per cent penalty.

Boardwalk gets go ahead for low-level work

Masha Scheele

Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP) confirmed on Friday morning, Sept. 11, that the Town of Hinton can go ahead with any low level maintenance in the Beaver Boardwalk area that was included in their Water Act application.

This confirmation allows the Town to finalize and begin mobilizing repair plans completed earlier in the year.

“As we were anticipating this decision, staff were primed for this announcement and preparation for work began on Friday. Activity will likely be seen in the area this week,” stated Josh Yaworski, Hinton’s communication coordinator.

These level one activities, that do not change any existing footprints beyond necessary maintenance, are excluded from requiring Water Act approval, he explained.

Prior to the official exclusion notice received on Friday, the Town had been directed that these types of activities did require approval.

The Town worked with AEP through supplemental information requests and site visits to ensure an understanding of the project and its interactions with relevant provincial policy, leading to this exclusion.

“A decision on the major repairs is still pending. We recently met with the Town to discuss which repairs require an approval under the Water Act and which do not. We continue to work with the Town towards an approval for the entirety of the project for a 10-year period,” stated Jason Penner, AEP communications advisor.

A timeline for a full approval of the Town’s Water Act application is still unknown.

Level one maintenance that is now permitted includes minor tasks with minimal impact to the surrounding areas, such as alignment and non-substantive maintenance within the existing footprint, according to the Town’s statement. 

Example activities include reinforcement, straightening/re-erecting of existing slouched section, and reinforcement of existing load bearing supports.

Parks and potential contracted employees are required to carry out manufacturing and construction type tasks outside of the wetland area to minimize impact. 

With winter quickly approaching, some work will be permissible, however until the application is fully approved, the Town will not seek quotes for those work types.

Due to the application dictating the scope of work, proceeding with additional work would not be a recommended use of resources. 

“Some of the higher level tasks can be completed while the lake is frozen. However, these higher level items are awaiting approvals, which are requiring further information,” Yaworski stated.

He added that after no decision on work plans have been made for levels two and three at this time and that the Beaver Boardwalk (BeBo) Committee will be scheduling a meeting in the next two weeks to discuss preparations for full approval.

The Water Act application, which was sent to AEP from the Town and Associated Engineering’s environment department on Oct. 28, 2019, assessed each work area to determine if minor repairs would be sufficient before considering intermediate and major repairs.

Impacts would be minimized in minor repairs by preparing wooden planks outside of the wetland and using tarps or drop cloths to catch any wood shavings or sawdust created while installing the upgrades.

Repairs will be performed without the use of machinery in the wetland and walking in the wetland will be avoided when repairs can safely be performed from the boardwalk or upland areas. 

Minor repairs include replacing screws, and installing sections of boardwalk using hand tools, this can be done from the boardwalk or by staff in waders.

The warping, slumping, and heaving boardwalk in various locations forced administration to close certain sections in the spring of 2019. 

After a public notice was posted about the application in the spring, the BeBo committee and AEP met and worked with individuals that sent letters of concern.

The application is currently considered to be in the supplemental information request phase. 

Drawings and surveys are required for the application to move forward and this process will also ensure that future applications have reference points for shifting locations and supports. 

This will likely see surveyors in the area in the near future.

Tourist visits only dropped 20%

Masha Scheele
Local Journalism Initiative

Despite there being no international travellers this summer, the overall numbers of visitors to the Explore Hinton Visitor Information Centre (VIC) were down by only 20 per cent compared to 2019.

The increase in local travel largely offset having no international travellers.

“What was really surprising was the main destination for visitors, 47 per cent of people visiting the VIC were here primarily to see Hinton, 29 per cent were here to visit Jasper. They wanted to try something new and avoid the crowds in Jasper and they felt that Hinton had just as much as much to offer, maybe less expensive, and they just felt safe here,” said Natalie Charlton, executive director of the Hinton and District Chamber of Commerce during the regular council meeting on Sept. 15.

The VIC, managed by the chamber, opened on June 20 and was staffed until Sept. 7. Chamber staff now operate the centre during the off-season. While the pandemic kept international travellers away, Charlton stated this summer was a great opportunity to market the community to Albertans and she feels many of those visitors will return to Hinton in the future.

“We had a huge uptake on the disc golf, we rent out some of the discs here and we didn’t have enough to give to people, we could’ve had more. They were really interested and loved the fact that we had so many recreational activities at no cost,” Charlton said.

Ninety-six per cent of travellers came from Alberta, with the majority from Edmonton, Grande Prairie and other West Yellowhead communities. 

Visitors mostly asked for hiking maps of the area, the Beaver Boardwalk, fishing licenses and park passes, Switzer Park, places to camp, places to eat, and disc-golf rentals.

The VIC was previously operated by the Chamber while funded through Travel Alberta for more than 10 years, but provincial funding ended this spring mid-contract.

Through a partnership with the Town of Hinton, the Chamber was able to address the tourism gap by continuing to manage the VIC.

“We’ve done more than re-branding our VIC, however. Explore Hinton is a multi-faceted initiative, and has set itself apart from other regionalized tourism initiatives in the province,” said Charlton.

Through the new initiative, Explore Hinton, the chamber re-conceptualized the visitor centre, set up a new website, and created a social media and content strategy.

“We’ve been able to encompass not only what Hinton has to offer as a tourism destination but what opportunities there are for them to visit local businesses, restaurants, retail stores, and hotel accommodations. It’s basically a one-stop-shop,” Charlton said.

Social media pages have gained a local audience and receive continuous engagement.

Forty per cent of Explore Hinton’s Instagram users are non-local, while its Facebook page has also gained a mostly local audience.

Charlton added that they also created a blog, targeting partnership marketing funding received from Travel Alberta, which presents stories of life and travel in Hinton. This allows social media cross-promotion and strategy.

The Hinton Chamber, in partnership with the Town of Hinton Economic Development, was the recipient of up to $20,000 from Travel Alberta to be used towards the initiative for marketing purposes. Those funds were used to send postcards to key cities and addresses, develop digital content, create social media content, and for interpretive signage for the visitor centre.

Future opportunities include continuing to produce high level content, destination marketing organization (DMO), merchandising, and increasing municipal and regional partnerships.

On Sept. 16, a meeting is scheduled to discuss a DMO for Hinton with local stakeholders as a viable strategic priority for regional tourism, especially following the pandemic.

“We will be looking to see what is the right model for a destination marketing plan for Hinton, and we’re hoping that that will open up the door for further tourism initiatives,” said Charlton.

For more information on Explore Hinton, go to explorehinton.org

Pool reopens with COVID restrictions in place

Masha Scheele

The pool officially reopened this week on Sept. 14, and swimmers are required to reserve their spot at the pool prior to their swim.

Thirty-minute time slots can be reserved one day prior and multiple times can be reserved via their website or phone. 

The reservation system was put in place as a measure to ensure fair levels of use were in place due to limitations on spots available.

“So far, all has gone seamlessly. We have received multiple compliments regarding the level of cleanliness and controls in place,” stated the Town administration.

According to Alberta Health Services (AHS), chlorinated pool water is an effective disinfectant and the risk of transmission from contact with properly treated pool water is considered minimal. 

“We increased our chlorine part per million (ppm) from 2ppm to 3 ppm as good measure. In addition, our facility has created an enhanced cleaning schedule of all high touch points of our facility,” stated Josh Yaworski, Hinton’s communications coordinator.

There are six lanes available for lane swim reservation and the lane number is determined on a first come first serve basis. 

Families and cohorts are permitted and encouraged to utilize the same lane. 

Sixteen shallow end spots for aquafit are available for reservation, and there will be an additional 16 deep-end slots available for drop-in on a first come first serve basis. 

Swimmers must also be registered for family swim, and 32 individual spots will be available for registration. There will be no communal toys or equipment for family swim, including the rope swing and climbing wall.

While the hot tub and play pool remain closed, the steam room is open for public use after Alberta Health Services (AHS) gave the go-ahead. Only four spots are available on a drop-in first come first serve basis.

The hot tub and play pool will open in approximately two weeks, pending everything goes well with start-up, stated Hinton’s administration.

Inside the aquatic facility, swimmers are asked to follow directional arrows and ensure physical distancing from one another at all times. 

Masks are recommended but are not permitted be worn while performing physical activity.

Change room capacity is limited and lockers are closed until further notice, but there are areas taped off on deck for belongings.

Cleansing showers prior to a swim are a must and equipment use is limited. 

Any swimmers 10 years and younger must be accompanied by a guardian 18 years or older. 

The pool will be open from 7 am until 9 pm on Monday to Friday and from 12 pm until 6 pm during the weekend.

Register to swim time at www.hinton.ca or by calling 780-865-4412, spots are limited and are only available for reservation 24hrs in advance of the swim time.

Economic development continues amidst pandemic

Masha Scheele
Local Journalism Initiative

Despite several cancelled, suspended, and altered economic development projects due to the pandemic, The Town reported that significant steps have been made towards supporting economic development in the community.

“Economic development has immediately put boots on the ground for the community by focusing on those key objectives identified in the economic development strategy and we can prove a mark impact on the community,” said Scott Kovatch, Hinton’s economic development officer, during the regular council meeting on Sept. 15.

Over the past 14 months, administration, its partners, and the Hinton Region Economic Development Coalition (HREDC), have worked at delivering on the priorities of Hinton’s Economic Development Strategy through several projects outlined during the meeting. Kovatch noted that there is a risk of future inaction and that long term planning is essential for economic development success.

“Creating a sector opportunity profile is an opportunity for us to respond to the gap analysis that was put together as part of our strategy with our consultants. That will allow us to identify and capitalize on gaps that exist in our community,” Kovatch said.

Future priorities include a business retention and expansion program, a destination marketing fee, a housing strategy, and a proactive communications and marketing plan.

A business retention and expansion program will dedicate staff time to developing relationships and maintaining communications with local businesses. The goal is to reduce disengagement and risk of businesses flight from the community, and making the community aware of local support.

A destination marketing fee would be a game changer, Kovatch said, not only securing long term sustainability of growth in the tourism sector but also attracting new businesses and residents.

Addressing the significant demand for housing, Kovatch noted the community has not necessarily been proactive in completing and understanding the challenges and implementing an appropriate plan of action. It is important to implement a long term strategy after comprehensive consultation with developers, employers, and residents.

A due diligence report was completed on the McMillan lands prior to the recent public design charrette to create some type of housing development. A final report presentation on the McMillan Lands development will come to council in October and council will begin the process of designating the lands for that purpose. 

Administration is putting money aside for this project in the draft capital budget for council consideration in the budget process.

Finally, a proactive communication and marketing plan is very important for the success of economic development in Hinton, Kovatch added.

“Hinton has many strengths, and can leverage those being market ready in several instances. Small businesses are very strong, value chain opportunities exist here, there are a significant amount of lone eagles that can grow their businesses and operate independently, and there are opportunities for success stories through Hinton First, and in the near future we will be launching Hinton Success Stories which is a podcast pilot that will run for the next three months,” Kovatch said.

The town’s biggest challenge are budget implications when it comes to resourcing economic development initiatives. More needs to be done if the Town wants to be competitive in the national market place, Kovatch noted.

Under the first objective, improving investment readiness and proactively attracting targeted sectors, administration and HREDC developed a retail pitch deck to attract retail business.

This retail pitch deck circulated at the international conference of shopping centres (ICSC) and at the Edmonton franchise expo, which Kovatch said produced multiple site selector visits. A second pitch deck is geared towards resource supply chain investment.

Objective two is about business retention and expansion programming.

A COVID-19 business survey was used to develop an economic recovery support response strategy in support of the second objective.

A business retention attraction and expansion visitation strategy was also created and shared with partner organizations, and a second CARES grant application was approved.

Objective three is increasing tourism marketing and asset development.

Administration worked with Destination Alberta Northern Rockies to establish a group that markets the region and its assets. A meeting was organized to establish a business model for the Destination Marketing Organization (DMO) that would market the region.

“This particular DMO would function possibly via the funds derived from no taxpayer dollars and generating revenue from hotel guests. The fund would support product development, event development, as well as support marketing,” said Kovatch.

The first event was cancelled due to COVID-19 but was rescheduled for Sept. 16, and roughly 40 participants are expected. Those guests include the chamber board of directors, hoteliers, Travel Alberta, and Hinton Council.

The Town partnered with the Chamber on a Travel Alberta grant application focusing on visiting friends and relatives for the Cooperative Marketing Program..

The HREDC was established in 2015, and they were engaged to assist in developing an Economic Development Strategy in 2018.

Canyon Creek Project eyes 2021 build

Image from Turning Point Generation website

Masha Scheele

Work for the proposed pumped hydro energy project outside of Obed is underway this year, but construction likely won’t begin until the spring, according to Turning Point Generation (TPG) president, Kipp Horton.

TPG develops renewable energy storage projects and is developing the pumped hydro energy storage project located 13 kilometres east of Hinton called The Canyon Creek Project.

“I think the biggest milestone recently was the fact that TC energy has come in as a partner on the project with us,” Horton said of the equity investment made earlier this year that will help advance the project.

Since TC Energy joined the project, there has been a lot of work behind the scenes on how to move forward together.

Horton explained they’ve spent a lot of time this summer getting on the same page regarding the configuration and the construction schedule.

“We did some site work, field investigative work, this summer at the site to gain more information for the finalized engineering design. Things like subsurface, geotechnical investigations field work. All of that is very important to inform the final design from an engineering perspective,” Horton added.

Horton hopes to continue with the current momentum throughout the fall with the near term goal of creating a final investment decision (FID) jointly with their partner, TC Energy. 

An FID is the point in an energy project when the companies owning or operating the project approve the project’s future development and are able to move ahead with the project.

“Both parties are highly motivated to do that as soon as possible,” Horton added.

Horton noted that TC Energy has been a great corporate citizen and well respected in the Hinton area. TPG is happy to have a chance to move this project forward with them.

“We’re not there yet, the project is not 100 per cent a go at this point as I said, but we’re optimistic and we’re looking to be a good partner and part of the community for a long long time,” he said.

Construction won’t start until that final investment decision is made but things are moving nicely in that direction, Horton added. Realistically, construction wouldn’t begin until after spring break up.

While there are several hydro projects in Alberta, this particular hydro energy storage project is very unique and the first of its kind in Western Canada.

A similar project to this one was built in the 1950s in Ontario at Niagara Falls, but otherwise this is a fairly new concept in Canada.

“We own and operate various hydro projects throughout BC, we as a team and TC energy are quite familiar with hydro plants. It’s just this specific storage application is very unique,” Horton said.

Horton described the hydro energy storage project as a water battery. 

There will be one upper freshwater reservoir and one lower reservoir, which will be connected in a closed loop system by an underground pipe. The system will not be connected to any existing water sources.

At night, when the power demand in the province is very low and therefore power prices are very low, the hydro plant will use that power to pump water from the lower pond to the upper pond. During the day, water will flow back down to the lower reservoir creating energy when demand is at its peak.

Horton explained that a lot of wind farms in southern Alberta produce more power at night due to strong winds, and the hydro energy storage project can act as a sponge to absorb all that excess unused power while everyone is asleep.

“Everybody wakes up, switches on the lights, industry ramps up during the day and the demand for electricity goes up in the province, therefore prices go up and we can produce power for the grid and for Alberta consumers when it’s most needed during the day time,” Horton said.

The reservoirs require one initial fill and may need to be topped up from time to time due to evaporation.

The upper reservoir is planned to be located in the southeast corner of the old Obed Mountain Coal Mine surface lease, while the lower one will be up from the Athabasca River. Both will use existing topography and have a berm to impound the water.

The Canyon Creek Project will have an initial generating capacity of 75 megawatts that has the potential to expand to up to 400 MW with future development.

As coal fired power plants in the province are continuing to be decommissioned, there seems to be a continued push on growing renewable rates as well, Horton said. While there are many benefits to renewable energy, Horton said one downside is that it’s variable and intermittent.

“You can’t rely on it and so we act as a sort of nice counter to that and a partner to that respect,” Horton added.

Horton pointed out that this project can ensure there is always power coming onto the grid even when a lot of other power plants are challenged due to the weather, like no wind or sun.

The construction phase will bring on several hundred jobs at various times throughout the project construction schedule, which will take roughly two years once ground is broken and has an estimated cost of around $200M.

Once the construction is done, the project will create five to ten permanent jobs.

“What’s great about this type of project, if you look at the history of them, they stay around for a long time in the community. TransAlta owns projects in Alberta that are 100 years old and they never run out of fuel,” Horton said.

Hydro plants don’t need any major repowering, while solar power wears out after 20 years and wind turbines need to be replaced after 25 years, said Horton.

Hydro plants are run simply by a turbine, which is nothing more than a bucket wheel, he added.

There is some preventative maintenance that is required along the way but it will be in the community for a long time.

The AESO (Alberta electric system operator) and the power market in Alberta both allow and enable merchant generation as well as energy storage projects. 

The Alberta Utilities Commission has a well defined process for the approval of power plants, including hydro.

The Canyon Creek Project has received the approval of the Alberta Utilities Commission and the required approval of the Alberta Government for hydro projects under the Canyon Creek Hydro Development Act, passed with bi-partisan support by the Alberta Legislature.