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Mar 7,2005 - Now News


By Leneen Robb - Staff Reporter - The Now Newspaper

The Smart Choices project - which includes the website and Innovation Centre - may be sold off as early as this month, The NOW has learned.

Although no one would comment publicly on rumours of an impending sale, several reliable sources have told The NOW that both Coquitlam and Port Moody city councils are meeting behind closed doors to discuss the future of Smart Choices, which is touted by some as a success and seen by others as a boondoggle.

Audited financial statements show total revenues in 2003 were $72,004, while total expenditures were $150,882. That means the society spent $78,878 more than it brought in.

Audited financial statements are not yet available for last year, despite the fact that the 2003 statements are dated Feb. 13, 2004.

According to figures supplied by board chair Jennifer Wilkie, Coquitlam has invested more than $3 million in the project since its inception four years ago - $1.79 million in cash and $1.5 million in in-kind contributions such as staff and office support.

Board vice-chair Colleen Rohde, who is also spokesperson for the City of Port Moody, said Friday she did not yet have a figure for how much Port Moody has given the project in in-kind contributions.

The city's cash contributions, to the end of 2003, totalled $252,000, according to audited financial statements.

The local project is one of 12 "Smart Community Demonstration Projects" across the country, all of which received start-up funds from Industry Canada.

The goal was to create a "world-class demonstration project" in each province, as well as in the North and in an Aboriginal community, according to Industry Canada's website - essentially, to harness the power of the Internet to bring communities together.

While Coquitlam, Port Moody, Port Coquitlam, School District 43 and Douglas College expressed interest in submitting a joint application, Port Coquitlam backed out of the project before contributing any cash.

Douglas College and School District 43 remained, but as "junior partners" - responsible for a lesser share of funding than their municipal counterparts.

Douglas College spokesperson Brad Barber said Friday the college gave a total of $50,000 in cash and $14,260 in in-kind contributions over a four-year period.

During that same period, the school district gave $12,000 in cash. Spokesperson Cheryl Quinton said a dollar amount was not put on in-kind contributions, since they benefited the district, as well.

When the project officially wrapped up at the end of 2003, both the college and the district stopped contributing financially.

Sources of in-kind contributions were not broken down in the 2003 audited financial statements, but total in-kind contributions toward the community Internet portal are listed as being $943,803 in 2003 and $1,291,453 in 2002.

In total, the two cities, Douglas College and the school district contributed $1,814,000 in cash between the start of the project in 2000 and the end of 2003.

But the controversy at both Coquitlam and Port Moody city councils began after the project officially wrapped up - when councillors started asking for more details on when Smart Choices would be financially self-sufficient.

The society asked both cities for "bridge financing," and Coquitlam gave $290,000 in 2003, while Port Moody gave $60,000.

Figures are not yet available for how much the two cities gave in 2004.

According to the 2003 statements, however, the loans the two cities kicked in after the project was officially completed are "non-interest with no specific terms of repayment and will become due once the society's operations are self-sufficient."

But the society has not achieved financial self-sufficiency, as Wilkie confirmed Friday.

"The board has been working very, very hard on that, and there's a lot of interest from other levels of government both within Canada and outside of Canada and the private sector," she said, when asked whether Smart Choices is sustainable.

"So I would say that absolutely, it will be sustainable and potentially profitable to the local communities over the next years."

While Coquitlam, Port Moody, Douglas College and School District 43 contributed a total of $1,814,000 in cash between the start of the project and the end of 2003, Industry Canada committed a far greater amount - $4,583,333.

That makes for a total of $8,261,593 in cash and known in-kind contributions.

Add to that potential in-kind contributions from Port Moody - and unquantified ones from the school district - and the total cost of the project could be approaching $9 million.

Has the money been well spent?

Wilkie and other proponents argue it has, and point to examples such as the fact that the Port Moody and Coquitlam public libraries now allow patrons to use just one library card, instead of two.

"Who would have thought it five years ago - that Port Moody and Coquitlam could offer one library card?" Wilkie said.

"For people like me that use the two libraries, it was a real inconvenience to figure out which card to pull out. That's a tremendous benefit."

Wilkie said public libraries in the two cities are "leading the way" in terms of services, and have been recognized both nationally and internationally for their efforts.

She said other benefits of Smart Choices include the sharing of information.

"If you spent about three hours on the ( site, you'd see just the breadth of information," she said.

"You'd see students submitting articles and school information and homework helper and information on safety from all aspects - be it seniors to drug abuse - and that was the purpose, to provide the community (with) information and services from different organizations, be it the news, be it government, be it business, be it whatnot, 24-7.

"So it is hard (to quantify the benefits), because it's online, but it is tangible, and the hits and the traffic and the visits speak to, in my opinion, how now government is reaching to the silent majority out there."

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