Concern is mounting among the village business community as the municipality continues to hold off on its decision on where to put the Paralympic ice arena.
For some business owners such as Norbert Roche the decision is straightforward the facility should go on Lot 1/Lot 9, the forested land behind the Brew Pub which has long been slated as a site for community recreation facilities, such as an ice rink or a swimming pool.
"Its vital," said Roche, who owns several businesses in town such as La Bocca and La Brasserie. "Its a lifeline (for the village) in a sense."
The lifeline he is referring to is a facility that would draw people into the village and bring a little life back to the flagging economy, which has been on the decline for the past four years.
In recent weeks, however, it has become apparent that council has yet to make up its mind on where the facility should go as negotiations with various parties continue.
Roche addressed the issue at last Thursdays Dialogue Café where 20 people gathered together to look at Whistlers retail mix.
Rick Clare, who owns Whistler One Hour Photo, attended the Dialogue Café and agreed with Roche that the Paralympic arena could be a draw to bring people to the village at least it could be one piece of the puzzle.
"I think it could be," said Clare. "Economically it could be a real challenge for us as far as supporting the infrastructure or the ongoing (operations) But I also think that it is something that could make the village a little more lively."
Both Roche and Clare are long-time business owners in the village.
Roche, who has lived in Whistler since 1980, said the municipality has always planned Lot 1 for community facilities.
Lot 1 was deeded to Whistler when the Village North lands were subdivided in the early 1990s. It was originally to be an arena but the zoning also allows for a cultural facility. Later, the municipality bought the adjoining piece of land called Lot 9 for $1 million and it was intended to complement facilities on Lot 1. To date neither has been developed.
At the Dialogue Café community members talked about one of the key tenets of the village design, which called for the village to be a place where residents and tourists mix together to add an air of vibrancy and excitement.
The general consensus at the meeting was that that feeling was now missing.
Roche said it started disappearing when the municipality decided to build the Meadow Park Sports Centre in Alpine Meadows.
That, along with retail hubs in Creekside and now in Function Junction, is diluting the village experience, he said.
"When we lost Meadow Park, we lost the locals," he said. "The (original village) plan was an integration of locals and tourists."
Bob Lorriman, former owner of Gone Bakery in the village, also said the Paralympic facility could be a boost to the village.
"Were moving away from the original concept of what the village was," he said. "Imagine if we could start having events in there. All of a sudden in the evening or afternoons youre going to have 3,000 to 5,000 people coming into the village for a particular event and theyre probably going to have dinner and then wander around and what a great idea."
And yet, discussions about the Paralympic facility continue with the community in a vacuum of knowledge. It is not clear where the facility will go just as it is not clear how much the facility will cost to build or maintain over the years.
Council cannot comment because the sessions are going on behind closed doors. What is apparent is that if Whistler doesnt want to build it and leverage the $20 million from VANOC, Squamish and Pemberton are keen to see it in their towns.
The facility, which is described in the Olympic Bid Book as a 3,500 to 5,000 seat Entertainment Complex/Multipurpose facility, is designed to host the Paralympic sledge hockey competitions in 2010.
The Vancouver Organizing Committee has pledged $20 million to Whistler to build it and, according to the Bid Book, it was slated to go on Lot 1/Lot 9.
Its Whistlers decision to make and the deadline is getting closer. VANOC is expecting a decision by the end of the month.
This lack of information as the deadline approaches is frustrating for Lorriman, who wonders why the discussions have to be confidential at the same time as council asks the community to get engaged with Whistlers future in the planning document Whistler 2020.
"Were the water-boy on the bench not being told whats going on," said Lorriman. "Theyre saying hey, youre valuable members of the team but you know what, you guys just dont have the wherewithal to make these decisions, so just stay on the bench and you can win with the team but youre not really part of the team.
"It just leaves a bad taste in my mouth and Im sure at the end of the day hopefully its going to be fine (but) you just wonder whats going on?
Councillor Gordon McKeever also attended Thursdays Dialogue Café. Like other members of council he cannot say much about the ongoing negotiations for the Paralympic venue but he did say the municipality has looked at a variety of options.
The crux of the issue is that the cost of the facility "would be significantly beyond the monies committed by VANOC and our best understanding of a business model for this facility would involve community subsidy," he said.
After the comments at the Dialogue Café McKeever said it may be appropriate to open up the discussion to the public.
"I think it is very appropriate for the community to get engaged in this process, particularly as there are going to be unexpected elements of it such as an assumption of debt that wasnt anticipated, so it is appropriate that the community get engaged," he said.
"It can be a contributor to our economy, no doubt about it. But it will also be a liability and thats what weve got to look at going forward."
He also added that councils past and present have been criticized for using taxpayers monies to subsidize Millennium Place annually. The Paralympic facility would be a much larger subsidy he added.
This is one of the reasons why village business owner Dave Kirk is wary of the new facility.
Kirk is a former councillor who was part of the decision to move Meadow Park to Alpine Meadows. He doesnt believe an ice arena will draw residents and tourists to the village.
"I dont buy the argument that this is a panacea for trying to bring back the so-called local who complains that they have no reason to come to the village," said Kirk.
"I dont know whether or not people here want their taxes to rise in order to subsidize a facility of this nature. And its very rare that these facilities can be 100 per cent self-sustaining.
"If its going to require a tax increase to support this kind of facility what does that do in regards to all of our concerns about taxations levels here and affordability. Because believe me, everybody would feel this unless theres a wonderful legacy fund left behind that would ensure the taxpayer is not on the hook for the running of this facility."
Still he said there has to be more information out in the public before a decision is made.
As of press time on Wednesday it does not appear as though the staff report on the Paralympic facility will be at Mondays council meeting. The report is expected to be presented at the Tuesday, Aug. 2 meeting.
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