Paralympic Arena 

Paralympic arena still a question mark

Mayor Ken Melamed is not convinced the majority of the community has spoken out in favour of building a multi-million dollar arena in the heart of the village.

Rather, he said a very vocal segment of the population, including the business community, rose up in a wave of support this fall when it appeared the municipality was bargaining a way out of building the Paralympic sledge hockey arena.

And so despite a resolution from the last council in October to take the money from the Vancouver Organizing Committee and investigate arena options, the mayor said there is still the possibility for Lot 1/9 to remain undeveloped. It could be the municipality’s "rainy day fund" for the future.

"It is the last piece of land that we have," he said during a staff update on the arena at Monday’s afternoon workshop meeting.

Newly elected councillor Tim Wake has a different read on the community and its wishes. Though he recognizes that the numbers have to make sense before Whistler moves ahead, he said the community has spoken out.

"I think this community has made a commitment to VANOC to hold the Paralympic Games," he said, adding that he believes the community would like the municipality to honour that commitment.

"I think we are compelled to develop it now."

But with only $20 million coming from VANOC, Whistler is still $10-15 million short. Estimates for an arena in the village range between $30-35 million.

And though VANOC is now asking the provincial and federal governments for more money to offset rapidly escalating construction costs, there is no indication yet that Whistler could get a larger share to make up for its Games infrastructure shortfall.

"At this point we don’t know if that will have any impact on us at all," said Keith Bennett, the general manager of parks and recreation.

Council will have to call a referendum on the arena if they are required to borrow money to build it. In the end the community will have the last say on what happens to Lot 1/9 but they don’t have much time to figure it out.

If the arena is to open in February 2009, a decision must be made in the next six months.

"It is a tight schedule," admitted municipal parks planner Martin Pardoe. "There’s not a lot of room here for a misappropriation of time."

The motion at the Oct. 17 council meeting called on council to not only accept the money but also develop two concepts for an arena – one an open air concept developed by master village planner Eldon Beck, and the other a more traditional box arena which potentially combines other commercial or institutional space.

Council also agreed to continue exploring the concept of twinning the ice sheet at Meadow Park should the village arena not pan out financially.

At Monday’s workshop council attempted to give some clearer parameters to staff by narrowing the focus. For example, Wake asked if it would help to remove the idea of building a big box arena.

"I don’t think anyone wants to go with a traditional arena here," he said. "Can we take that out of the mix?"

Staff explained that they are looking at a whole spectrum of options, from the traditional box arena to the open-air concept.

The master planning for Lot 1/9 is also now underway. Among the questions to be answered are:

• What is Whistler’s vision for the last remaining undeveloped pieces of land in the village?

• What could be built there that would be a lasting legacy to the resort for generations to come?

• What will make the community feel proud?

To help make that decision plans are underway to establish a Community Advisory Committee made up of local stakeholders and community members at large. It is hoped it will be a wide cross-section of the community. Staff plans to bring in experts who have experience in urban place making to help the group make its decisions.

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