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About those Olympic legacies

Nearly three years ago, when several hundred Whistlerites turned out for a special council meeting at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler to voice their opinions on being part of the Olympic bid, and then to hear council members vote 6-1 to officially endo

Nearly three years ago, when several hundred Whistlerites turned out for a special council meeting at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler to voice their opinions on being part of the Olympic bid, and then to hear council members vote 6-1 to officially endorse the bid, some of the benefits of hosting the Games were listed. Among the legacies Whistler could expect, regardless of whether the bid was successful or not, were financial tools, a boundary expansion and 300 acres of land for affordable housing. If the bid was successful Whistler would also gain several Olympic and Paralympic facilities, including a Nordic centre, a bobsleigh track and an ice arena.

Two years ago this Saturday, of course, IOC members voted to award the 2010 Games to Vancouver and Whistler. Since then more of the details of hosting the Olympics have come to light as some decisions have been made and work has commenced. But some of the Olympic legacies Whistler was anticipating have not. The boundary expansion and financial tools may not be dead but neither have they been granted. And now there are signs Whistler may forfeit the ice arena that is needed to host the Paralympics.

The Paralympics, which will be held in March of 2010, will be based in Whistler; no events are planned for Vancouver. The ice arena, which will host Paralympic sledgehockey and must have capacity for 3,500-5,000 spectators, will be built in the Sea to Sky corridor, but exactly where has yet to be determined. An official with the Vancouver Organizing Committee said recently the arena is Whistler’s to lose. Whistler must make up its mind by the end of July.

Why would Whistler even hesitate about accepting this facility? To begin with it’s not a completed facility VANOC is offering, it’s $20 million toward an arena. In a town where fire halls cost $3 million and a library $10 million, $20 million isn’t going to build a 5,000-capacity arena, even when the land is not part of the cost.

Second, three sites are generally understood to be under consideration: Lots 1 and 9 in the village; at Meadow Park next to the existing arena; and in the vicinity of the athletes village next to the Cheakamus River. The cost of building on Lots 1 and 9 is prohibitive. Even though Lot 1 was given to the municipality and always intended for a cultural or sports centre, the cost of building something that meets village design guidelines would be enormous. As well, some people now value the small forest on the lots more highly than an arena.

The Meadow Park site, like Lots 1 and 9 and Spruce Grove Park, is composed of soil deposited from a river; it’s not solid ground and to build a stable foundation on it would be costly.

The Cheakamus area may be expensive to build on because it’s not flat and would require extensive blasting. As well, there won’t be many people living in the area until sometime after the Olympics.

These are all obstacles to building an arena, but are they so formidable that Whistler should turn down $20 million?

Whistler has not done that yet, but indications are it may. At Monday’s Squamish-Lillooet Regional District meeting Pemberton, Squamish and Lillooet representatives were clamoring to make the case for having the Paralympic arena in their communities. And Whistler Mayor Hugh O’Reilly could only respond with hints that something else may be afoot.

"If it’s appropriate for us, yeah, sure we’re going to take it," O’Reilly said. "But if there’s something… better, and there’s something put together, then we’ll have to look at that too."

While we don’t know what other discussions are taking place, it seems crazy Whistler would even consider forfeiting the $20 million VANOC is offering. It’s not enough to build an arena on the challenging sites Whistler has, but surely that money could be leveraged to make it happen.

And the opportunities a second ice arena offers Whistler can’t be overlooked. Bigger hockey tournaments, concerts, figure skating exhibitions and conferences are some of the possibilities, all of which hold the potential to bring more people to Whistler. Depending on its location, another ice arena could also offer one of the family activities visitors are saying Whistler needs.

The community also has needs, some of which might be met by adding on to the arena. That was the thinking behind the municipality’s purchase of Lot 9 for $1 million. More public meeting space, perhaps a home for the museum or additional office space for municipal employees could be incorporated into the arena.

Alternatively, the gymnastics club, ski and snowboard clubs and others are looking for space to train. There is going to be some sort of athlete’s training centre as an Olympic legacy, could that not be grafted onto the arena?

As we stated earlier, no decision on the $20 million and the arena has been made. However, VANOC needs Whistler’s decision by the end of July and a staff report won’t be going to council before the middle of the month.

While the Olympics are still a worthwhile project, the legacies that were expected to fall to Whistler have yet to materialize. And there has been too little public discussion surrounding their non-appearance.