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Athletes' centre costs climb

Whistler to contribute additional $1.65 million as budget balloons from $6.3 million to $11.45 million

By Alison Taylor

At the request of Olympic organizers, Whistler council has kicked in another $1.65 million for the athletes’ centre, which is now more than $5 million over budget.

The Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Games (VANOC) has stepped up to the plate with $3.5 million to address the budget shortfall and asked Whistler council to also come to the table with more funding.

The high performance centre is the mandatory training facility for athletes during the Games but it will become the permanent home for not only the local gymnastics club but also visiting sports teams and other community groups post-2010. That was the reason council originally committed $2 million to the facility.

This latest decision brings Whistler’s total commitment to the project to $3.65 million.

The facility, like the Nordic centre and the sliding centre, will be operated by the 2010 Legacies Society following the Olympics.

Council’s debate was moved from what was described as a “heated” closed door meeting Tuesday morning and added as a last minute item to the public council meeting that evening.

It passed in a five to two vote.

“We made a deal with a developer,” said Councillor Eckhard Zeidler, who tried to persuade his colleagues to reconsider their vote.

He held up a recent newspaper article proclaiming VANOC’s finances were in great shape.

“We thought we had a deal on this — 2 million bucks — step up to the plate,” he urged Olympic organizers.

Mayor Ken Melamed said VANOC was stepping up to the plate with an additional $3.5 million for the budget overruns.

He also highlighted that it was Whistler’s decision originally to commit funds to the facility for the long-term community legacy.

“We were the ones who opted in with the $2 million,” said the mayor.

For Councillor Ralph Forsyth it was an opportunity not to be missed.

“It’s an opportunity that we can’t afford not to take,” he said.

And registering his vote in favour of the request was so important to Councillor Bob Lorriman he called into the council meeting from his boat on Desolation Sound.

Head gymnastics coach Tami Mitchell was pleased with council’s decision.

The “Oros Training Centre” — so named after the Greek word for mountain — will provide activities for everybody in the community, she said, from the freestyle and snowboard teams to tumbling classes for tots. It is not just a gymnastics club facility.

“Every sport organization out there is fighting for space,” said Mitchell.

“It’s a place that every sport can use for their training needs.”

Council’s decision highlights that when it comes to the Olympics, it’s not “business as usual,” said Melamed.

“We’re being asked to do things in a slightly different manner and we have to think on our feet,” he added.

The first hint that the budget for the athletes’ centre was under pressure came one month ago when VANOC applied to council for a development permit for the 20,000 square foot facility. At that time project manager Sean Rodrigues told council: “I’ll be honest with you, the budget is extremely challenged.”

But there was no hint then that VANOC was looking to council for more money. Representatives from VANOC were not available for comment on the issue Wednesday,

Councillor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden said had she known that request was coming she wouldn’t have voted in favour of the development permit at the June 5 meeting.

She voted against the request for more money.

“We’re expending ourselves all over the place these days,” she said, adding that the municipality needs to exercise some restraint.

The money to pay for the increase will likely come from the hotel tax. It is not clear what the municipality will have to forgo to make up the $1.65 million.

The hotel tax, said Wilhelm-Morden, “seems to be a panacea.”

“There’s a finite limit to those resources.”

Zeidler also spoke to the potential risk that this would not be the end of the road for budget increases on the centre. With the shovels not yet in the ground, he said there were too many unknowns to be confident that the budget was not still at risk.

The athlete centre is part of VANOC’s overall venue construction program, originally budgeted at $16 million. That budget includes the gym facility and the lodging component that comes with the centre.

VANOC has since divided the budget into two portions. The gym facility was budgeted at $6.3 million. It is this budget that has now increased more than 80 per cent to $11.45 million. It is not clear how much the lodging component will cost. A development permit for that building will come before council in a separate request.