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Cheers, tears and fears

Community divided as Paralympic arena moved to Vancouver

Mike Thaxter believes Whistler will regret the day it said "no" to building the multi-million dollar Paralympic arena and a lasting legacy for the community.

"I think it’s the wrong decision," he said. "We’ll never get it back."

Ten years from now, said Thaxter, today’s $60 million arena investment will seem like a bargain. And by that time, the Meadow Park arena will be bursting at the seams and the community will be in dire need of another ice facility.

"A $50 million to $60 million project is going to look cheap in 10 years," he said.

As much as this one local businessman and hockey player was disappointed by council’s Monday night decision, there were others in the community who praised the change to the Paralympic Games, like Paralympian Stacy Kohut.

With Whistler’s arena scrapped, the Paralympic sledge hockey events and curling events will take place in Vancouver in larger venues with more spectator capacity.

"For someone like myself I guess I’m kind of happy to see that my friends and…the Paralympic athletes are going to be able to be on the proper-sized stage for where they are in their sport now," said Kohut.

That means better media coverage and raising the profile of the sports beyond what Whistler was capable of providing in a 2,700-seat arena for sledge hockey and in the 900-seat venue at Meadow Park for curling.

While a win for the athletes, Kohut said the real loser in the whole deal is Whistler. At one time a 5,000-seat arena was slated for the village, he said, and the possibilities for a facility like that were endless, not only for the local community but to drive tourism to the resort.

Part-time Whistler resident and one of the founding directors of the 2010 Bid Corp Board Don Rosenbloom also expressed his disappointment this week over an opportunity lost for the resort.

Rosenbloom has visited several Olympic cities around the world and has been struck with the monuments that serve as lasting legacies to the Games.

"I won’t second guess nor criticize council’s decision motivated by fiscal issues, but that doesn’t deprive me of the right to be profoundly disappointed that Whistler is now left without a landmark structure in the village that would have memorialized our Olympic Games," he said from Vancouver this week.

He pictured the arena as a place where kids could play hockey beneath the Olympic rings, a place that would be tangible evidence of Whistler’s role in 2010.

Thaxter pictured something similar – an Olympic legacy for generations to come. It’s one of the reasons why he helped produce those "Village Arena — Yes" bumper stickers last fall, to drive excitement around the arena. Now he’s left with disappointment.

"What do we have now for a legacy from the Olympics?" he asked. "We’re going to have nothing."

But if there’s anyone with a sour taste in their mouth this week it’s Squamish Mayor Ian Sutherland.

Sutherland knows more than anyone just how close the corridor was to getting a $20 million injection of funding from the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Games for the sledge hockey arena.

That money, as decided in closed door negotiations last year, was at one point to be disbursed between Squamish and Whistler in a deal that would have put a practice ice sheet in the resort at Meadow Park and the Paralympic arena 40 minutes down the road in Squamish.

By saying no to the arena, Whistler also said no to the $20 million.

"We’re always talking about working together in the corridor and when push came to shove, that didn’t happen," said Sutherland.

"It could have been a victory for the whole corridor. Whistler would have had a second sheet of ice, we would have had the sledge hockey in Squamish, we would have had a facility we could have used for other events – it would have worked for everybody."

And now, he said, by giving the sledge hockey and curling events to Vancouver, Whistler has effectively removed an $18 million investment from the corridor.

"It’s a darn shame that out of all of this none of us is getting a new arena, none of us have $18 million spent in our community," said Sutherland.

Norbert Doeblin, the Whistler businessman who last year came up with his own plans for an arena, culinary institute and other facilities on Lots 1 and 9, said Monday’s decision was a sign that Whistler has become a collection of interest groups, rather than a community.

"Everyone’s a loser. No one got what they wanted," he said.

Doeblin, who suggested more than $1 million was spent on the project in the last year, said Whistler council is forgetting how important the village is to the economy of the whole resort. Instead of reinvesting in the village council is making decisions that continue to weaken the economic core of the community.

Realtor and former Whistler mayor Drew Meredith who was in charge of the community task force for Lot 1/9 these past six months wanted to build the village arena too. That’s one of the reasons why he accepted the position as chair of the task force.

He has since changed his mind. Even though the high numbers are reason enough to not build the arena, there’s another significant factor. It’s simply too big for the Lot 1/9 site.

He’s seen the building planted on the site and he can’t convey enough just how big and bulky it would have been. The concept drawings looked wonderful but they didn’t capture the mass of the building.

"I’m as disappointed as the next person about the fact that we can’t do it, but we can’t do it for more than money reasons," he said. "I’m not sure that we’d end up at the end of the day with something that would be all that memorable."

With the arena off the table he believes the community will benefit far more with a legacy celebration piazza. He’s not alone in those thoughts.

Resident Chuck Blaylock was at Monday’s meeting for the decision. His hands were raised in support of the final decision.

Blaylock has long advocated that an arena of that size would be simply unaffordable for the resort. And as a one-time commissioner of the Whistler Hockey Association, he still doesn’t believe there is quite enough pressure on Meadow Park to warrant an additional ice surface at this time.

"And I said at that time… if we build an arena it’s going to be Whistler’s 9/11."