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Corridor communities vie for ice arena

Whistler has yet to decide if it wants Paralympic facility

If Whistler doesn’t want the Paralympic ice arena in town, there are plenty of other corridor communities clamouring for the chance to have it.

That much was apparent at Monday’s regional district meeting when the directors representing Pemberton and Area C asked the board to support them in their efforts to get the facility in Pemberton, should Whistler decide not to build it in the resort.

That request brought forward more requests, from the directors representing Squamish and Lillooet, who would also like to be considered as potential locations for the Paralympic ice arena.

"What we’re hearing from our residents is the question: ‘where’s our Olympic legacy?’" said Area C Director Susan Gimse after the six-hour Squamish-Lillooet Regional District meeting. "So it’s an opportunity for us and we’re going to take advantage of it, if we can."

Though he supported their request to send a letter of intent to the Vancouver Organizing Committee, Whistler’s Mayor Hugh O’Reilly said the board’s discussion was a bit premature. Whistler has not decided whether it will put the ice arena here or not.

"We’re still in the game, there’s no doubt about it," he said, after the meeting. "If it’s appropriate for us, yeah, sure we’re going to take it. That was what we negotiated. But if there’s something… better, and there’s something put together, then we’ll have to look at that too."

The deadline for Whistler’s decision is looming. By the end of July/early August council must decide if it will leverage the $20 million from VANOC to build what is described in the Olympic Bid Book as the Whistler Entertainment Complex/Multipurpose Facility. That venue is slated to be the venue for Ice Sledge Hockey during the Paralympic Games.

The Bid Book points to Lot 1/Lot 9, the partially-forested, municipally-owned land behind the Brew Pub, as the location for the facility.

The municipality has also been looking at two other sites. They include the possibility of twinning the Meadow Park facility or building it in the south end of Whistler near the athletes village.

O’Reilly said there’s no question Whistler can build the facility, even with soaring constructions costs and the added costs of building on poor soil.

"(The sites) all come with the same set of challenges," he said. "Soils are all terrible everywhere, that’s the bottom line. So that makes stuff really expensive."

But the cost is not the sticking point he said.

"The key issue is not can we afford to build it," he explained. "Yes, we could probably afford to build what we need to do with it. (The issue is) who can utilize the facility the very best? And who’s going to have the best legacy in the next 20 to 30 years…"

The other communities in the corridor certainly can put forward arguments that they need the legacy.

Earlier this year attempts to build a small recreation centre in Pemberton were thwarted by the community who wanted a bigger and better facility.

"You saw what happened with our recreation proposal," said Gimse. "The community clearly states that we are a part of this region, that we’re attracting people and we have no amenities.

Her comments echoed those of Pemberton Mayor Elinor Warner.

"At this time we’ve seen no opportunities coming our way from the Olympics," she said. "We think our two communities, the whole valley area, can sponsor this event and we don’t have an ice rink… and we’re looking for one and we don’t have any dollars."

The resolution they put to the regional district board stemmed from an earlier resolution at the joint Pemberton-Mount Currie council meeting held on June 14.

Squamish Councillor Raj Kahlon, who is also a director at the nine-member SLRD board table, was the only one to oppose the request from Pemberton and Area C.

"It should be open to all (the areas in the SLRD)," he said to the board during the meeting.

Squamish may want the ice arena, or Lillooet too and he asked the board if they would agree to an in camera meeting, without the public or the press, to discuss the matter further.

Area B Director Mickey Macri asked Kahlon if Squamish had made an application for the ice arena.

"I don’t want to comment," he replied. But the board would not agree to move the meeting in camera. That’s why he voted against the resolution explained Kahlon the following day.

"I thought that’s not fair," he said. "At least they should have received the information (in camera) and do whatever they want to decide after."

In a referendum earlier this year Squamish voters decided against borrowing $20 million to build community amenities, which likely would have included a second ice rink.

The board, at the request of Lillooet Mayor Greg Kamenka, also approved a resolution that other districts and municipalities in the region should also be considered as Paralympic ice arena sites, with emphasis on those places which already have ice rinks which would be modified for the Paralympics.

Kahlon supported this motion.

"That’s what I was asking," he said. "We should not single out just Pemberton and Area C. We should have the same support (for) Lillooet or if Squamish wanted to apply for it they should have the same support."

When asked if Squamish was in negotiations with VANOC and Whistler to move the facility south, he replied: "I can’t comment on that."

The following day Squamish Mayor Ian Sutherland, who was not at the board meeting, e-mailed this comment: "Squamish is committed to helping make the 2010 Games a success. With this in mind, we've had preliminary discussions with VANOC on several topics. These have all been exploratory in nature."

The point remains that just as Pemberton needs a facility, Squamish needs one too.

"Definitely we can use it," said Kahlon. "Right now the ice allocation is so tight in Squamish some people have to practice (at) two o’clock, three o’clock in the morning."

And ice time in Whistler is also at a premium.

VANOC spokesperson Maureen Douglas said a change in venue wouldn’t be a major concern, because there will be an efficient transportation system in place to move ticket holders and athletes to the various venues.

"In an ideal world it’d be nice to have that small a footprint but also for a Paralympic Winter Games, this is (already) an unusually small footprint," she said. "Even if there’s a move in the sledge hockey (venue), it still provides a really close set of venues unlike what they’ve experience generally in other areas where the venues end up being fairly far apart."

According to Bid Book information, Whistler’s Lot 1/Lot 9 site was acquired from the province specifically for the purpose of developing a multipurpose facility.

The proposed Olympic complex is slated to have a 3,500 to 5,000 seating capacity, and will accommodate both international and North American size ice sheet.

VANOC will kick in a $20 million grant for the facility, which was projected to cost $40 million during the bid phase over two years ago. Construction costs have risen substantially since then.

"The reality is that we’re trying to put the best facilities that have the lasting legacy, the real legacy," said O’Reilly.

"We can do it, there’s no doubt about it. We’ve got Lot 1/Lot 9 but that doesn’t mean that’s necessarily the best site. It’s a very expensive project.

"We know everything is getting more expensive and so I think VANOC is trying to make sure that we’re making the best decisions as we’ve done with lots of other venues – stuff moved in Vancouver, (and) the ski jumps are being reconsidered.

"There’s a due process it goes through. I know a good decision will be made when it’s appropriate."

A report from RMOW staff outlining their recommendations to council is expected to come at either the July 18 or Aug. 2 council meeting. Deputy Administrator Bill Barratt said staff is considering what is in the best interests of Whistler, not the corridor.