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Pique N Your Interest

An arena too far

With a little time to put it into perspective, you have to hand it to council for making the right decision not to go ahead and build a Paralympic sledge hockey arena on Lot 1/Lot 9. The bottom line is that it would be too expensive, and could never match the size and amenities of the Games venues in Vancouver.

It’s a shame to reneg on the compact Paralympic Games we promised the world, and that might have tipped a few IOC delegates in our favour, but in the end could anybody really expect Whistler to assume $40 million of added debt for the capital costs, then spend millions every year to keep the arena running?

Some might argue that the arena could actually generate revenue – host concerts, hockey tournaments and conventions, and give resort guests something to do at night and on rainy days – but I suspect the costs would always be higher than revenues. That’s why these arenas are typically labeled as community amenities, funded by taxpayers the same way we support parks, libraries, schools and other public buildings.

But the one thing I still don’t understand is how the arena could possibly cost $60 million to build, even with rising construction and labour costs.

In 2004 the City of Chilliwack opened the Prospera Centre, a 3,500-seat hockey arena that can be expanded to 5,700 seats, for just $20.3 million. An Abbotsford consortium is trying to raise $30 million (2005 prices) for a full-size Junior A rink, with 5,000-plus seats and all the amenities the players and community could hope for.

The University of British Columbia is building two Olympic and Paralympic ice sheets with enough space for a combined 7,000 spectators, plus other sports amenities, for $48 million.

And the District of Squamish, which offered to take the arena off our hands for $8 million of the $20 million promised Whistler by VANOC (pending VANOC approval) still believes they could build an arena for about $20 million through a mix of public and private investment.

So what’s the deal? Why exactly does it cost $60 million to build an arena in Whistler?

Is it our elevated environmental standards? Engineering for snow loads? The amount of site prep and design involved? Do construction workers get paid triple north of the Callaghan and south of the Soo Valley?

Or is it the fact that Whistler can’t seem to do anything simply anymore, but instead feels the need for every project to be all things to all people, built to the most expensive standards possible?

I suspect it’s the latter. A horse designed by committee is a camel, so the saying goes, and Whistler knows a little something about designing camels.

Millennium Place started out as a basic multi-faith centre and theatre, only to evolve to include a day care, teen centre, multi purpose room, office space, gallery space and more. It’s a good facility for the most part and gets some good community use, but it will never have the seating capacity to be truly self-supporting.

There’s no question we needed a new library, but with costs already at $9.7 million and climbing you have to wonder what’s going on. Instead of a simple building we decided to add underground parking, pay for added environmental touches (some of which could save money over time), and provide more community multi-purpose rooms (how many do we have now?). And that’s without any space to house the Museum and Archives in the same building, which I think is a monumental mistake.

I admit there should be some higher standards applied to the way Whistler buildings look and feel, but those are really just finishing touches. A high school student can research an essay just as easily in a false fronted cinderblock building (see Squamish) as they can in a state-of-the-art facility.

No doubt the library will be a point of pride for the community once it’s completed, but how much pride can we honestly afford given all the other amenities this community has to provide? Can we really have the very best of everything, even with a greater share of the hotel tax?

Whatever the reasons for the $60 million price tag, it’s time to move on. The decision is made, so let’s learn to live with it.

The good news is that Lot 1/Lot 9 is still ready to be developed, and we have about $4.2 million to build a medal plaza on the site and have some kind of Olympic and Paralympic legacy for the community. So let’s not blow this by over-thinking things.

My own personal inclination is to go with an outdoor skating rink and amphitheatre, both amenities the community has asked for in the past and attractions that would make our Village North retailers very happy.

And go cheap with it – instead of building some sort of expensive structure, why not pile up rock and dirt to create an amphitheatre, plant some grass and trees on the upper section, jam a few bleachers into the lower bowl and go for a natural look? We can always suspend a tent over the site in the winter to keep out the rain and snow.

And that’s all we need. No retail, no employee housing, no underground parking, no community multi-purpose rooms, and no environmental standards necessary.