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VANOC offers more time after staff negotiations

Council to decide on 30-day extension at next meeting

Whistler needs more time to make a decision on the Paralympic arena, and VANOC is prepared to offer a 30-day extension.

The offer comes after staff negotiations between the Vancouver Organizing Committee and the Resort Municipality of Whistler, said VANOC spokesperson Renée Smith-Valade.

"We mutually agreed (the extension) would be beneficial to both sides," she said.

Council must now decide on Monday if they will accept the new Oct. 31 deadline on the arena.

"VANOC obviously recognizes the challenge that we have put ourselves in and in an effort to try and help us has obviously offered this," said Councillor Kristi Wells, adding she was taken aback by the news, which was delivered to council via e-mail.

Only last week Wells asked council to approve a request to VANOC for a six-month extension. Her motion was defeated 4 to 3, with only Councillors Gordon McKeever and Marianne Wade standing behind the six-month request.

"It’s great to have an extension but it appears that the reality of the extension is staff isn’t ready… at all for a report (to be presented) on Monday," said Wells.

Councillor Nick Davies said staff needs more time to prepare all the information council has asked for in recent weeks, particularly the cost analysis of two new arena concepts, recently put forward.

"It was clear to staff that council wanted more information," said Davies. "I think staff recognized that they would need more time to bring a meaningful report back to council."

Staff was to have prepared a report, complete with their recommendation, to council at the Monday, Sept. 19 council meeting. This would have allowed council to make a decision on the arena before the last deadline – Sept. 30.

A press release issued this week states: "The extension would enable municipal staff to pursue in further detail the various options, including one put forward by a local business owner, and for more public input."

This decision to build a 3,500-seat arena to hold the Paralympic sledge hockey events in 2010 has plagued council throughout the summer. This is their second extension as they wrestle with a decision, which could have lasting impacts on the resort community.

Essentially it comes down to three choices:

• take VANOC’s $20 million and build an arena, which could cost double or in some cases triple that cost;

• take VANOC’s $2 million and do nothing; or

• take $8 million and build a second ice sheet at Meadow Park.

Municipal staff earlier advised council that their preferred option was to take $8 million for the second ice sheet. Since then however, a local businessman has offered up another option, which would see a non-traditional style arena in the heart of the village. Staff is now investigating this option.

Smith-Valade said this week that VANOC recognizes the magnitude of Whistler’s decision and that’s why they were willing to give them an extension.

"It’s a big decision," she said. "There was certainly a feeling from Whistler that they wanted to make sure there had been adequate public input into the process."

When asked why they choose to offer 30 more days specifically Smith-Valade said: "We wanted to find a timeframe that wouldn’t put the project in jeopardy," she said. "We’re hopeful that 30 days is enough."

The news of the extension was also a surprise to Councillor Ken Melamed, though he too was pleased to hear council now had more time to make a decision.

"Most of the proposals here are fairly complex," he said. "I think we should take as much time as VANOC is prepared to give us."

The extra month, said Councillor Gord McKeever, means they can now engage the community more and "give some serious consideration to alternatives."

Wells said an extra month isn’t enough time to do that. A 30-day extension, she said, is just paying "lip service" to having more community engagement.

As Whistler delays, the future of an arena, and a local Junior A hockey team, remains on hold for Squamish.

If council takes the $8 million, Squamish expects to get money from VANOC to build an arena, fit for the Paralympic sledge hockey events.

The Oct. 31 st deadline doesn’t have a huge impact on negotiations said Squamish Mayor Ian Sutherland, however he would be concerned if there was another extension beyond that.

"Obviously our community is excited about the opportunity with the Paralympic arena but we’d also like to find out as quickly as possible whether in fact it’s going to happen or not," said Sutherland. "While a delay to Oct. 31 st might not be ideal, it shouldn’t make a huge difference to us. There would be a concern probably with any delay beyond that because it could jeopardize our ability to attract a major tenant for the building."

Squamish is working on a deal that could see the Junior A Chilliwack Chiefs franchise playing out of a new Squamish arena.

In the meantime, as Whistler comes to a conclusion on the future of this arena, staff will prepare a report with the details on the public open house at the end of August. Almost 300 community members attended that open house, many of whom filled out comment forms on the arena.

Staff will be presenting the results of the open house at Monday’s council meeting, along with the option to extend the deadline.

The Chamber of Commerce is also preparing to send a letter to council, outlining their position on the arena. Like Tourism Whistler, the Chamber supports building a new NHL-sized rink for the benefit of the community, business and tourism. The Chamber also supports building an interactive tourist amenity on Lot 1/Lot 9 by maximizing external funding synergies. The amenity should serve as an Olympic legacy for Whistler.

Chamber interim President Bernie Lalor-Morton said: "We want to see the best use for Lot1/Lot 9 and what will drive the best business to this resort."