Arena decision time… still looming 

Appetite for taking VANOC’s $20 million appears to be growing

VANOC is willing to let the Whistler community decide the future of the Paralympic arena.

This week the Vancouver Organizing Committee agreed to yet another extension on the arena to allow for a municipal referendum – if council decides to take their $20 million and needs to borrow more money to build the arena.

"VANOC certainly recognizes the need for public input on this," said spokesperson Mary Fraser.

A referendum on borrowing money could take from four to six months. VANOC’s requirements are that the referendum occur at the earliest possible time.

Councillor Kristi Wells for one was willing to take the $20 million at Monday’s council meeting, even though VANOC had offered to extend the deadline for Whistler’s decision to the end of October.

For the first time since the arena debate surfaced earlier this summer, there seems to be growing support for taking the $20 million, just not at this time.

"My heart was with her motion in terms of just saying ‘take the money, let’s make it happen,’" said Councillor Gord McKeever, the day after the meeting. "However, that’s not a prudent way to deal with $20 million. We’ve got a 30-day extension. We don’t need to make that choice right now. We’ve got more time."

Wells, however, does not believe the extra time will allow for any major revelations.

"I don’t think we’ll make a better decision in 30 days," said Wells, as part of her rationale for making the decision sooner rather than later.

Councillor Nick Davies was planning to support Wells at the council meeting as per an earlier agreement but changed his mind after giving it "considerable thought."

Though he is still leaning towards taking the $20 million, he raised two issues that stopped him making that decision Monday night. His first concern was technical in nature, specifically whether or not council was following proper procedure by making the decision at that time. He felt if someone challenged them on the lack of process, that challenge could be successful.

Though Davies also recognized an extra month wouldn’t give them enough time to answer all the questions about a future arena and its costs, he said their decision would be more prudent and would have more buy-in from the community if they had more information at hand.

That information is expected to be coming in the next few weeks. Staff is doing a more detailed examination of construction costs of commercial and institutional buildings in the village. They are looking at costs of comparable arenas, and sponsorship and event programming potential of a facility on Lot 1/Lot 9 in the village.

They are also doing a program and costing analysis of two new arena concepts. This information should be ready in time for the Oct. 17 council meeting.

If the majority on council chooses to take the $20 million and build an arena, the cost of that arena is still to be determined.

An earlier staff report estimated $58 million to build a traditional, 5,000-seat arena in the village, complete with underground parking.

Most likely the Paralympic arena will cost more than $20 million but it is unlikely to be a traditional model.

By law there must be a referendum or a counter petition if the municipality needs to borrow money.

Councillor Ken Melamed spoke to the issue of fiscal responsibility Monday. One of the key priorities going into the Olympics was not to incur any debt. That was one of the reasons for pursuing the option to build a second ice sheet at Meadow Park and negotiating to have the arena go to Squamish.

"We were very much afraid of the gift we couldn’t afford and going into debt," said Melamed. He said it is absolutely premature to make a decision before there is more community engagement.

A second public open house will be held on Thursday, Oct. 6 from 3 to 7 p.m. at the Spruce Grove Field House.

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