Arena may be too expensive for Whistler 

Mayor can't reveal ongoing negotiations costs

The cost to build the Paralympic sledge hockey arena is "more than we can comfortably afford," said Whistler Mayor Ken Melamed.

Those costs have forced the municipality back into negotiations with its Olympic partners.

And while the mayor would not reveal how much an arena would cost because of those ongoing negotiations, he said this week that the Resort Municipality of Whistler is now re-examining all of its options.

"We haven’t said we’ve abandoned the Paralympic sledge hockey (arena)," said Melamed. "We’re saying we’re in a period of reflection and examining options. And because of the sensitive nature of some of the options we can’t talk about it anymore."

Community member Bill Overing, who asked the mayor for an arena update at Monday’s council meeting, later said that response didn’t answer his question and he complained about the lack of transparency in the process.

"They’ve decided that it’s too expensive," he said.

Council is aware there’s frustration in the community because of the dearth of information. But at this point their hands are tied.

"I think it’s fair to say (council is) very frustrated by being in this position," said Councillor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden this week.

"There’s still negotiations going on and we would have preferred to have made a decision on this in mid-June… but we’ve been convinced by our senior staff that we need to just let the process play out as far as negotiations with our partners are concerned."

This is the latest development in what has become Whistler’s arena saga.

Last summer the RMOW quietly negotiated with its partners to forgo $20 million from the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games and instead give Squamish the opportunity to build the arena. At that time municipal staff felt a village arena would cost Whistler too much money – between $31.5 and $58 million.

They negotiated for Whistler to get $8 million from VANOC to build a second ice sheet at Meadow Park, which could accommodate community use but not the sledge hockey events during the Paralympic Games.

When the community learned about the deal, there was outrage because of the lack of consultation. Council went back to the drawing board, ultimately taking the $20 million in October and pledging to work to build a village arena through extensive public consultation.

"Don’t think we haven’t thought of it," said Melamed, of the fallout from the last round of confidential arena negotiations.

He said the possible outcome is worth the political cost of keeping quiet for the time being.

"We did not choose to be here," he added.

"Maybe it’s fair to say… in the delivery of an Olympic Games, this is what the world looks like."

For the past six months the community has been involved in extensive public consultation to determine the future of Lots 1/9, the proposed site of the arena in the village. A task force made up of community members was struck to help out in the process.

In May Whistler master planner Eldon Beck presented an arena concept called The Sunny Island. In addition to ice arena, the development was slated to include adjacent buildings for public use. There could be room for community groups looking for a home, such as the museum, as well as classroom space and a children’s playroom. There could also be retail and tourist accommodation in some buildings, which could offset the costs.

Early estimates put the costs between $35 and $40 million. With $20 million from VANOC Whistler could make up the shortfall from other funding sources, or deciding through a community referendum to borrow the money.

With no hint at the new costs, the mayor simply said Whistler, and its partners, need to come to an agreement on what the best outcome is. Each month of delay adds more costs to the project as construction costs continue to rise.

"We’ve determined and the task force determined that the costs are high and it has forced us to look at other options," said Melamed.

VANOC spokesperson Maureen Douglas said they are aware the arena costs are high and are supportive of Whistler’s process.

"We want to make sure it’s a Games that works for everyone and has the best possible outcome and we have to keep our minds open to what that means," she said.

"We still would love to see a compact Games (with all the Paralympic events happening in Whistler) but we know that there’s challenges ahead and we need to be prepared for those."

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