Is a Squamish arena a done deal? 

Everyone’s waiting for Whistler’s decision on Paralympic facility

If Whistler declines the Paralympic arena, and the $20 million that VANOC would provide for it, where will the sledge hockey be played in 2010?

The assumption is that Squamish will get the Paralympic arena, and a press release from the District of Squamish this week shows the community is anxious to build the facility. Squamish is anticipating between $9 million and $11 million from VANOC to help build the facility, with the district and a private partner contributing the rest.

Under terms of this deal, Whistler expects to receive $8 million from VANOC, which would go toward construction of a $10 million practice rink next to the existing rink at Meadow Park.

But at Whistler council’s meeting last week some questions were raised. Councillor Kristi Wells suggested that the only written agreement between Whistler and VANOC is for $20 million to build the Paralympic arena or $2 million if Whistler decides not to build it.

Mayor Hugh O’Reilly challenged Wells’s statement, saying it was unfair and a comment on the integrity of VANOC. Jim Godfrey, Whistler’s liaison to VANOC, said discussions with Squamish have not failed and "may still bear fruit."

But the staff report to council stated: "However, as a result of recent discussions there is a degree of uncertainty as to whether (the Squamish/$8 million) option can be realized from a Squamish and a VANOC perspective."

Maureen Douglas, VANOC’s Whistler representative, said this week: "To the best of my knowledge that ($8 million option) is not in writing."

She said if Whistler has a request that is different from what is in the partnership agreement – the commitment to $20 million or $2 million – it would have to be reviewed by VANOC.

"Squamish has always said they are interested in the arena if Whistler doesn’t want it," Douglas said. "We are not in any position to comment until we hear from Whistler. We recognize Whistler is in a process and we anxiously await their decision."

If Whistler follows municipal staff’s recommendation and decides not to build the Paralympic arena it would mean the Paralympic Games lose the compact footprint that had made the Whistler location attractive in the first place. As Canadian Paralympic Committee CEO Brian MacPherson said last month, "…certainly it was a selling feature of the Vancouver bid that the Paralympic Games would be very much concentrated geographically speaking, frankly, to an unprecedented level with respect to the venues being so close to each other."

Douglas said: "If Whistler chose not to go forward we would review our entire program, all venues and all events. We’d look at all the options – we do that anyway any time a financial decision or a venue decision is made."

While they are waiting for Whistler’s decision VANOC representatives won’t speculate on where such a review might lead. But if the Whistler staff report states there is "a degree of uncertainty" about the arena in Squamish and VANOC is going to review all its options if Whistler decides against the arena, a Squamish facility might not be a certainty.

If the Paralympics have already lost their compact footprint; if VANOC already has an athletes village and three Olympic ice arenas in Vancouver to chose from, would VANOC spend more money on an arena in Squamish?

We’ll have to wait for Whistler’s decision first.

As Douglas said: "It will be interesting to hear from the community."

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