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Whistler muni staff recommend passing on Olympic arena


Emotions ran high at Whistler Council's meeting Monday (Aug. 15) as municipal staff formally recommended Whistler build a $10-million practice facility, allowing Squamish or Pemberton to build the facility, instead of a Village arena to host sledge hockey which they claim could cost up to $58 million.

A number of developing options for the Arena were presented to council at the meeting, including different-sized multiplexes on various sites such as Lot 1/9 (adjacent to the Brewhouse Pub), Meadow Park and the Athletes Village as well as a practice arena or facility building at Meadow Park.

Municipal staff recommended the $10-million practice facility as the optimum plan, noting the practice arena would meet the community's need for a second sheet of ice, support the local economy by expanding tournament capabilities could be used by sledge hockey players during the Olympics. The practice facility also required the smallest investment from the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW).

If Whistler doesn't proceed with the sledge hockey arena, Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games (VANOC) contributes $2 million to a mutually-agreed community legacy project.

Coun. Kristi Wells strongly disagreed with the recommendation and instead voiced strong support for the sledge hockey arena staged on Lot 1/9 within the Village, which would receive $20 million from VANOC. Staff gave two options for an arena on the site - a 5,000-seat multiplex which they indicated would cost $58 million and a $43.1-million, 4,000-seat multiplex."We haven't taken the parallel path of looking at what is best for Lot 9," she said. "I think it's the best option. I can't imagine another time to get a $20 million kickstart."

The staff report noted the two options would foster activity in the Village. However, Bill Barratt, RMOW deputy administrator, said staff had strong concerns about whether this was the best use of the site. The report further said the option would result in high annual costs as well as disrupt operating and programming synergies available with the Meadow Park site. Net operating costs for a Village-site arena were estimated at $300,000 with a total annual cost as high as $2.869 million. The annual cost includes annual capital debt repayment plus net operating costs.

Councillor Nick Davies said the burden of funding a facility of this magnitude would fall primarily on the business community. Davies focused on the worst-case scenario, a $2.9 million shortfall that would occur should the $20 million facility move forward. He added an additional ten per cent to the short fall, in case the estimate was off, amounting to $3.155 million.

"We are talking about (that size of a) shortfall against a budget of $25 million," Davies said. "That is 13 per cent of the budget that is going to come from the taxpayer. With the ratio between commercial and residential taxes at about 3.71 (to 1), the largest burden of the worst-case scenario is going to fall to the business community.I am not going to take a position on this, this evening other than take it to a public information session.

"People who pay commercial taxes really need to understand what we are getting into here, particularly if we are stuck with a white elephant."

The $10-million practice arena would result in significantly less financial strain on the Whistler community, staff indicated, with net operating costs estimated at $130,000 and the total annual cost $274,000. The report said construction would involve the support of $8 million from VANOC.

The public will get its say at a public hearing next Saturday (Aug. 27) at the Spruce Grove Field House from 2 to 7 p.m. O'Reilly said council's decision, which had been expected Sept. 8, may be put off until the Sept. 19 meeting to accommodate adequate time for community feedback as well as contemplation of a new proposal put forward by members of the business community.

Various members of the business community supported the Whistler arena. More than 200 residents signed a petition asking Council to vote in favour of the arena, as opposed to the practice arena option.

"The point is that the public was given less than a month's notice (of what was going on)," said local business owner Chris Quinlan. "The business community has come with an idea that warrants consideration. We've had one to two years (to consider this). We could have come up with a lot of other ideas and not be strangled by a timeline. What's not fair is not having the time to look at this."

One suggestion put forward by staff was to hold a referendum on the issue in the upcoming municipal elections.

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