Above: An artist’s rendering of the proposed events centre. ???? Courtsesy NanaimoNewsNOW

By contributor Kelly Whiteside

Two years ago, when our Nanaimo city council was elected, none of the nine councillors mentioned a multiplex or event centre as a priority in their platforms. Now, over the course of a few months, council has spent upwards of $500K on this project, without asking the citizens of Nanaimo if this is what they want.

The concept of a multiplex in Nanaimo is not new—it was first dreamt up in 2002 by previous Clippers owner Dieter Peter, and has been a recurring aspiration in the hockey world ever since. Peter’s dream ended with the proposal that it would be taxpayer-funded. The next Clippers owner, Gary Gelinas, shared Peter’s ambitions. This also ended with the announcement that it would be taxpayer-funded. New Clippers owners William Gallacher and Ken Wagner had the multiplex objective in 2006. Their vision started out slightly different, with the proposal of no funding from taxpayers. They eventually began considering the all-too- familiar path of taxpayer-funding, and their endeavor ended soon thereafter. In 2013, a group that included the Clippers and Western Hockey League (WHL) discussed the concept again, this time dissolving due to lack of interest from city council and the community.

The idea of a multiplex made another appearance in 2015 by the owners of the Howard Johnson Hotel. Their description of a privately funded 5,000-seat arena on their property was picked up by the WHL, who said in a statement that “The WHL remains very interested in the City of Nanaimo as a potential market in the future for a WHL Club.” With the WHL’s interest piqued and a deadline given, city council hopped on board, spearheaded by WHL scout Bill Bestwick.

With council now involved, the Howard Johnson Hotel’s original idea has been pushed aside, and the city has come up with its own version.

The city hired Brisbin Brook Beynon Architects to complete a study on the financial and architectural details of this project.

City-owned waterfront property in south Nanaimo has been chosen as the site for the possible event centre, in hopes that it will revitalize the downtown core. Council has been meeting with Snuneymuxw First Nations (SFN) to discuss the usage of 1 Port Way, a location that holds great importance to the SFN as their longhouses once stood there.

Specified parking for the centre will be minimal, with only 100 valet spots available for roadies, staff, persons with disabilities, and other VIPs. Attendees will be expected to find parking elsewhere downtown, and in the nearby residential areas.

Not only will this be a centre for sports and entertainment, there are plans for an indoor walking trail, multi-purpose space for art, meeting rooms, retail space, and an outdoor covered community space as well. The centre will be in use every day of the year, with 114 “planned event days” and 251 “community days”. Planned event days include sports events, concerts, family shows, WHL games, conferences, and tradeshows. Sports events and concerts are estimated to use the centre 16 days of the year. Family shows could use it for up to 18 days, annually. A number of planned events would be WHL games, using the space 39 days, every year. The other 41 days of planned events would likely be conferences and tradeshows. Community days, which are responsible for the majority of the centre’s use, include public skating, recreational sports, cultural activities, and educational speakers.

Seating will range depending on the type of event. For sports, the venue is expected to seat between 5,200 and 5,700 people. For concerts, the floor opens up to increase capacity to between 7,100 and 8,300 people.

Cost for the centre will be $69M for building the base model, plus $11M for soil remediation of the Port Way property. The city is asking to borrow $80M in total for this project, which will lead to $5.4M in annual debt for 20 years. The cost of the referendum to ask the citizens’ permission is $130K. If this goes through, it’s possible that the event centre will require a $200K subsidy for the first two years. Operating costs for the centre are estimated at approximately $4M a year, with ice and event rental charges to help cover the costs. The whole project will be taxpayer-funded, but council claims there will be no increase to property taxes. Debt financing will come from casino revenue, current property taxes, the Nanaimo Port Authority, and the hotel tax. The new Strategic Infrastructure Reserve Fund created in December will contribute $2.4M, current property taxes add $1.6M, the Nanaimo Port Authority will pay $400K, and the city is looking to raise the hotel tax to three percent, so that $240K of hotel taxes can be used on the project, as well. The city has not picked which model of the centre they will build if approved for the loan. If more money needs to be borrowed than has been approved, it would have to be paid back in less than five years, or approved in an Alternate Approval Process.

Benefits noted include jobs and downtown revitalization. There are 20 full-time positions available, as well as 133 part-time positions for the event centre. These jobs range from operational staff, facility maintenance, event services staff, and security. The building of the centre would also create jobs. With the centre being used during the day and night, more people are expected to be in the downtown core, with money to spend at local restaurants and bars. Up to 35 percent of these people will be from out of town, increasing the number of hotel room rentals.

The discussion and planning of this possible event centre has caused a large stir amongst Nanaimo’s citizens. A number of concerns have been brought up, including the location, SFN conflict, lack of parking, funding, time frame, conflict of interests, hockey attendance, the history of sports venues, and a general lack of support.

Nanaimo’s South End Community Association (SECA) was previously asked by city council to create a South Downtown Waterfront Initiative (SDWI) regarding the high-value waterfront space at 1 Port Way. When the SECA was building the SDWI, they held a survey, which concluded that there was a three to one ratio against a multiplex in that location. The Harbour Fair, with more than 300 attendees, noted little support for such a project on that site, and the Ideas Forum of 80 people had zero support for it. The final design charrette, therefore, did not include a multiplex in their designs and, instead, focused on creating more parks and a Granville Island-style public market. With the results of the SDWI, the SECA is opposed to the construction of the centre at 1 Port Way.

The land at 1 Port Way is SFN land, and previously was the location of their longhouses. Building an event centre would likely stir ancestral remains. Though city council has been meeting with the SFN to discuss using their property for an event centre, so far there has been no consent by the SFN, which is required in order for the city to build there.

In the architect’s plans for the event centre, there are only 100 parking spots, yet the centre is meant to hold between 5,200 and 8,300 people. They are relying on other areas of downtown Nanaimo and the surrounding neighbourhoods for parking. Unfortunately, parking in the downtown core is already limited, and there have been many complaints by business owners and shoppers that an event centre would only make it more difficult to find a spot near their destination, as they would be fighting with the thousands attending the new centre. To expect property owners and renters to sacrifice the parking outside their residences for people attending a concert nearby is also unfair, as it can already be tough with the numerous cars from each household, and people taking their spots when searching for free parking downtown.

City council and their hired consultants claim they would not need to raise property taxes in order to fund such a costly project. However, many are skeptical due to the services that have pre-emptively been cut over the last few months, including the Nanaimo Economic Development Committee, Tourism Nanaimo, and the Snow Removal Budget, though it’s been stated that the recent cuts are not related to the event centre. Some have noticed the lack of basic care being put into the roads lately, as well, with a high number of potholes still not fixed, and projects such as the Northfield intersection being postponed. Taxes have already increased significantly in 2017 due to the creation of the Strategic Infrastructure Reserve Fund. Citizens have also been pointing to the Vancouver Island Conference Centre and Port Theatre projects, which ended up costing much more than expected and haven’t been as profitable as hoped. The biggest concern is future expenses, however. Even if property taxes are not increased because of this project, it would be near impossible for Nanaimo to fund anything else in the future without property taxes rising, including basic infrastructure needs, and Nanaimo already has high property taxes in comparison to other cities on the island of similar size.

Phase 1 of this project began in September 2016, and the final phase before construction begins is set to end in March 2017. A multiplex was not mentioned as a priority during council elections in 2014, and this would be Nanaimo’s biggest, most expensive project to date. With the WHL deadline in March, it’s of great concern that Nanaimo has rushed such an important project, simply to meet a deadline for a team that is not committed to moving here.

The main goal of the project is to attract a WHL team. Bill Bestwick, a WHL scout, has been the council member most actively promoting the project, raising flags regarding a conflict of interest. Another conflict of interest has been pointed out in the city’s paid consultants: the same architect group that would be building the centre. Why would someone make a project sound like a bad idea if it would mean you wouldn’t get hired to complete it?

The WHL will be the main tenants of this new event centre if approved. It’s rare that an opportunity to acquire a WHL team arises. However, when a team is looking to relocate, it’s important to look into the reasons behind the relocation. The team Nanaimo is hoping to bring is the Kootenay Ice (KTN). KTN currently has the lowest attendance in the WHL with an average of only 1,681.41 attendees in their 2016-2017 season, which is a 14 percent decrease in attendees from the year before. If Nanaimo approves the event centre, it will take two years to build. During the building of the centre, KTN would play out of Frank Crane Arena, which has a maximum occupancy of 3,000 people—plenty of extra seats for a team that attracts so few fans. To update and expand Frank Crane Arena (if needed), which also has more parking than the downtown location, would likely cost less than $80M.

Spending public money on sports venues is considered one of the oldest con games that many cities have fallen for. There are numerous reports showing a lack of economic growth stemming from these venues. The money brought in isn’t enough to subsidize the operation costs and the money people are spending isn’t going into the local economy—it’s simply making the rich richer. In the end, the victims of the publicly funded sports venues lose millions of dollars and sacrifice their economy.

A general lack of support comes from other issues, such as poor transit in the city, the fight against Victoria and Vancouver for concerts, and the inevitable increase in property values and lease rates in the area.

This event centre has caused a lot of debate in Nanaimo, and with no business plan released to the public yet, it has been difficult for people to find accurate information.

A referendum regarding the event centre will be held on March 11 from 8 am to 8 pm There will be advanced voting on March 1 and 8. For a list of voting locations, as well as the official referendum question, please visit the City of Nanaimo’s website. Make sure to check ifW you are registered to vote. If not, you can register the day of voting by providing two pieces of ID that prove your residency and filling out an application. More information on the voting process and voting qualifications can also be found on the city’s website, nanaimo.ca.