News

Colliery dams most challenging decision of 2013

Leaving the fate of the Colliery dams unresolved was one of the most difficult decisions of 2013 for Nanaimo city council and could rank as one of its top challenges in the year ahead, according to Mayor John Ruttan.

“It’s a project we have not budgeted for, the costs are still escalating and we don’t have an infinite amount of time,” he said. “At some point, with the province pushing us to do something and the Save the Dam people pushing us to not do anything ... decisions have to be made.”

In a far-reaching discussion with the News Bulletin, the mayor discussed the possibility of a dam referendum to the potential for him to toss his hat into next year’s election race. He also reflected on the hardships and highlights of the past 12 months, from governance problems and the push back on the middle and lower Colliery dams, to the “positive” land swap with Nanaimo school district and progress on the conference centre hotel. Despite challenges, “good things were done” in 2013, he said.

HIGHLIGHTS OF 2013

When the mayor emerged the victor in the last election, a top goal was to realize a dream of a passenger-only ferry service and top-notch conference centre hotel. Now, less than a year before the next election, there’s a proposal for a foot ferry and the city is the closest it’s ever been to seeing a new downtown hotel. It is a major highlight of the year for Ruttan, who says it feels good to see the projects move forward.

The foot ferry service and conference centre hotel could play a huge role in the future of the Harbour City, he said.

Nanaimo city officials had long called for a new downtown hotel, believing it would help the conference centre reach its full potential and rely less on taxpayer subsidies. But for nearly a decade the lot reserved for the hotel has sat empty as attempts by Triarc and Millennium Developments failed to make it past the development permit stage.

The mayor believes the third time will be the charm. This year SSS Manhao, the B.C. affiliate of a major Chinese tourism company, opted to purchase the site with plans for a 20-storey, 240-room tower that could attract close to 70,000 Chinese tourists each year. This December it submitted the blueprints for a building permit – the final hurdle before it can get the green light from the city to start construction, Ruttan said, adding it’s pretty exciting.

“We haven’t actually had a brand new, five-star equivalent, major hotel built in Nanaimo for well over 20 years – in fact it’s probably close to 30 years,” he said.

But the real game changer would be the foot ferry service. The proponents are still looking for final investors and a revenue-sharing deal with the city, but if it arrives, it will not only provide hotel patrons with a speedy and efficient connection to the Island but could also encourage new development and population growth, Ruttan said.

While previous passenger service connections have failed, they have shown an appetite for a commuter service, according to the mayor, who believes people looking for affordable living would want to move to the city if they can get to downtown Vancouver in just under an hour for a  reasonable price. It could also help get tourists to the conference centre hotel, he said.

“When the hotel is opened and when they start bringing those people in – and we have to assume the hotel will be built – how will they get [100 to 150 tourists] from the airport to Nanaimo?” he said. “I think that passenger-only ferry service is the answer.”

Reflecting back on the year, the mayor said the eight-property land swap with the Nanaimo school district was also a highlight. One of the best deals was acquiring a new section of Pioneer Park, which will allow the green space to be preserved for the public “hopefully forever,” he said.

IT WASN'T ALL SMOOTH SAILING

Despite the accomplishments of the past year, Nanaimo city council and its mayor also weathered challenges, from flaws in governance to determining the future of the Colliery dams.

Nanaimo city council hired Watson Inc. to review governance at city hall earlier this year as part of its new strategic commitments. While consultants acknowledged the city is taking significant steps, it also pointed out that significant tension, behaviour like name-calling, and physical altercations between city staff and councillors are crippling attempts at good governance. There have also been calls, even from within council, for the mayor to take a stronger leadership role.

Ruttan told the News Bulletin while the results of the governance review were not hard to hear, they were a disappointment. Aggressive discussions between councillors is “sort of unfortunate” and the point of the governance review is to show them why it’s wrong. But he also says there isn’t a lot more he as a civic leader can do to stop the behaviour. He isn’t a dictator and the mayor said he doesn’t have the authority to fine, fire or send away councillors for poor decorum. The only tools in his arsenal is respect and the ability to call a recess at meetings.

“I don’t know if I am too soft, I don’t have the authority to do more,” he said. “What you try to do is hopefully gain enough respect so when you say stop, they will stop.”

Councillors presented a united front on the Colliery dams, including the decision to cancel the tenders for the removal of the middle and lower structures. But in the face of public opposition, councillors’ support for the plan began to fall like dominos, Ruttan said.

Between May and October, city councillors decided to tear out the dams and rebuild, reversed its decision and opted to consider remediation. It has been a “messy” process, Ruttan said.

“I think Colliery dams hands down [was the most difficult decision of 2013] because there are so many variables with it that made it extremely difficult,” he said. “One of the most difficult things for all of council is to really feel comfortable that the information we’ve got is accurate and in saying that, I am not suggesting for a minute that anyone is trying to give us information that isn’t accurate.”

Nanaimo city council and its new technical committee is now looking at a new plan to repair the dams, and will have to decide how taxpayers pay for the bill. If repairs cost more than $7 million, it could mean putting the issue to referendum in the next election, Ruttan said.

“All we are saying is if it’s over $7 million, we will have to likely go to referendum and if it’s over $10 million then absolutely for sure we will and if it’s $17 million then hands down we have to go do it,” he said, adding if the city did not extend the term for borrowing, tax increases could be in the double-digits.

“I don’t think it’s bad,” he said of the possible measure. “I think [it’s] the best form of getting community input because the taxpayers, the people paying for it, are voting for it.”

RE-ELECTION

In the midst of dealing with governance changes and the Colliery dam issue in the new year, the mayor will be deciding if he’s prepared to toss his hat into the election ring for a third term. As the election day inches closer, seeking another term becomes less frightening, Ruttan said.

“I really feel passionate about that hotel, I feel passionate about that fast ferry ... in many ways I’d like to be here for that and so I am leaning in that direction,” he said, adding he hasn’t yet made a final decision.

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