Downtown dominates years of headlines

NANAIMO - Looking back at the big stories during 25 years of covering Nanaimo community

Over the past 25 years, News Bulletin reporters have pumped out tens of thousands of news stories, editorials, opinion columns and press releases, all of them important records to archive how our city has changed – and in some cases hasn’t – over the decades.

Reducing that prolific output down to just a few significant headlines wasn’t an easy assignment, but since the Bulletin first landed on doorsteps May 2, 1988, there have been dominant themes over time that have persisted and become baselines for Nanaimo’s foundation.

The ongoing revival of Nanaimo’s downtown is one issue that has dominated since the Bulletin’s inception and before.

With urban sprawl in the 1960s and 70s, businesses in the city’s traditional core moved with the population, leaving a void in the city centre. The recession of the 1980s didn’t do much to help fill that void, so civic leaders established the province’s first Business Improvement Area, referred to then as the Nanaimo City Centre Association, to revitalize the downtown and restore confidence with shoppers.

Today, that organization still exists, but is only one part of a sophisticated network of marketing agencies like the Nanaimo Economic Development Corporation, Downtown Nanaimo Business Improvement Association, and Tourism Nanaimo, all established to promote the downtown area and ensure it strives to be a district full of vitality, culture, entertainment and commerce.

But it hasn’t been easy, and in many cases decisions on taxes, representation and, of course, the controversial Port of Nanaimo Centre and the Vancouver Island Conference Centre have deeply divided people.

Nothing happens downtown without causing a stir. The conference centre, which narrowly survived a public referendum prior to it being built, opened in June 2008 but still draws fire at council meetings today because of its $1 million annual subsidy and inability to attract consistent delegate days.

The story of a conference centre hotel that has yet to be built has played out like a dark Shakespearean comedy over the years with no conclusion in sight.

Even the organization established to revitalize the downtown, the DNBIA (formerly the Downtown Nanaimo Partnership Society), has come under fire. In 2009, the DNPS and its two BIAs barely survived an alternate approval process after downtown business and property owners expressed concern over how their BIA levies were being spent.

While the downtown has without question improved dramatically over the years – new residential and commercial units continue to be built – the city’s core has by no means cleared itself from past growing pains. Debate and a potential referendum will once again be raised in the future by a single, looming word: multiplex.


Nanaimo Parkway

The Nanaimo Parkway is the result of true community participation. The 21-kilometre, $188-million bypass that was completed June 1, 1997 had been talked about for almost two decades before former Premier Glen Clark officially opened the road. Twenty busloads of parkway supporters, however, with Clark leading the way in a vintage Mustang, were fortunate enough to get the inaugural drive along the new road (others were able to bike it) before regular traffic took over.

Prior to that, the Vancouver Island Highway Project held numerous open houses between February 1990 and May 1992 to receive public input from citizens who wanted a say in how the parkway would best serve them.

Once it had the green light, the Nanaimo Parkway employed 583 workers, pumping $14.3 million in wages into the local economy, while allowing commercial and passenger traffic to skirt the downtown core and reduce traffic congestion by as much as 50 per cent.

“I believe this will relieve congestion in the downtown area and improve safety,” said Lois Boone, the transportation and highways minister at the time. “The parkway will provide quick and easy access to both Departure Bay and the new Duke Point ferry terminal.”

As with any major project, not everybody was on side. Environmentalists showed concern the work damaged numerous fish bearing streams, while property owners near the route were concerned their assessment would decrease. There were also murmurs that diverting traffic away from the downtown core would reduce economic opportunities from people passing through the city.

Vehicle traffic was not the only mode of transportation officials had in mind when building the parkway. Nanaimo residents still benefit from the parallel Parkway Trail, enjoyed by cyclists, pedestrians and other methods of travelling north-south.


Clippers host RBC

It’s still talked about in local hockey circles today.  In 1998, the Nanaimo Clippers, under head coach Kent Lewis, hosted the Royal Bank Cup, the national championship tournament to determine Canadian junior A hockey supremacy.

The hometown Clips slipped through the round robin portion of the tourney with a 3-1 record, losing only to eventual champions the Surrey Eagles, who went undefeated against Nanaimo, Weyburn Red Wings, Milton Merchants and Brockville Braves. Surrey eventually went on to win the national crown, defeating Weyburn 4-1 in the final.

Though Nanaimo didn’t emerge with a national title, it did put the team and the city on the national map by hosting a successful tournament, and Frank Crane Arena enjoyed some upgrades that still make the facility one of the best in the league today.


Other stories

Piece by piece, other stories have helped define Nanaimo, beginning with the preservation of our precious parkland. Neck Point, Cable Bay, portions of Linley Valley and several other natural spaces have been purchased and preserved by the city, allowing Nanaimo residents one of the best inventories of urban park spaces in the province.

Since the early 1990s, recreation and cultural facilities have also been prominent, and residents are fortunate to have places like the Port Theatre and Nanaimo Aquatic Centre to enjoy.