Election 2014: Park lease agreement falls to new council

The new city council will decide whether to move ahead with the lease of Georgia Park and how the issue is put to the electorate.

Civic politicians will be charged with deciding the potential lease of waterfront park within the first month of taking an oath of office, according to the city’s director of community development.

The City of Nanaimo is working on a draft agreement to lease more than half of Georgia Park to developers of a proposed $100-million Hilton hotel.

Dale Lindsay, director of community development, anticipates the report and lease will go to council “at the earliest in December,” putting the decision on whether to move ahead with the agreement and the process for electoral approval in the hands of new elected officials.

Last August, Nanaimo city council gave approval in principle for a 60-year plus lease that would allow hotel developers to build a loading dock and amenities like a grand staircase and patio into 900 square metres, or close to 60 per cent, of the parkland between Maffeo Sutton Park and Pioneer Plaza.

City staff members have recommended moving forward with the document, and outlined the value of proposed changes at $1.5 million, in addition to a $1.2-million community contribution developers already plan to make for park improvements outside the lease area. Lindsay said the vast majority of upgrades for the lease area are for amenities and will remain open to the public. The city will also look to make the developer responsible for maintenance and rent.

“So we’d end up with the physical improvements being completed in the park at no cost to the general taxpayer while we continue to generate funds from the lease area,” he said.

While the details are now in the works, nothing substantial has changed since the agreement was first pitched to council and ultimately the electorate will need to approve the agreement before it can move ahead. City council could decide to put the issue to referendum or alternative approval process, which would require opposition from 10 per cent of eligible voters, or more than 6,000 people. The process doesn’t have to be tied to an election and could range from $40,000 to $100,000 depending on how council chooses to proceed.

Incumbent mayor John Ruttan said he’d look at both options.

He also wants to see more information about the agreement, but said his understanding is that the intrusion would  be a small paved area for service trucks and in consideration of that the company is prepared to develop the remaining part of the park.

“I don’t know on a percentage basis what amount they would require, but I think it’s eight or 10 or 12 per cent of the park,” he said. “The reality is the park is not well-utilized. It’s an extremely steep grade … so I think if they terraced it off and enhanced the park to a level approved by the city we would have a better amenity than we do today.”

Mayoral candidate Roger McKinnon said it would be impressive to get the Hilton built in Nanaimo and it would create jobs the city needs. If the lease is a deal-maker and improves the park immensely, he would be in favour of it.

Council candidate Bill Yoachim supports a referendum, especially if the proponent foots the bill, and said if the issue had been properly managed it could have been incorporated into this election.

Coun. Jim Kipp also favours a referendum, pointing out a 60-year lease is an actual disposition of land and the only way to get it back is to break the lease.