Nanaimo voters go to the polls today in events centre referendum

NANAIMO – Residents decide whether to borrow $80 million for proposed events centre.

Signs from 'yes' and 'no' sides for the proposed event centre have popped up at the Rutherford Road and Island Highway.

Signs from 'yes' and 'no' sides for the proposed event centre have popped up at the Rutherford Road and Island Highway.

A ‘Yes sign for investment in the community and a big white elephant with a ‘No!’ across its back greet drivers in central Nanaimo as the community gears up for the final decision on whether to borrow $80 million for an events centre.

People head to the polls Saturday (March 11) for the referendum on the proposed event centre, as the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ sides of the debate are encouraging the public to get out and vote.

The events centre was announced as a priority for city council last year, triggering spending on groundwork for the building proposal, public consultation and ultimately a referendum on borrowing $80 million, considered the largest debt the city could shoulder for a capital project in recent times.

The debt service is expected to be $5.4 million annually over 20 years with a financing framework that the city’s chief financial officer Victor Mema has said will not increase property taxes or require sacrifice of programs and services. Money, for example, will come from current taxes, payment of taxes in lieu and a new strategic infrastructure fund set up last year.

The project will house up to 8,300 concert seats, a restaurant, retail, multi-purpose space and an outdoor plaza and is expected to see 114 planned event days, according to the City of Nanaimo.

Other events, such as conferences and trade shows, will account for the largest number of those event days, followed by the Western Hockey League. The league issued a press release Tuesday that said it remains committed to bringing a franchise to Nanaimo and will move ahead to get necessary final approvals if residents vote in favor of borrowing for a new events centre.

It would be situated on 1 Port Dr., a site the city purchased for $3.4 million in 2013 and has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to prepare for future development. A vision was also established for the area, and the South End Community Association has previously argued the South Downtown Waterfront Initiative clearly showed no material support for a multiplex, although city chief sustainability officer Kim Fowler said in a public meeting that it’s a living document and not a regulatory one, adding the final report didn’t specifically review an events centre and it’s not precluded.

No private investment has been injected into the construction, but Mema said this week that there will be lots of interest after the referendum and the events centre might not be fully financed by the city.

“Once residents of Nanaimo indicate that this time they are serious about this, private interest is going to be at the table,” Mema said, although he couldn’t say in what form, he pointed to naming rights, financing of the construction, rent, operations as examples.

According to Don Bonner, spokesman for No Vote 2017, believes if Mema has parties interested, that case should be presented along with information on the number of companies, names and how much has been invested.

“If we had a proper plan that would be in there, but we don’t. All this thing is, is to build an event centre downtown and all the other stuff around it is something we have to have faith that will appear to us if we vote yes,” he said.

Among what Bonner hopes people consider as they head to the polls are issues around whether to spend $80 million on a hockey arena and parking lot on the last piece of waterfront downtown, go into debt for the next 20 years, or if there is something else that should be done with the money.

Tali Campbell, spokesman for Yes for Nanaimo Event Centre, thinks city staff have done an incredible job with the business plan for the proposed Nanaimo event centre. For him, voters are considering a future for Nanaimo.

“I understand that anybody who’s voting ‘no’ March 11 may not be able to enjoy the event centre for the proposed reasons, whether it be sports-related or arts and culture, music or whatnot, but it’s an investment in our community,” he said, adding that infrastructure is what creates and builds community and economy. “I understand $80 million is a lot of money to swallow; it’s a massive project, but in order to build your community and grow your community forward these are the kinds of things you need to do to continue growth.”