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Update: Nanaimo waterfront location picked as home for proposed event centre

NANAIMO – Mayor Bill McKay announces council has chosen 1 Port Dr. for an event centre, over the alternative Howard Johnson hotel site.

The south industrial waterfront might sport Nanaimo’s proposed multiplex.

Nanaimo Mayor Bill McKay announced Monday that city council decided that 1 Port Dr. on the south industrial waterfront is the “best location” for the proposed event centre.

The news comes as the city prepares for a referendum and releases information on financing.

Nanaimo city council started exploring a potential multiplex last year after naming it a strategic priority, and consultants narrowed sites down to the Howard Johnson hotel property on Terminal Avenue or the city-owned Port Drive, which council has now chosen.

McKay said the costs of acquisition and construction were estimated to be much higher for the Howard Johnson site, including land purchase, building demolition, site contamination and access. He also said 1 Port Dr. supports better technical analysis, including knowledge of geotechnical issues and transportation requirements, and offers the greatest certainty on which to base financial decisions.

Kathryn Hazel, vice-chairwoman of the South End Community Association, called the announcement upsetting.

The association had previously expressed disappointment to council that the conclusions of the South Downtown Waterfront Initiative, a process to come up with a vision for the waterfront area, hadn’t been taken into consideration. There’s also concern about parking.

Hazel, who’s looked at the city’s transportation potential, also said there’s an assumption people going to events will park on surrounding streets which aren’t well lit and don’t all have sidewalks. There’s also concern cars will generate noise, pollution and traffic congestion.

Snuneymuxw Chief John Wesley told the News Bulletin consideration of the site, also known as the Wellcox property, was a “big shock” after months of the city indicating it was looking elsewhere.

“That’s not very good in my eyes. Wellcox is an extremely valuable area for the Snuneymuxw people historically,” said Wesley, who adds Snuneymuxw First Nation hasn’t agreed to an event centre going there and had offered a process to the city to address matters, but hasn’t heard how it will proceed.

It’s “kind of disheartening,” he said. “I could say a lot but I am not going to because we’ve got to build a relationship and that relationship has to be considered by both parties.”

Snuneymuxw owns land on the industrial waterfront where Wesley sees much potential, but he questions if it’s been realized and what would be needed to draw people to Nanaimo. A lot of things can go on the waterfront, he said, “if we get together and bounce these ideas off each other, maybe we can attract people to Nanaimo.”

According to Tracy Samra, city manager, the city has been engaged with the Snuneymuxw since August on site selection, consultants have met with the First Nation and there have been multiple attempts since December to arrange council-to-council meetings about final site selection, all of which were cancelled by the Snuneymuxw.

“It’s not that there’s a lack of trying by the city to get in front of them,” she said.

McKay, in his announcement, called the Snuneymuxw’s involvement throughout the project critical.

As for the South Downtown Waterfront Initiative, McKay said it didn’t enter into council’s decision in choosing one of the two sites, although he also notes he did not attend the discussion because he declared a conflict. Port Drive is not his personal choice, said McKay, who would have preferred something closer to the original visioning statement of the initiative for the area, but he said he has to uphold the will of the majority of council.

At the end of the day, he said it’s going to be the community that’s going to make the decision.

Coun. Jerry Hong doesn’t believe the waterfront initiative was ignored and that a lot could still follow through, although he doesn’t support what he could make out of the plan. He wants to see high rises, more residential and densification. It’s the last great space and as much as he likes parks, it’s not an economic driver, he said.

He sees the event centre forcing the city to do infrastructure sooner rather than later and said it gives an economic driver for other people who want to be close to that, adding businesses like the liquor store, London Drugs and Thrifty Foods are ecstatic the city is going to draw more people to the area.

Hong questions whether support for the Howard Johnson site would have been high if people were told “whatever millions of dollars extra” it would cost for demolition and site preparation as opposed to a site the city already owns.

The ownership group behind the Howard Johnson hotel had announced plans in 2015 for a multiplex. Hong called it a long-term vision.

“What happened, again, is we had an opportunity because there was a WHL team looking to relocate. The Howard Johnson site would have waited for a WHL team, another one to open up, we don’t know when or how long and that was their end goal,” he said. “If we weren’t offered a WHL team, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

He also said it’s the reason it’s being pushed so fast.

If a referendum passes, Hong said it doesn’t mean the city will build the event centre.

“If we don’t think it’s viable we will pull the plug,” he said.

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