Nanaimo city council will move ahead with groundwork for an event centre expected to cost up to $86.6 million with no certainty private interests will invest in construction.
Nanaimo council, considering a new event centre with the potential to host a Western Hockey League team, agreed at an open meeting Monday to move ahead on next steps, which includes hiring advisors and an event centre management firm, and directing staff to prepare for an electoral approval process.
Council also agreed to principles that will guide a potential project, such as ensuring the interests of residents are protected and to look at funding from a mix of public, private and other sources, although councillors were concerned the latter principle was misleading.
Coun. Ian Thorpe said it suggests there will be a combination of public and private funding and although he hopes private funding will be involved, the reality seems to be “the vast majority of funding for this project will, in fact, come from taxpayers’ dollars.”
Coun. Wendy Pratt also expressed hope in finding a private developer, but said from what she’s heard it doesn’t sound like that will happen.
But Coun. Bill Bestwick said council can’t say whether there are private contributors until it knows it is going to proceed with the project.
“Until such time as we know if we are going to proceed down this path, which we need to make that decision and then allow the community to decide on a referendum, then probably and only then can we start really being actively engaged in trying to secure and negotiation with people for private funding and see where that takes us,” he said. “There might not be any but it won’t be for a lack of trying and it won’t be for a lack of opportunity to try.”
According to city chief administrative officer Tracy Samra, nothing precludes the city from working with private investors and looking at a public-private partnership and that for construction of the building staff will look to see if there are investors or those who wish to buy a share in the centre. Depending on the site, she said there may or may not be investors available.
“Who knows? Perhaps other organizations do want to buy a share of it and invest in it, so we’re suggesting that a principle that we’ve heard from the community is that you not close down that opportunity and assume that it has to be 100 per cent city-funded,” she said. “Certainly it’s going to be a challenge, but we’re going to try to go out there and see what we can do.”
Samra did point to a 10-year business plan which identifies private money from leasing and other sales in the operations of the centre and used an increased hotel tax, from two to three per cent, as an example of funding from other sources for construction or debt-servicing.
Council unanimously agreed to have staff prepare for an elector approval process for the centre, and decided 8-1 to move ahead with a series of steps, including negotiations with the Western Hockey League, continued public engagement and to hire advisors, an architect firm, project manager and professional events centre management firm.
Coun. Diane Brennan, the lone vote opposed, said she isn’t going to support securing services of the advisors, firms and project manager until she knows the results of the referendum.
“It’s obviously a lot of money to do those hirings and securings and I just can’t see the point in doing that, spending that kind of money, if the outcome is ultimately going to be not to proceed,” she said.
Council decisions came after a presentation on the results of a feasibility study on the centre. The work cost the city $495,000, the city now reports. Results of public engagement were also released in a report by Calder Bateman Communications, which shows the community is divided on the centre. It also shows there’s palpable concern a project of this size would inevitably raise property taxes.