Does Whistler need to spend big bucks for more recreation opportunities?
The question arose at a Committee of the Whole meeting on Dec. 6, in which the results of a turf needs assessment for a new artificial turf soccer field were presented by staff.
The field is estimated to cost between $4.2 million and $6.2 million, and would extend the local soccer season by about 40 per cent, from 21 to 35 weeks.
That cost includes lights, fencing and servicing for a change room/washroom building (though not the construction of said building).
The project will be funded from the General Capital Reserve.
The new estimated cost is noticeably higher than the $3.35 million the Resort Municipality of Whistler earmarked for the project in its proposed 2016-2020 project budget.
"It would add over 1,300 additional hours — 250 prime time hours," said Martin Pardoe, manager of resort parks planning, in his presentation.
"It would provide a field of play standard comparable to and expected by players from other jurisdictions, as well as high-performance training, and offers some poor-weather certainty."
Soccer fields are graded according to field quality and support facilities. An artificial turf field with lighting, a field house and washroom would be considered class AA.
Whistler currently has fields at several locations: Myrtle Philip (Class B), Whistler Secondary (class C) and Bayly Park (class D), as well as the ball diamonds at Meadow Park (Class C) and Spruce Grove (Class A).
The fields at Myrtle Philip — Whistler's most-used fields — are very near their maximum capacity during peak times, Pardoe said.
"There are horticultural standards that recommend approximately 250-hour year-or-season use for soccer, and North Vancouver has a limit of 250 hours," Pardoe said.
"In past years we've exceeded 500 hours on our fields, and that doesn't include the school district hours."
An artificial turf field with lighting, when not covered in snow, would be usable in more months of the year and for more hours in the day, said Whistler Youth Soccer Club president PJ O'Heany.
The overuse on Whistler's current fields leads to puddles, divots and injuries, he added.
The pressure is coming from a rapid increase in soccer players at all ages.
The Whistler Youth Soccer Club has grown 23 per cent over the last five years, increasing from one rep team to five.
Adult soccer, meanwhile, has been capped at eight teams due to lack of field space.
Different age groups are using field time back-to-back, leaving little time for extra programming or skills training, O'Heany said.
"(With a new field), we'll have more opportunity to have time in between to set up, to create new structures, new formats for our teams to work with, but really we'll just be able to have a longer training session per group," he said, adding that there will be more programming opportunities for older age groups and adults as well.
"Adult soccer is capped, youth soccer has reduced programs, moved things elsewhere, rep teams home games are played in Squamish, and the late outdoor season start relative to the Lower Mainland or Squamish puts Whistler teams at a disadvantage," Pardoe said.
"We feel that participation levels are constrained by lack of hours, (and) we feel that demand is anticipated to increase over time... A new facility would provide opportunities for other users and eliminate over-use issues."
Annual operating costs for the new facility would be between $25-$35,000. Similar fields in the Lower Mainland that are used 12 months of the year have a 10-year life span.
After the presentation, Coun. Sue Maxwell questioned the need for a multi-million dollar soccer field.
"If we look at the Whistler 2020 indicators, we see that we are failing in housing and affordability and water use, energy use, the amount of waste generated, and we're not really moving very quickly on those fronts," she said.
"I kinda feel that it would be a bit awkward to spend 8-to-10 per cent of our existing reserves on something that everybody is very happy with: the amount of recreation opportunities that we have."
Maxwell floated the idea of having a referendum on the issue, though Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden said she is not a fan of referendums.
"We have a referendum every four years, and it's called an election," she said. "But Whistlerites are not shy about expressing their opinions, and if we put it out there that we're looking at an artificial turf soccer facility, we will hear about it. There's no question about that."
In terms of potential backlash from the community, "there's going to be parts of the community who don't know soccer, don't play it, have never been to Myrtle Philip to see 300 people standing around watching their kids develop and run and be active," O'Heany said.
"I think it's only positive for our community... I feel comfortable that the value we're going to get will far outweigh any expense that we incur along the term. I think it's a long-term project and the benefits will far outweigh the negative."