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Editorial

Decision, direction needed on arena

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Earlier this year The Economist christened Paul Martin "Mr. Dithers," a title the magazine bestowed on the prime minister after reviewing his first year in office. Since then Mr. Martin has been trying to disprove he deserves the title.

Whistler may be under The Economist’s radar but it too deserves some consideration for the title.

It’s been nearly two years since the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games were awarded to Vancouver and Whistler. Planning of most facilities is well underway and construction of a few is starting this spring. But the Paralympic sledge hockey arena proposed for Whistler has yet to find a home. If Whistler doesn’t choose a site soon the arena, and the $20 million VANOC is putting towards the facility, could be moved to Squamish.

Most towns would love to have $20 million for a new arena, Whistler included. But it’s not as easy to spend $20 million as it used to be. For one thing, it probably isn’t enough to finish an arena in Whistler. The town’s history shows constructing public buildings here is expensive.

Millennium Place, which started out as a chapel and was expected to be financed through donations, grew to become a $7 million multi-purpose building. It serves the community reasonably well, but the municipality had to step in and guarantee a mortgage in order for the building to be completed.

A $10 million library/museum was to have been Whistler’s other millennium project, with the municipality putting up half the cost and the rest raised through private and corporate donations. But fundraising in the post-9/11 economy was difficult and two years ago the plan was scrapped. Instead the municipality announced it would fund 100 per cent of a library. Last year, after several aborted starts, a $7 million library was approved. It was noted at the time that construction costs had increased 9 per cent in the year the project was delayed. However, local contractors were brought into the project, which is expected to help the local construction industry.

A few weeks ago, when final approval was given, we learned the library is now at least $8 million, with $1.37 million included in the budget for expected cost-of-construction increases over the 14-month construction period. Construction should finally begin this month.

The Spring Creek fire hall and the future upgrade of the fire hall at Alpine Meadows are each $2 million projects.

Part of the reason these projects cost so much is the fact that it just costs more to build in Whistler. Another factor is that about the time the economy cooled off three years ago, construction costs started to climb, due to shortages of material and labour. One study found that construction costs are now going up 10 per cent annually compounded . That means the price of a building doubles in seven years.

Which brings us back to the long gestation period to choose a site for the Paralympic arena. Construction isn’t scheduled to start for another year or two, so VANOC couldn’t advance Whistler the money to start construction even if it had chosen a site. But there is a fear that $20 million isn’t going to be enough to build the facility Whistler wants – even though there hasn’t been much public discussion of what Whistler wants.

The three sites known to have been under consideration for the arena are: Lots 1 and 9 in Village North; the athletes village area; and adjacent to the existing arena at Meadow Park. The Village North site, which was set aside years ago for a cultural/recreational facility, is unlikely. The cost of building a facility that meets village design standards is prohibitive. There’s also a school of thought that says Whistler should hold on to that prime real estate for some greater, future need.

The athletes village area would be convenient for Olympic and Paralympic athletes, but there probably won’t be any Whistler residents living there until 2011, at the earliest.

Which leaves the Meadow Park site. It too has its problems. Being on the swampy banks of the River of Golden Dreams it requires a heck of a lot of pile driving to produce a stable foundation. That will eat up a chunk of the $20 million. However, there likely would be greater efficiencies created by putting a second arena next to the first one.

But a decision on the site of the arena needs to be made. VANOC is waiting for a commitment. It would like the facility in Whistler but could live with it in Squamish.

Whistler also has to decide what sort of facility it wants and, in all likelihood, where the additional funds beyond $20 million will come from to build it. VANOC is providing $36,000 this year for preliminary design work. With construction costs climbing daily, and given Whistler’s recent history with public buildings, Whistler council needs to choose a site and then direct staff to find the most efficient, cost-effective design possible.

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