NANAIMO — 80-20.
A result even the most staunch opponents would not have predicted, as Nanaimo voters decisively shut down the City's proposal to borrow $80 million to build an events centre on the downtown waterfront.
Eighty per cent of the nearly 24,000 ballots cast in the March referendum rejected the project.
After a brief strategic planning process with limited public input in the summer of 2016, an events centre appeared on Council's list of priority projects.
Coun. Bill Bestwick, the former junior hockey head coach, then took to the media to proclaim Nanaimo's need for a new venue, noting "we have to invest in ourselves."
"Sports and entertainment, recreation, fine arts, all of those things all form a big part of what people would like to see and it does cost money. None of these things are for free," Bestwick said in Oct. 2016.
Behind-the-scenes work on the project hit a fever pitch early in 2017.
City staff seemingly put everything on hold as consultants were hired, reports crafted and studies done on the various facets of the multi-million dollar project.
Nanaimo's citizens were given many promises.
We would get a Western Hockey League team to play out of the venue. Property taxes would not increase in any way, despite paying down debt to the tune of $5.4 million annually. The venue would be unlike almost all like-size projects in B.C. in that it would not run a large annual deficit. The building would lead to economic spin-offs, revitalization of downtown and put Nanaimo on the map as a legitimate city.
In the end, nearly $1 million of taxpayer's money was spent on planning the never-to-be-built project.
The issue both galvanized and divided large sections of the community. Debate over the merits or pitfalls of the concept was fierce and often nasty. Councillors and City staff were met with strong opinions, as NoVote2017 sprang to life in opposition of the grandiose building. The No committee was then denied formal access to the City-hosted information sessions.
Tensions were high, to the point the Vote Yes Committee pulled out of a community debate at the last minute, citing safety concerns.
Some councillors have since downplayed the staggering result noting voter turnout was so low it wasn't really the entire community that opposed the proposal. However, at 35.3 per cent, the voter turnout eclipsed that of both the 2011 and 2014 municipal elections.
At the meeting following referendum day, several councillors offered apologies.
Coun. Jerry Hong apologized for heated social media exchanges. Others said it was the Western Hockey League applying pressure which led to a rushed process.
Bestwick said Council and the City now needed to “work towards something that assumedly the community told us they want. I know they told us what they don't want, loud and clear.
“It's your duty to tell me 'This is what our preferences are,'" Bestwick said.
The idea of an events centre or new arena is something which has come and gone several times over the last decade in Nanaimo.
It will take a significant amount of courage to be the next person to step up to the plate and pitch a similar project paid for by taxpayer's dollars.
This story came in at number 3 on our top 10 list of biggest stories we covered this year. NanaimoNewsNOW is counting down our top 10 local stories of 2017, with the top two stories named on New Year's Eve. Be sure to check back and offer your thoughts on the biggest stories of 2017.
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