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ELECTION 2018: ‘Too soon’ to talk pool replacement in ACRD

Should rural taxpayers shoulder some of the price tag?
The official opening of Echo ‘67 Pool in 1967 featured a synchronized aquatic performance. ALBERNI VALLEY MUSEUM PHOTO


Special to the News

A referendum to replace the aging Echo ’67 Centre pool is inevitable, yet election candidates feel it’s too soon to debate whether rural taxpayers should shoulder some of the estimated $20-million price tag.

Rural residents are talking about the aquatic centre in this election partly because the city recently asked the regional district to assume a lead role in the project.

“The city wants the regional district to take the whole thing over,” said John McNabb, who is running for re-election in Beaver Creek. “I just don’t see the logic in that. It’s reinventing the wheel.”

Ted McGill, also running to represent Beaufort, said he’s obtained a clear sense of residents’ views on the matter, going to almost every door in the area while campaigning.

“Residents are against the idea of taking the lead and they’re also against financially supporting the pool itself,” McGill said. Most would prefer to pay a non-resident feel for using city recreational facilities, he added.

It’s not as though the city has a choice. The 51-year-old Echo Centre, built and financed by the newly amalgamated Alberni and Port Alberni in Canada’s centennial year, holds the dubious distinction of being the oldest municipal pool in B.C. still in operation. The pool’s continued operation is a testament to diligent maintenance over the years by city staff.

Yet make no mistake — the pool’s days are numbered. When Willa Thorpe assumed her role as city parks, recreation and heritage manager in 2017, she said the pool was in good condition despite exceeding its life expectancy.

“But every year, it’s more of a push,” Thorpe said.

A new aquatic facility is needed but it won’t be built unless the regional district buys in, said city Councillor Ron Paulson.

“I don’t think there is a Plan B,” Paulson said, acknowledging that the facility must be replaced. “The size of the project, for the city to build and run on its own? We’re talking about something the taxpayers can’t afford.”

That’s why city council notified ACRD that it should step up. In August, the two met to discuss the possibility but details have yet to be worked out. The next step is to engage communities to define the Valley’s aquatic needs and how those might be met.

When a new ACRD board meets in January 2019, one of the agenda items will be the regional district’s role in financing a new aquatic and fitness centre. That doesn’t mean candidates are ready to take a stand on the matter just yet.

McNabb said the city does a good job of operating the Echo Centre and already has the operational structure. Why would the ACRD assume that role when it does not, he wonders.

“The reasoning for that just doesn’t make any sense,” he said.

Yet Beaver Creek has a long history of supporting recreational facilities in the Valley, he noted.

Beaufort ratepayers rejected the idea of financially supporting the AV Multiplex construction when it was put to a referendum two decades ago.

Although some Beaufort residents use the city facilities, there is good reason why they voted that way, said Tanya Shannon, a candidate for the electoral area who has served as an alternate to the current electoral area director. The parcel tax formula used doesn’t fly because farms contain multiple parcels and therefore face a higher tax, she said.

The impact could be significant for owners of large, rural properties. The cost of replacing Echo Centre is factored into the city’s 2019 budget with an estimated tax impact of $250 annually per parcel.

“It doesn’t work for us,” Shannon said.

She doesn’t dismiss the importance of a new aquatic centre, though.

“I just feel that if this is coming down the pipe we should be looking for funding from the federal and provincial governments, to see what’s involved and to see who wants this facility,” she said.

Paulson sees a parallel in the AV Multiplex project, which required five different plebiscite campaigns in the outlying rural areas before it could proceed. The parcel tax for that project is due to be retired in 2021.

“If one falls out, with the exception of Beaufort, it’s a dead issue,” Paulson said. Beaufort is smaller and more rural than Beaver Creek, Cherry Creek and Sproat Lake. Beaufort residents voted to opt out of the Multiplex cost sharing and prefer to pay a direct non-resident fee when using the facility.

Paulson doesn’t feel the aquatic centre should be a contentious issue at this stage, though. The cost sharing doesn’t have to be based on a parcel tax, he said. Critical considerations such as location, design and community engagement have yet to be worked out. The regional district isn’t set up to run large facilities such as an aquatic centre, he acknowledged.

“We’re only in the early stages,” Paulson said. “There’s a lot of work to do.”

Discussions between city and regional district have so far have indicated strong interest to continue working together on the feasibility of a new sub-regional aquatic facility.

Modern aquatic centres are far different from pools designed decades ago.

As the city’s 2011 feasibility report indicated, updated and “leisurized” aquatic centres with wave pools and other attractions can attract additional use to the point where their financial net position is greatly improved.

“In the end, it’s going to be a referendum that decides,” McNabb said, noting that it’s still in the early discussion stage.

He feels Beaver Creek residents would get behind the project if the approach resembles that of the AV Multiplex. He’s heard a lot of support from area residents.

“I’m optimistic that it would fly.”

Paulson said the importance of an aquatic centre shouldn’t be underestimated in terms of community health and civic infrastructure. Convincing rural ratepayers of contributing to those merits is another matter.

“It will have to be sold, no doubt,” he said.

Following the Multiplex example, an independent committee could oversee fundraising and corporate sponsors could step forward to help bear capital and maintenance costs, he added.