The City of Port Alberni and Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District (ACRD) are starting to move forward on a new pool for the Alberni Valley, but for some, the local governments are not moving fast enough.
During an Alberni Valley and Bamfield Services Committee meeting on Feb. 25, the committee recommended including $100,000 in this year’s ACRD draft financial plan to undertake a feasibility study for the new pool. This recommendation still has to get approval from the ACRD board.
“In our view, the point is to get this in the hands of the community for a good conversation,” explained ACRD CAO Doug Holmes on Feb. 25.
A feasibility study was already undertaken by the city in 2011, with public engagement.
However, since this study has taken place, pointed out Port Alberni Mayor Sharie Minions, the demographic of the Alberni Valley has changed significantly.
ACRD staff explained that a referendum will have to take place before construction begins on a new regional aquatic centre, but planning work still has to take place before the district knows what the referendum will be voting on.
“The community doesn’t want to wait forever and the pool won’t last forever,” Minions told the committee.
The topic of a new pool is one that has been on the city’s agenda through multiple councils. The city-owned Echo 67 Aquatic Centre is 54 years old and is nearing the end of its service life. But city council has pushed for years to get the regional district on board with funding. Back in 2011, the cost of a new pool was estimated at $12-18 million. Now, with inflation, the cost might add up to nearly $30 million.
As Minions pointed out during a Feb. 16 city budget meeting, the need for a new pool is not in question. The question is how the pool will be funded, and who will pay for it.
“I certainly haven’t seen any $15 million grant opportunities for communities our size for pools in the time I’ve been on council, and I think it’s unlikely that will come,” Minions said. “What we do know is that it’s a priority, but there’s work that needs to be done to make sure that when we get that pool built, it’s affordable for us long term and it’s equitably paid for by all residents across the Alberni Valley. I think we need to be cautious as a municipality to not rush in and end up with 100 percent of the costs.”
In 2018, the city met with the ACRD for the first time to discuss the possibility of a regional aquatic centre. Discussion about the pool has been at a bit of a standstill for the past year, mostly due to the COVID-19 pandemic and an inability to have in-person conversations. For some, movement has been too slow.
One Port Alberni resident spearheading the replacement of the pool is Randy Fraser, who worked in the city’s public works department for almost 40 years before retiring. Fraser has started an online petition in favour of a new aquatic centre, which has garnered more than 1,500 signatures. The petition can be found at www.change.org.
“It is a critical piece of infrastructure for the health and well-being of our community, and is unacceptable if it is allowed to get to the point of shutting down,” said Fraser in his petition.
Fraser’s main concern is the city’s reserve funds. In a budget meeting on March 1, he noted that some of the city’s reserve funds have been earmarked for a pathway linking Harbour Quay and Victoria Quay.
“It seems to me that most people think a pool is a higher priority,” said Fraser. “If you really want to be serious about getting a pool—the more reserves we have, the lower the cost will be overall to the taxpayers.”
However, Minions pointed out that these reserve funds are just a placeholder in the budget, and the Quay to Quay pathway is still dependent on receiving a $2.5 million provincial grant.
“Slotting those funds into the budget doesn’t necessarily mean that’s exactly how it’s going to be funded,” pointed out Minions. “But it is a requirement of applying for the $2.5 million.”
Fraser still thinks the city should be making a new aquatic centre more of a priority. He appeared virtually before city council during a meeting on Monday, March 8 with comments from dozens of Port Alberni residents in favour of building the new pool.
“Councils before [this one] should have been using reserves more stringently,” said Fraser. “We should have been thinking ahead, but we haven’t, so this is where we are.”
He believes that although the pool is now a regional effort, the city should be the driver of the project.
“If we want the regional district taxpayers and residents to be equal partners in this project, then we need to consult them,” she said.
On Monday, council voted to establish a contingency fund for the replacement of the pool. Finance manager Andrew McGifford pointed out that the city already has a parks and recreation reserve fund, which receives 10 percent of all facility rental fees and admission costs each year. There is currently about $2.5 million in the reserve fund.
However, this new contingency fund will be used to set aside funds “intentionally” for the pool, said Minions.
“I see this as a first step and a commitment to moving forward,” she added.