Nanaimo votes on divisive $80M waterfront arena future

Nanaimo residents turned out in droves today to vote on whether or not the city should borrow $80 million to build a new waterfront event centre and arena.

The proposed centre would be on vacant, city-owned land and provide up to 5,700 seats for hockey, and about 7,100 for concerts. 

If voters say yes, a Western Hockey League team could soon be on its way to the city of 90,000.

Proponents say a new events centre would revitalize the city's waterfront and downtown by drawing marquee concerts to the city.

But opponents are skeptical of those supposed economic benefits and don't think a large arena is the best use of the waterfront land, or taxpayer money.

Cost concerns

Don Bonner, who led the "No" side, said previous plans had called for a market similar to Vancouver's Granville island and commercial and recreational space.

"Putting an event centre there that is only vibrant for a few hours maybe one or two times a week just doesn't cut it." said Bonner.

Opponents are also concerned about about the hefty price tag, he said.

"No one has ever said they're opposed to the idea," Bonner said. "Mostly they're opposed to us footing the entire bill for it."

Earlier this week, the WHL said the league and the city of Nanaimo had entered a memorandum of understanding that if the city delivers a "Yes" vote on the arena, it will open a franchise there.

There has been speculation that the WHL's Kootenay Ice in Cranbrook, B.C. could be headed to Nanaimo.

Ice bound for Nanaimo?

Jeff Chenowyth, the team's general manager, told the CBC that the move is under discussion.

But it all hinges on the results of Saturday's referendum. Polls close this evening at 8 p.m. PT.

More than 4,000 people voted in advance polling, said Tali Campbell, who heads the "Yes" side. 

Campbell expected the results to be tight.

He said Nanaimo needs a new venue — not just for hockey — but to  create jobs and revitalize the downtown core.

"Right now, our downtown core is not in a good state," he said.

If residents want to see big-name acts they must travel to Victoria.

"Elton John is in Victoria tonight," he said. "Hundreds of Nanaimo people are headed up there right now.

"They're going to restaurants before. They're all going for a drink afterwards."

The $80 million price tag includes $70 million for the building and $10 million to service the land.

"Eighty million dollars is a big ask, but that's what infrastructure costs," Campbell said.