Yes, I am busy these days and haven’t had the writing time I would like, but I thought it was appropriate for me to finish off the Whitecaps story here, to follow up on my earlier optimism turned into creeping suspicion. People on the doorstep are still talking about the issue, and I think there are lessons to be learned from this process that deserve a bit of a debrief.
I’m going to come right out and say I think Council made the right decision, and from listening to their comments at the meeting and in the press, they made it for the right reasons.
As many of us suspected, it came down to the money. A rushed estimate had the City adding more than $11 Million in capital improvements to Queens Park to accommodate the needs of the Whitecaps and the other park users. This compared to $3 Million the City was already budgeting to spend in similar projects over the same timeframe. The “gap” between those two amounts was the central debate.
|The breakdown, from the September 15th Meeting.|
Was this the best way for the City to spend $8 Million in capital improvements for Parks and Recreation right now? How does this priority line up against the need to address the Canada Games Pool, or to provide a second sheet of ice in Queens Park, as was included in the Master Plan? (admitted bias here: Ms.NWimby is tired of having to drive to Coquitlam to play hockey when we have two skating rinks within a few blocks of our house but there is no women’s hockey in New Westminster).
To be fair, we don’t know half the deal – the amount of money the Whitecaps were willing to provide, and the potential for other revenues arising from the project. Because of the nature of in camera negotiations, and because I’m sure the Whitecaps don’t want to make their offer public knowledge, as they are likely to be shopping around to other Cities, we can only speculate on whether their contribution would be enough to cover the capital investment costs, or if the less-tangible benefits to the community would have been worth the investment. Clearly, Council did not feel the offer was good enough.
Aside from the money, there were other reasons to support or oppose this project. Some argued the cachet of hosting a USL Pro Team, while other argued it was inappropriate to have what is essentially a for-profit private business operate on publicly-owned park land. If there is one thing I lament through this process, it’s that we didn’t really have a chance to hash out those debates in a meaningful way as a community. I think it would have been instructive going forward as we plan for the next phase of our city’s growth.
Alas, the timing was too short. If the Whitecaps had come around 12 or 18 months ago with a vision, there may (or may not) have had a different result, but we definitely would have had a different process and discussion.
On that timeline, we could have done the due diligence on the plan and the cost. We could have seen a mock-up of what the proposal was and make the inevitable and sometimes subtle changes that would be required to address unforeseen issues. New Westminster baseball could have been better engaged in the planning process, and could have been empowered to build the facility of their dreams without the risk of a lost season that may have hurt their organizations’ momentum. We could have done a comprehensive evaluation of the financial impact on the community and residents (good and bad). We, the residents, could have had a discussion about costs/benefits based on an actual plan, not on conjecture and suspicion. The Whitecaps could have worked with the Queens Park Neighbourhood to reduce impacts, and with TransLink and the Justice Institute or the Uptown malls to develop parking alternatives.
We could have also had time to not mix all of this business planning with the other big debate – is this something the City wants? The (I’m sorry, but it is ideological) debate around the entire idea of having a professional sports franchise operate in our limited parks facilitates. Some oppose this as too financially risky, others on pure ideological reasons, but that important discussion in the City could not happen in a meaningful way as part of this rushed business plan
This may turn out to be a bullet we dodged, or it may turn out to be an opportunity lost, and I guess we won’t really know. However, what was lost was an opportunity for a better community discussion, again forced by an unreasonably tight deadline.
One interesting thing that did come out of this was this post-mortem article in the NewsLeader which shows the balance between boosterism for the City and prudent municipal management. This is a theme that I will be talking about more as the election goes on. If I ever find the time to write!