Castlegar and surrounding communities are preparing to go to referendum on whether to build a $25 million dollar renovation for the Castlegar and District Community Complex. As a parent of two kids, I’ve spent a fair bit of time in the facility – for swim lessons, casual swimming, and drop-in skating – not as much as some parents or other users of the facility, but I have my ideas of what the Regional District is hoping to achieve out of this renovation and believe that there are more questions than answers at this stage.
“Keeping Up With The Joneses” (or Trail/Creston/Nelson)
Unfortunately, one of the biggest drivers for recreation capital spending is in providing facilities that equal or surpass those of other communities – a community version of “Keeping up with the Joneses“. The propaganda being distributed by the “Friends of the Castlegar Recreation Centre Expansion Project” states that the proposed lazy river is great for rehab when recovering from an injury, and the leisure area will be great for parents to relax while their kids have swim lessons. This type of marketing is another symptom of the culture of consumerism we live in – we are told we need to have something, so we end up “buying” it, just like everyone else, only to realize that the purchase is good, but doesn’t fulfill our dreams. Personally, this type of consumer based spending is the least important for Castlegar at this time – the community has many greater challenges than whether the kiddy pool is warm enough.
Now there are parts of the project that I agree with. For instance, the Pioneer Arena is an old structure that doesn’t meet the expectations of modern facilities and is at the end of it’s useful life. I’ve had a quick read of the architectural and structural engineering report on the building (from 2009), and would have to agree that the choice of investing further money into this building might give it another twenty years, but it will still be an older style arena, with many issues. Consolidating the facilities on one site makes some sense, however parking can be at a premium at both these locations in hockey season, so I’m not sure that the added parking burden has been adequately considered. The bigger question of ice time and the number of surfaces the community supports hasn’t been adequately answered in my mind. Recreation facilities are notorious for not being self funding, averaging around 50% funding from taxes, with the rest from user groups, classes and fees.
Additionally, facilities for seniors are sorely needed, and that demand, in one form or another will be increasing as Baby Boomers officially become seniors. This is a different generation from previous ones, they may have different needs and wants as seniors, so whatever facilities are provided, they should be adaptable for future generations.
Where I have a problem with the proposal as it is presented, is with the fitness and aquatic upgrades. In my opinion, a big reason for this proposal is the attempt at “Community Level Conspicuous Consumption” – a philosophy of “spend money to attract more money”. This manufactured fight for survival is perpetuated by Chambers of Commerce and other such organizations who’s primary goal is continued growth, particularly of the economic kind. It is the expectation that the only way to grow this community is to provide facilities that surpass those of competition communities. We moved here because we wanted to live close to a job, not because there were three supermarkets or two arenas. It seems that there is a level of community pride based on our ability to compete with and/or surpass other communities, rather than based on actual pride in the communities achievements. I realize that on some issues it is a dog eat dog world, but when it comes to attracting businesses and new residents, there should be a balance between providing excellent modern facilities and fiscal prudence.
The relative merits of the project have been undermined by an all or nothing approach – the level of community discussion and consultation prior to developing the referendum question never examined what level of support there was for a variety of options. Instead it seems we are presented with the wishlist and expected to “Vote Yes”.
I’d challenge Castlegar residents to read on and consider the level of taxation that they are likely to face from other projects that do not appear to be full considered at this stage. These cost, which are entirely external to the referendum and the future of the recreation complex, should cause us all to pause before we “Vote Yes” for a wishlist.
A Look at Other Possible Costs in the Next 20 Years
Hospitals and Schools
The last couple of weeks have seen some bad news for both the hospital and school districts in the West Kootenays, with the bills piling up and cut-backs in the works, the level of service in health and education appear to be likely to decline – whether we like it or not. As part of a recent announcement, the Hospital district is seeking input as to how to fund an estimated $60 million tab, their (our) share after the Province ponies up around $80-90 million for as yet undefined facility upgrades. While this discussion is simmering in the background, Castlegar’s already weakened health centre seems to be lined up for another blow, with the removal of Ultrasound services. Lets assume that Castlegar residents will be responsible for about 1/4 to 1/5 of this cost, so let’s put that at a round $12 million over 20 years.
School District 20 released an options report that aims to consolidate schools, citing shrinking enrollment and increasing costs across the region, as well as facilities that are aging (and I suppose inadequate for many current learning methods). Even with some cost cutting, it is likely that some of the facilities in the schools that are suggested for continued use will require upgrades in the next 20 years that have not been budgeted – lets assume that Castlegar’s share would be in the order of $10 million dollars. Interestingly, I’ve heard that the school district doesn’t even use the Castlegar Pool for swim lessons, preferring to go to Trail, because it is cheaper. Also, Grad is held at Selkirk College, rather than the “Community Complex” for similar reasons.
Water and Infrastructure Upgrades
The City of Castlegar identified in 2009 a number of significant water infrastructure upgrades that are required to ensure the safe, smooth running of the system. The price tag on this is around $60 million over the next 20 years. Similar costs will be identified in future years related to pavement, sanitary and stormwater infrastructure – let’s (conservatively) estimate the total of all municipal core infrastructure upgrades to be around $150 million dollars over the next 20 years. Many of these upgrades are required just to preserve the level of service we have come to expect over the last 30 years, while others will be required to upgrade facilities to meet provincial or federal standards.
Some of the works identified are for expansions of the water and sewer system to areas like the airport, (at a cost of over $3 million), in the hopes of attracting investment in commercial and industrial lands over there. This work is currently proposed to be raised through taxes, net of any grants that may be available from the Provincial or Federal Governments.
Additionally, in many cases the large capital items (such as a water treatment plant) would increase operational spending. Other initiatives such as water meters, may reduce water consumption across the City, but will not reduce operational costs, and in fact, in every 10-15 year period all of those meters will need to be replaced – if there are 3,000 meters and an estimated replacement cost is $200 per unit and they will all need replacing in 15 years, this is around an additional $30,000 that must be budgeted each year for eternity that was previously not required, (obviously to be recovered from water bills).
The Impending Tax Burden
From the above discussion, the City is facing costs in the next 20 years for capital upgrades to hospitals, schools and municipal infrastructure of around $170 million. By a rough calculation, this means that we should be putting away some where between a half a million dollars to a million dollars a month (depending on interest rates, grant funding etc) into a fund that can be drawn upon for all of these costs. This is above and beyond the normal operating costs of a municipality, which for Castlegar run around a couple of million a year. Also, it is ridiculous to assume that there will be any provincial money available to fund this infrastructure, certainly it would be folly to rely upon it for necessary upgrades.
Even if these estimates are on the high side, we are talking massive spending (around $6 million a year) just to catch up or keep up to a reasonable level of service.
Please note that the numbers above are estimates based on my experience only and may be more or less than the actual values if such options were to be investigated. The point is that there may be viable options other than the single one proposed in this referendum.
Comparison to Creston and the Global Economic Crisis
In some of the documentation provided by those arguing for the expansion, there is justification based on Creston’s recent construction of a similar facility. Interestingly, the timing of the proposal to construct their facility is critical in determining what similarities there are between the two community’s cases. Creston successfully completed the public process for the borrowing bylaw through a referendum in 2006. I don’t know if you folks remember 2006, but the economy was ticking along a lot better than now, and in Creston’s case, Albertans were buying into the town as their reach expanded from the East Kootenays, and generally, there was a pretty upbeat attitude about the present and future opportunities that were available in the region. The Creston project got public approval at the height of optimism in recent years, then were able to construct in 2009 when the labor market and construction costs were much cheaper.
Things have changed since 2006. While Canada is not in as dire straights as America, the country (including the Province of BC) has racked up the biggest debt in recent times in an attempt to keep the economy afloat. Provincial and Federal grant funding has slowed down as a result, and for the first time in decades, homeowners are faced with the possibility that the value of their houses, in many cases their retirement “nest egg” will decrease in value in the next couple of years. Additionally, it is really only in the past couple of years that the impending infrastructure deficit has received any attention from the media, and hence the public. All levels of government will be torn between competing demands for inadequate funding, whether it is schools, health care, infrastructure or safety and security services such as police and fire departments.
Creston committed to the project at a time when there was a belief in the robustness of the financial system and the economy. The Regional District is proposing this project in Castlegar at a time when most families in the region wouldn’t dream of going into (further) debt to upgrade something that only gets used by a fraction of the family. But even worse, is that this analogy falls apart, because the purchase that we are being asked to vote on is equivalent to about 4 times the annual budget for the City of Castlegar. Assuming the average family spends about $40,000 a year, this proposal is equivalent to a $160,000 purchase for a family, somewhat similar to buying a Ferrari when you’ve already got an SUV that still gets you around in style. Still not a great analogy, I’d be open to others in the comments section below,if you’ve got any ideas.
What Would I Propose?
Not wanting to be one that shoots down an idea without providing a positive alternative, I’d suggest a minimal upgrade to the pool, to separate the kid’s pool from the main pool, thus allowing the kids pool to be warmer. This may cost around $50,000. Adding additional swim lanes for competition meets is a wish list item that serves a very small user group – there must have been a reason why it was not built with 8 lanes originally, 6 lanes is a compromise, and we’ve lived with it thus far. Expanding the leisure area of the pool would be a nice upgrade, if you’ve been to Kelowna’s new H20 pool you’d see how popular these centres can be, but they have about 10 times the population – and even then, with the cost of admission ($19 for a family of four), I’m sure for most people it is a treat to use the facility, not the weekly activity.
Improvements to the fitness area and multi-use rooms could be made to allow more room for fitness classes in other areas of the building. This may require some additional storage space and changing out of fittings and fixtures, but it seems that this option has been discarded before asking the public for any input. Cost $100,000.
An expansion project for the seniors centre may require the construction of an addition. This could be around $600,000.
Replacing the Pioneer Arena should be undertaken after a full review of ice times, and all options for location, design and scale of facility. In my mind this can wait, there are few grant opportunities out there at the moment, and this is likely to be the case for several years at least. I’d rather see the Regional District start putting money into a reserve for the replacement of this arena in the future and address the life safety and immediate structural issues at the Pioneer Arena now.
So lets say there was a budget for $2 million dollars now, payable through short term borrowing, and a plan to replace the Pioneer Arena in the future, putting away $200,000 a year, giving $4 million in 20 years, perhaps there will be an opportunity for grant funding at some stage in the future to lever these funds.
For the current proposed expansion project, my suggestion is to “Vote No” – not out of any attempt to squash the idea of a revitalization project, but to ensure it is a project the has value for the whole community, as we’re the ones who will end up paying for it.
If you’ve got something to say on this issue, please leave a comment below. Passionate is fine, but rudeness will not be tolerated.