The latest concept for a new Yellowknife aquatic centre, based on residents’ feedback, would provide a 52-metre pool at a cost of $50 million to build.

Deciding whether to go ahead with the proposal will be among the first big decisions Yellowknife’s newly elected city council must make.

The new council doesn’t formally meet until November. The outgoing group of councillors, in one of its final meetings, heard a presentation from the architects behind the design at City Hall on Monday.

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A report compiled through a committee studying the issue says the bigger pool is what residents are demanding, though it comes at an additional cost both to build and operate.

“We have a concept the community can get behind and certainly I can get behind,” said Councillor Julian Morse.

“I have no doubt in my mind that Yellowknife does need a new aquatic facility, and we will have to find a way to build this.”

It is not yet clear what would happen to the old pool after it closes. No final decisions have been taken on proceeding with the project.

The $50-million cost is more than some previous estimates for a new facility but within expectations. A 2011 report, for example, forecast $55 million as the eventual cost of replacing the current facility.

Finding the money

After dozens of residents requested a 50-metre pool, architect Stantec changed its design to accommodate a bigger pool.

Building a brand new facility to house a pool that size will cost around $3 million more than Stantec’s earlier concept for a 25-metre pool.

In depth: Read the full report on the pool concept (pdf)
Take a look at page 6 for the design being discussed

The City has access to $12.9 million in federal funding to help meet the $50-million price tag – a grant which also saw the City commit $4.3 million of its own money to the project.

Partnerships either with the territorial government, a school board, a post-secondary institution, or the business community – through sponsorship – may be explored to fund the remainder.

New forms of taxation would be an option for some of the shortfall, though such a move would likely be deeply unpopular and is as-yet undiscussed. The City can also look at borrowing money and reallocating funds it already possesses.

A page from a report presented to councillors shows a concept for Yellowknife's new aquatic centre
A page from a report presented to councillors shows a concept for Yellowknife’s new aquatic centre.

Sheila Bassi-Kellett, the senior administrative officer, said the City had not yet considered a public-private partnership (P3) to fund the project, adding the pros and cons would “need to be weighed out.”

“They can look like the solution to all the problems … but they can create complexities further down,” she told councillors.

“We do believe there are other levels of government that have a responsibility to step up,” she added, later, when discussing the projected cost.

Popular pool

Beyond the initial cost of building the facility, there will be increased ongoing costs to keep it running.

The annual operating cost of a new building housing a 52-metre pool is pegged at around $3.2 million, in effect doubling the annual cost to the City of the facility.

The present Ruth Inch Memorial Pool, which the City is looking to replace after more than three decades’ service, is already heavily subsidized – even though it received 82,859 visits last year, a 15-percent increase in usage on 2015.

More than three-quarters of Yellowknife households, in a survey, said they use the current pool at least once a year. Around 10 percent of pool hours are used by the Polar Bear Swim Club.

In the same survey, which was used by the architects to inform their designs, 52 percent of Yellowknifers expressed satisfaction with the Ruth Inch Memorial Pool. More than a third, however, said they were “somewhat dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied.”

Forty-one percent of people said Ruth Inch doesn’t have the amenities they desire, while 31 percent expressed concern about its opening hours. Ninety minutes per weekday are currently set aside for a public swim, with an hour each weekday for family swimming, plus a variety of times for lane swimming and lessons.

Residents providing feedback via the survey wanted a hot tub (94 percent of respondents), a tot pool (91 percent), and a springboard (89 percent) among other priorities.

The new design – which the architects stressed is a concept, subject to significant change – shows a 52-metre tank alongside a smaller, 25-metre leisure pool, a “lazy river” feature, and a “family hot pool.” There is also a springboard alongside office space and storage space.

A universal change room would be offered, meaning all genders share locker space alongside private changing areas.

Location undecided

A new facility has been advanced as the clear, preferred option based on residents’ feedback, with revamping the existing pool building now discarded by the advisory committee.

The report to councillors identified five other Canadian communities where old pool buildings have been similarly repurposed, but no clear recommendation yet exists.

Two sites have been identified for the new pool: next-door to the current pool or adjacent to the city’s Fieldhouse.

Under the current proposal, the 52-metre pool could be split into two 25-metre pools as desired. The exact capital cost is given as $49.8 million.

Stantec’s concept proposes a standalone facility. Grant White, the City’s director of community services, said the cost of ‘twinning’ with another building – combining the aquatic centre with, for example, the Fieldhouse – proved too expensive to pursue in the view of members of the advisory committee.

That committee included city councillors, the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, the Polar Bear Swim Club, youth and seniors’ representatives, business and education representatives, and the NWT Recreation and Parks Association.

Ultimately, the new city council led by Mayor-Elect Rebecca Alty must decide on giving the pool project a green light and identify a final location.

There is no definitive timeline for that to happen. If the project is given the go-ahead, more design work will then take place to finalize elements shown in the concept presented on Monday.

“Do we have a population big enough to support these grandiose ideas that, yeah, we might be able to afford the capital, but we’re not going to be able to maintain it through the years?” Alty asked during the election campaign, when questioned about Yellowknife’s aspirations regarding new facilities.

“We need to focus on creating a long-term financial plan, so we can be proactive and not reactive.”