Consultants planning a new 52-metre pool for Yellowknife may now be tasked with exploring either a 25-metre pool instead, or just expanding the existing Ruth Inch Memorial Pool.
Yellowknife has explored the idea of a new pool for years and all three options have been discussed in the past. However, having chosen to tentatively proceed with a large and well-equipped new facility, councillors are now re-examining that decision in a time of strained finances.
At a meeting on Monday, the majority of councillors – with Niels Konge and Steve Payne opposed – asked the City to find out how much it would cost for the consultants to expand the scope of their work.
Getting the consultants to draw up plans for a 25-metre pool, or a refit of the Ruth Inch facility, would mean looking at not only the cost to build them, but also the ongoing operating costs and how to fit in all the necessary programming.
Yellowknife's previous council, under the leadership of Mark Heyck, supported a planned 52-metre pool as presented in October 2018.
On Monday, city administrator Sheila Bassi-Kellett said asking the consultants to double back and assess renovating the existing pool would be a departure from the City's current path and may end up costing more money.
While this debate takes place, councillors will spend the week in budget deliberations. Those nightly sessions will largely focus on trying to bring down a proposed 8.48-percent property tax increase, which staff at City Hall say is necessary to fund everything residents, through councillors, have requested.
Mayor Rebecca Alty said she has heard many views about the pool from residents.
"People are still supportive [of the aquatic centre]," said Alty on Monday. "I think there's still that camp. But there's also the camp that's not supportive of proceeding."
What's the difference?
The option of renovating the existing pool was looked at in a pre-design plan last year. That plan suggested a new 25-metre pool in the Ruth Inch building would cost $41 million, while a 52-metre pool (big enough to sometimes be divided into two 25-metre pools) at Ruth Inch would cost almost $49 million.
Building an entirely new 25-metre pool was put at $47 million in the same plan. A new 52-metre pool was budgeted at $54.7 million.
Choosing to refit the Ruth Inch Memorial Pool could therefore save at least five or six million dollars, according to those numbers. However, if the City chooses that option, there remain questions to be answered – including how long a lifespan the Ruth Inch building will have once refurbished.
It is also not clear whether $12.9 million in federal funding, already secured for the new aquatic centre, could be used for a renovation and expansion instead. Several councillors expressed the need for clarity on that point.
If council decides to abandon a new pool and renovate the old one, Yellowknife would have to go without a pool for an extended period. Grant White, the City's director of community services, said the renovations could take up to a year and a half.
Councillors Shauna Morgan and Niels Konge, both of whom were on council when it decided to press ahead with a new, 52-metre pool, said shutting down the pool for renovations wasn't a great idea. "I'm not really willing to entertain having an option where our existing facility is shut down for an extended period of time," said Konge, who added his children are frequent users of the pool.
Konge spoke about a crunch felt with swimming lessons, citing waitlists of hundreds of children. Councillor Steve Payne said there was clearly "lots of room for an expansion," and councillors more broadly agreed the existing facility is clearly not meeting the city's needs.
Councillor Julian Morse, saying he wanted to avoid another "white elephant" property the City cannot sell or use, stressed the need to understand what the operating costs would be if the City builds a new facility but ends up having to keep hold of Ruth Inch, too. Operating the new pool alone – as currently envisaged – isn't cheap, with an estimated annual cost of $3.2 million for a 52-metre pool.
Councillors are now expected to decide at a January 9 meeting whether to expand the scope of the project and pay the consultants to explore more options. Because of the huge sums of money involved, residents must eventually approve plans for a pool in a referendum before construction can begin.
Alty said that while giving more work to the consultants might delay the project, it may save time later should residents reject council's first choice.
However, Konge expressed frustration at the proverbial kicking around of a can without the pool, many years in the planning, moving forward. "If we had done this a year ago, we would have saved our taxpayers $3 million," he said, referencing yearly increases in construction costs. "That's the cost to wait: three million bucks."
The referendum, when it comes, will ask residents if they approve the borrowing of money to build the aquatic centre – in whatever eventual form it takes. The referendum had been earmarked for February or March 2021, but White on Monday said that schedule will likely change. Construction is estimated to wrap up by March 2023.
The city is holding special budget meetings open to the public this week, starting at 5:30pm each night from Monday through Thursday. One of the first items up for discussion on Monday night will be the aquatic centre.