Yellowknife councillors appear supportive of both a new aquatic centre and the city’s plan to hold a referendum on whether the municipality can borrow funds to build it.
The city recently accepted a proposal from Clark Builders expected to cost $68 million plus several million dollars in taxes and consultants’ fees. Before it can break ground, the city is legally required to ask residents whether it can borrow up to $10 million for the project.
At a meeting on Tuesday, several councillors expressed support both for the proposed centre and plans to hold a referendum by mail-in ballot next month.
“I do think it’s a really exciting project,” said Councillor Shauna Morgan. “I think this community deserves to have a wonderful facility like this that’s open to everyone of all ages for lots of different purposes, from recreation and leisure to high-performance sports.”
Councillor Julian Morse said he believes a new aquatic centre will be an investment for future generations of Yellowknifers. If residents don’t approve the city borrowing funding, he warned that will only delay a solution to replacing the existing Ruth Inch Memorial Pool.
“Now is the time to do this,” he said.
“Something like this pool is one way our community can redistribute wealth by taking property taxes and spending them on something that everybody in the community has equal access to, regardless of their financial standing.”
Property taxes are anticipated to increase by 2.7 percent in 2024 if the aquatic centre is approved.
Centre won’t affect housing spending, councillor says
Morse noted several residents have said the need for sheltering services in Yellowknife is more important than funding a new aquatic centre. However, he argued funding a new aquatic centre does not mean the city or territorial government will forgo investment in housing.
“The city can simultaneously work on different things,” he said.
“Housing is very much on my mind and on the minds of the city and council, and is not something that’s going to be set aside because we’re building one recreational facility.”
City councillors voted against the territorial government’s request to use a downtown building as a day shelter last week. The city was not asked to contribute funding to the project but was required to give permission as a “special care facility” is not currently a permitted land use under the city’s zoning bylaw.
City manager Sheila Bassi-Kellett said a new aquatic centre is needed as the “well-loved” Ruth Inch Memorial Pool is ageing, its operating and maintenance costs are increasing, and it no longer meets the demands of residents. Bassi-Kellett said many families are waitlisted for children’s swimming lessons and the pool was not built to an accessible standard.
“The time to build is now. Actually the best time to build was probably five to 10 years ago,” she said, adding the pool is used by all demographics in the city.
Work to develop a new aquatic centre began in 2016. After several rounds of community consultations, city councillors voted in January for the new centre to include an “amusement park-style” water slide and a 25-metre, eight-lane pool. If built, the new centre will be energy-efficient and include a family change room, steam room, and splash pad.
The city already has $12.9 million in federal funding for the aquatic centre and is seeking more money from Ottawa.
While the aquatic centre is one of the biggest infrastructure projects in Yellowknife’s history, it’s not the first time the city has had to borrow funds. The municipality also borrowed money to build the Multiplex, which is expected to be paid off in 2023, and the water treatment facility, which is anticipated to be paid back by 2028.
What happens after the referendum?
In order for the city to borrow funds for the aquatic centre, a majority of voters will need to agree during the referendum.
If the referendum fails, Bassi-Kellett said the city will need to determine how to prolong the life of the Ruth Inch Memorial Pool.
If the borrowing bylaw passes, second reading will take place on December 13. It will then go to the territorial Department of Municipal and Community Affairs for review and a contract for the new aquatic centre will be awarded by February 6, 2022. The new aquatic centre is expected to open in 2024.
The referendum is set to conclude on November 23. Residents will be able to mail their ballots or drop them off at City Hall. For residents who do not receive a mail-in ballot or need help completing one, there will be voter assistance centres at the Multiplex and Tree of Peace Friendship Centre.
More information about the proposed aquatic centre is available on the city’s website.