The referendum that determines whether Yellowknife’s proposed new aquatic centre gets the green light ends in less than a week. Still to vote? Here’s what you need to know.
Planning for the $67.7-million centre – one of the biggest infrastructure project’s in the city’s history – began a decade ago and ramped up in recent years, including multiple rounds of community consultations.
Voters are now tasked with determining whether the city can borrow $10 million to build it.
City staff say the aquatic centre is needed as the Ruth Inch Memorial Pool, which opened in 1988, is ageing, its operation and maintenance costs are increasing and it does not meet accessibility needs nor the demands of residents.
“It is one of the most-loved facilities that we have,” city manager Sheila Bassi-Kellett said at a city meeting on Monday.
“It’s more than 30 years old and the building itself is really solid, but the pool components are in need of a major overhaul.”
What will the new centre include?
If approved, the new centre will be bigger than the current pool, include more amenities, and be more accessible and energy efficient.
Grant White, the city’s director of community services, said it is expected to have a lifespan of 50 years. He added while the current pool can accommodate a maximum of 2,700 people in programming, the new centre will allow for 4,500 participants.
The design for the project includes:
- a 25-metre, eight-lane lap pool;
- one-metre and three-metre springboards;
- a leisure pool;
- a lazy river;
- a large “amusement park-style” water slide;
- a hot tub;
- a steam room;
- a splash pad;
- a therapy pool;
- a spectator viewing area;
- universal change rooms;
- a canteen; and
- an office and administrative space.
The new centre, designed by Clark Builders, would be built adjacent to the existing pool where a former mini-golf course is currently located.
Chris Greencorn, the city’s director of public works and engineering, said designers will attempt to maintain as much of the area’s natural features, like rock outcrops, as possible, and incorporate them into the facility.
How much will it cost?
The new aquatic centre is expected to cost $67.7 million (excluding GST, for which the city will be reimbursed).
City Hall has published a full breakdown of how that cost will be met. Much of it – $56 million – is covered by grants and city reserves, including a $12.9-million federal grant awarded to the city in 2016 specifically for the project. That money can’t be spent on anything else, and must be handed back if the new pool does not go ahead.
The city will have to borrow the remaining $10 million, which it plans to pay back over 15 years, with interest estimated at around $3 million.
Yellowknife’s draft budget projects $20.8 million will be spent on the aquatic centre in 2022, $43.1 million in 2023, and $3.6 million in 2024.
The project is expected to result in an annual 1.27-percent increase in property taxes. Based on 2021 tax rates, that would mean an extra $18 a year for someone with property valued at $250,000, $32 for property valued at $450,000, and $46 for property valued at $650,000. The tax increase will not apply to school boards.
If the new centre isn’t built, the city will still face increased costs to support swimming. Officials have acknowledged the vote, realistically, is about whether Yellowknifers want to spend almost $70 million on a new pool or a slightly smaller sum – but still many millions of dollars – renovating the old one.
“To spend millions of dollars on refurbishing and ending up with exactly what we have right now, that doesn’t meet our needs, would be a really serious, sombre conversation that we would need to have with council. It’s a lot of money to spend on something that wouldn’t get us any further ahead,” Bassi-Kellett told Cabin Radio.
According to a 2018 pre-design plan for the aquatic centre, renovating Ruth Inch Memorial Pool was projected to cost $41 million and would require that the pool be closed for two years.
What happens if the referendum passes?
If a majority of voters favour borrowing funds for the aquatic centre, the second reading of the borrowing bylaw is set to take place on December 13. It will then go to the territorial Department of Municipal and Community Affairs for the minister’s review.
A contract for the new aquatic centre must be awarded by February 6, 2022. Construction on the project will begin next year and it is expected to open by September 2024.
A structural assessment of the old pool’s building will take place before determining how it will be repurposed. The city has budgeted $75,000 in 2022 for that assessment.
How the old building will be used has not yet been determined, though an arts and culture centre has been raised as a possibility.
What happens if the referendum fails?
If a majority of residents vote against borrowing funds, city council will decide what happens next.
White said options could include redesigning the new aquatic centre to be less expensive – to eliminate the need to borrow funds – or renovating Ruth Inch Memorial Pool.
The second option would still require the $75,000 structural assessment and extra funding to assess the mechanical and electrical components of the facility, White said.
Clark Builders would also be paid a $140,000 stipend for the work it has already completed on designing the new aquatic centre.
White said even if the current pool is not extensively renovated, it will still need upgrades to comply with human rights requirements.
‘Stick to our lane’
Councillor Julian Morse said he’s concerned that if the referendum fails, the city won’t be able to meet demand for swimming lessons. He added closing the old pool for two years of renovation work would be “really unfortunate.”
“I want as many kids as possible in our community to have that opportunity,” he said.
“I really think it’s a pretty essential piece of infrastructure for a municipality of our size and we’ll be lucky to have it.”
Bassi-Kellett said providing recreation facilities is a key responsibility for municipalities, along with sewers, roads, sidewalks, and fire and ambulance service.
While some residents have suggested the city should focus on addressing social issues like homelessness over a new aquatic centre, Bassi-Kellett said housing is a shared responsibility among various levels of government.
“It’s very important for us to stick to our lane,” Bassi-Kellett said. “This is what we do: recreation and amenities that make our community a great place to live.”
White pointed out the city has contributed funding to addressing homelessness and will continue to do so in the future. That includes $1.3 million since 2019 for the street outreach program and the homeless employment program, and more than $6 million from the community advisory board on homelessness to organizations supporting people experiencing homelessness in the city.
Mayor Rebecca Alty told Cabin Radio some residents have suggested they don’t want to support the aquatic centre as they’re disappointed by recent decisions from councillors. She encouraged them to vote for what they want for their community.
“This is a project about the community,” she said. “If you vote no just because you want to get back at council, it doesn’t impact our work and it really just would impact the community.”
Bassi-Kellett cautioned that delaying the building of a new aquatic centre would likely only make it more expensive due to increasing construction costs.
“If we want an aquatic centre, the time to build it is now,” she said.
How to vote
Voting is currently taking place by mail-in ballot. Ballots can be returned by pre-paid mail or dropped off in person at City Hall or one of two voter assistance centres: the multiplex and Tree of Peace Friendship Centre.
Anyone not able to vote by mail-in ballot or in person can request a proxy voter application from the returning officer at City Hall by 3pm on November 18.
Residents who are eligible to vote but have not received a mail-in ballot, or who need help completing one, can vote at either of the two voter assistance locations. They will be open from 10am until 7pm on November 23.
Voters must be a Canadian citizen, at least 18 years old, and a Yellowknife resident for 12 consecutive months as of November 22.
There is no minimum number nor percentage of voters required for the referendum to pass or fail. The outcome will be based on the majority of votes cast.
Voting closes at 7pm on November 23.