The new leisure centre in Dawson Creek went $20 million over budget.

The new leisure centre in Dawson Creek went $20 million over budget.

Cautionary tale of new rec facilities

Looking at Dawson Creek and Mission and what happened there.

If Maple Ridge decides to build a new aquatic centre, and if taxpayers agree and it’s done right – dollars could flow into the city as people flock to the new attraction.

It’s worked out that way in Dawson Creek, where the South Peace Community Multiplex opened in 2008. The combined events centre-agriplex-aquatic centre brought in $11 million in new business and created 130 new jobs in the northern city in its first 18 months.

But seeing the project to completion was no easy task. Cost overruns of about $20 million and construction delays pushed the final price to $58 million.

“It was controversial at the time and most of the controversy focused on the cost elements and budget overruns,” Dawson Creek’s CAO Jim Chute explained.

“Now it’s an amenity for the community,” and the focus is on what’s the next big concert to come to the city of about 15,000.

Chute describes the building process, which began in 2003, as a “nightmare,” adding that it’s a “cautionary tale” of what to avoid when building.

Constant changes in the design of the events centre delayed completion, while the lack of an overall general contractor compounded delays, and cost and revenue estimates were faulty.

Escalating costs during the oil and gas construction boom added to the woes, Chute said in a 2009 report to council.

The Dawson Creek multiplex involved building a 4,500-seat events centre, to draw in major events, which accounts for most of the cash inflow, as well as a new aquatic centre, which includes a walking track and lazy river.

What Chute describes as the “greatest failure in the process” was council holding its meetings and decisions on the project behind closed doors, without public input.

Another lesson learned and applied in the building of the new arts facility built there is ensuring that consultants providing reports have no connection with any future part of the project.

Maple Ridge is currently considering a slate of new recreation facilities, with a wellness centre that incorporates a swimming pool and curling rink at the top of the list. That project could cost up to $70 million, providing the public approves any required borrowing.

Council has also asked staff to recommend a possible site for a new aquatic centre, as well as a concept plan and a public approval process.

While building new projects poses challenges, repairing existing facilities also has pitfalls.

Council has said no to repairing the existing 30-year-old Maple Ridge Leisure Centre pool, which could have cost about $6 million, as it investigates a new pool.

In the District of Mission, an expansion and renovation of the recreation centre there ballooned in costs a decade ago.

Mission taxpayers, in 2002, voted in favour of borrowing up to $13.8 million to renovate and upgrade the leisure centre and the sports park. The extensive renovations and expansion of the leisure centre were completed in 2005 and costs ran $8 million over budget.

But once you’re committed to a project, you have to keep going, advised Mission Mayor Randy Hawes. Don’t try to scale back to cut costs and deliver the public less than what they expected, he added.

“Ten years from now, no one is going to remember that overrun. But they will remember if you cut back and you get a less-than-adequate leisure centre,” he said.

“Do not panic when you have an overrun. You have to carry on and deliver for future generations.”

Hawes pointed out there were no blueprints for the old recreation centre and construction crews ran into several building code issues once work got underway, adding to the work and time required.

“If they’re building a brand new building, you won’t run into that.”

Coun. Tyler Shymkiw though said that communities get into trouble when they over-reach “and build for something other than their needs.”

That happens often as cities try to attract sports franchises.

But in Maple Ridge, there’s already a lot of pent-up demand for new recreation facilities. “I think the support is already built-in into the community for it because we’re behind in our facilities for a number of our major user groups.”

The questions about the actual construction are a ways down the road.

Coun. Bob Masse said it’s too early in the process to worry about cost overruns because council doesn’t even know what it wants to build. There are always contingency funds built in to cover overruns, he added.

“I think our finance department is really good,” at keeping council on track. “That’s kind of the least of my worries at this point.”

Chute adds that whatever recreational facility Maple Ridge decides on has to meet public expectations on modernness, otherwise customers won’t show up.

People will drive out of town to go to the newest complex, he added.

He also warned not to get carried away with optimism.

Politicians generally are optimistic people, which can lead to unrealistic assessments of the hard facts, such as revenues and costs. It’s called optimism bias, he said.

“It seems to happen over and over again in government, not just local government, but all government. That optimism bias seems to be vibrant.”

That’s why staff must always strive to provide a realistic balance.

While Maple Ridge council awaits a staff report on a new pool, a possible partnership with another agency for such a project seems to be fading.

YMCA of Greater Vancouver CEO Stephen Butz told council last July that the YMCA could pair with Maple Ridge in building an aquatic centre, providing they are involved from the start of the project.

But so far, there’s been no discussion with Maple Ridge staff and YMCA since.

“The YMCA is willing to explore opportunities to partner if they wish,” a YMCA spokesperson confirmed on Tuesday.

The YMCA is currently pairing with Coquitlam, Surrey and Vancouver in building new centres there. Coquitlam intends the new facility, to be finished in 2018, to be located near the new SkyTrain line, although no location has been chosen.

Coun. Craig Speirs though is cool towards the idea of partnering with the YMCA.

He said Maple Ridge is envisioning a facility with a broader scope, that’s more than just a pool. It would involve a wellness centre with a running track, fitness centre and curling rink.

“I think these things need to be in public control. They have their own way of doing things, but I don’t think it matches what the community needs.”

Whatever is built will have to be worth the millions in public dollars needed to be approved for the project through a plebiscite or alternative approval process, he said.

“When we’re 120,000 people, I want these people to think that we were forward looking. We want to build something that will stand the test of time.”






2009 South Peace Community Multi-plex Economic Impact Study