Future of Crystal Pool left up to the public

The decision to build a new $69-million facility to replace the aging Crystal Pool could soon be left in the hands of the public.

The decision to build a new $69-million facility to replace the aging Crystal Pool could soon be left in the hands of the public.

Victoria city councillors recently voted in favour of constructing a new $69.4-million pool and fitness facility, to replace the current 45-year-old building that, according to staff, is on its “last legs.”

“With current cost estimates, it’s the best value for money today with all the information we have,” said Mayor Lisa Helps during a meeting Thursday.

In December, staff originally recommended three options for renovating Crystal Pool, which included renovating the current facility at a cost of $40 million or renovating and expanding at a cost of $56 million. Both options would have extended the life of the building by roughly 30 years.

Over the past several years, various studies have examined the hazardous materials within the facility, including asbestos, lead paint and mercury containing equipment. Most recently, staff conducted another assessment on the pool and discovered the existing piping systems are in poor condition as well.

While the hefty price tag to build a new facility was a cause for concern for many councillors, most agreed the financial return, which included seeing an additional 35,000 pool users annually, was worth the long-term investment.

Coun. Chris Coleman said the financial return, along with the fact they wouldn’t have to close the current facility while the new one is being constructed, was a factor in his decision.

“One of the lynchpins to the decision is that you don’t disconnect the users of the facility from the present facility.”

“If you retrofit or renew a building, there is a closure time that has a marked impact on the users and they’ll go elsewhere and they might not come back,” he said. “The new facility is a much better option for us.”

Of the total project cost, $10 million would come from the city’s buildings and infrastructure reserve, while the remainder would be borrowed externally.

Staff are also exploring federal and provincial grant programs to get funding. Helps noted with Victoria’s 150th year of being named the capital city of British Columbia coming up next year, they have a “strong case” to potentially leverage funding from the province to cover partials costs of the project.

However, the final decision to borrow funding of up to $69 million to build the facility is not in the hands of councillors anymore. The city must put the question to the public in the form of a referendum, which staff have proposed to hold later this year. It’s a question Helps believes council should leave entirely up to the public.

“My feeling is that the referendum should be for and by the public. The city shouldn’t champion any side. This is the public’s referendum,” she said. “If the public wants to borrow this money to build the pool, then there will be public champions.”

Ben Isitt was the only councillor to vote against the motion, arguing council should have put more efforts into securing funding from the federal and provincial governments first, before taking the question to referendum.

“It’s beyond my comfort level for the scope of the project that we’re looking at for this small of a city,” he said.

A city referendum was held in 2010, asking if it should borrow $49.2 million to replace the Johnson Street Bridge, as well.