Questions lingering

BEYOND THE HEADLINES: Public and political doubt surfacing over success of spring referendum for sports complex

Plans for a track facility are facing significant hurdles before they even leave the starting block.

Letters to the editor have been rolling in from residents about an April 6 referendum to borrow $8.5 million for a proposed sports complex in Greater Vernon.

Many people are simply opposed to the project because they don’t see the need for it. Others pan the location — designated agricultural land next to the college. And there are those who question adding to the public debt load at a time when the economy continues to struggle and there are so many other demands facing taxpayers, such as multi-million dollar upgrades to the water utility.

The looming furor hasn’t been lost on elected officials.

Coldstream council is asking the Regional District of North Okanagan, which oversees parks and recreation, to provide more specific details about the proposal, including a cost breakdown.

“I really think we need to be getting more information,” said Coun. Richard Enns.

Coun. Maria Besso has gone a step further and is demanding a committee be formed to address questions coming from residents and politicians.

“I’m not really satisfied with the procedure that is happening with the track facility,” she said.

While Coldstream was one of the original champions of a running track and football field, there is now acknowledgement that the initial public reaction could prove daunting.

“There’s concerns about the success of the referendum,” said Mayor Jim Garlick.

The problem is the sales pitch has already started.

RDNO staff and volunteers have been attending community events in an attempt to generate some enthusiasm among residents.

A brochure provides basic details on the objectives of a sports complex, what the facility will cost to build and operate and financing.

However, even with the document in hand, it may still not be clear as to why a complex is needed. What’s wrong with the existing track and field in Polson Park?

Many residents hear of decreased enrolment at area schools so they may wonder who will use the facility.

At no point is the issue of the location broached. Why there instead of right in Vernon? What could a sports facility mean for Okanagan College programs?

And some residents may wonder why the brochure says the facility will cost $7.8 million to build but the referendum question calls for $8.5 million to be borrowed. It’s likely contingency because surprises can occur during construction, but that should be spelled out clearly.

Some politicians have previously suggested that $7.8 million may not be necessary. Were pencils sharpened when the budget was drafted?

Ultimately, a sports complex would provide significant benefits for residents, including for the young-at-heart trying to stay in shape and recovering cardiac care patients. There would also be an economic component as tournaments, such as the B.C. Summer Games, could support hotels, restaurants and retailers.

But RDNO should have learned from the 2007 sports complex fiasco on Aberdeen Road that residents want concise information before heading to the polls. If they aren’t provided with it, speculation can gain legs.

Convincing voters to hike taxes is always an uphill battle but it doesn’t help when some of the strongest doubts are coming from officials within the process.