Moving the goalposts

Whitehorse city council is right to call a time-out before voting on the rezoning needed for the Yukon government's $7-million outdoor recreation complex proposed in Whistle Bend.

Whitehorse city council is right to call a time-out before voting on the rezoning needed for the Yukon government’s $7-million outdoor recreation complex proposed in Whistle Bend.

This project – which would span seven hectares and include two artificial-turf soccer fields and a rubberized track – may be a white elephant in the making, and there’s the potential for the city to end up in the long run being on the hook, despite the assurances offered by Yukon Party politicians that this won’t be the case.

Many important questions remain unanswered, which ought to concern not just city council but also the broader public. Here are a few.

City hall is responsible for operating nearly every other sports facility in Whitehorse. Why is soccer any different? And why didn’t the city government or public have a say earlier in the process about what this facility would look like, rather than being handed a complete design along with an instruction to approve the rezoning promptly, presumably so that construction can be rushed ahead before the next territorial election?

Why is this necessarily an all-or-nothing proposition? The territory seems adamant that the project not be scaled down. But if the big problem to be solved is the lamentable condition of Whitehorse’s existing soccer fields, wouldn’t it be possible to put some money towards patching up and improving the irrigation of these fields instead of building a big, fancy new facility? If ATVs are tearing up the existing fields, couldn’t we put a ring fence around them? If we need a new track, couldn’t this be added to one of the city’s existing schools?

Why is the territorial government able to splurge on a fancy new soccer field for Whitehorse, when recreational facilities in Yukon’s communities are in some cases crumbling? Dawson City has long been promised a new rec centre, but has little to show for it. Carmacks isn’t able to use its rink, because its roof is buckling. Teslin dreams of having a small community pool, but at this point it only remains a dream. Other communities surely have similar stories.

Whitehorse, meanwhile, already has enviable recreational facilities for a community of its size. So has this decision been made in the context of the whole territory’s recreational needs? It’s hard to imagine that’s the case.

What are we to make of the thin business case that’s been provided? A non-profit group that, until recently, didn’t even exist plans to lease the facility and operate it on a break-even basis. It has suggested the facility will cost about $50,000 to maintain annually, which city politicians understandably worry may be overly optimistic.

This group envisions its operations being propped up, in part, through revenues raised from a building on the property that would be rented out for a hodge-podge of purposes, from offering warm storage to providing space for weightlifting, dance and judo. Of course, this is not the first time a well-intentioned non-profit has assured the public that its activities will break even thanks to a nifty side business. We all remember how Mount Sima’s expansion plans were supposed to be propped up with its WildPlay adventure park, and how the venture instead ended up becoming a big money pit.

In response to such concerns, Yukon Party ministers promise they will step in to cover any cash shortfalls that this group may encounter. This is remarkable, considering how the government has been unwilling to do the same for other athletic groups. It made it clear it didn’t want to own the Mount Sima mess. When the curling club struggled to pay the rent, the government never offered to step in and help. Hockey players by and large pay their own way, as do most other groups. So what is so exceptional about soccer that it deserves special treatment?

Well, it’s not totally exceptional. Soccer players can count themselves in the same good company as golfers, given how the Yukon Party saw it appropriate to provide Mountain View Golf Course with a secretive bail-out when it ran deep into debt. Why, pray tell, is it the territorial government’s responsibility to financially backstop some athletic groups, but not others? Are we the only ones having trouble discerning the logic underpinning these decisions?

To the territory’s assurances that the city won’t be left to pay the outdoor facility’s operating costs, councillors may well respond: just like the Handibus? This service was once operated by the territory, until a subsequent government made the reasonable observation that the municipality handled other transit services, and it only made sense to fold it all together. Eventually, demand for the service outstripped the territory’s operating grant, and the operation is now a cost that belongs to the city. It isn’t hard to imagine something similar happening with the new outdoor facility.

Last, what will a big, chained-off, members-only sports facility sitting in the heart of Whistle Bend do to the atmosphere of the new neighbourhood? It may not exactly exude a welcoming, communal vibe.

Add it all up, and city councillors have more than enough reasonable concerns to further postpone approval of this project until the Yukon Party starts treating the city like a real partner, rather than a group that does nothing more but offer a perfunctory rubber stamp of approval once all the decisions have already been made for them.