Has the Ravensong pool upgrade been run up on the rocks?

Like two ships passing in the night, oblivious to one another, two competing plans for community aquatic services in our District are heading for a collision. And the two planning teams appear not to have even been communicating, let alone collaborating with common purpose. Is this sheer ineptitude or cunning subterfuge?

One of the optional designs for Ravensong Aquatic Centre presented by the RDN at an Open House in January 2020.

The Regional District of Nanaimo’s current Recreation Services Master Plan for District 69 (Qualicum Beach, Parksville, and RDN Areas E, F, G and H), approved by the RDN Board in May 2018, was created to guide the future provision of recreation and related services in communities from Nanoose to Bowser for the next 10 years (2019 thru 2028).

One of the priorities was to expand aquatic service capacity to ease the peak period demands at the Ravensong Aquatic Centre in Qualicum Beach, operated by the RDN.

Many readers may recall that the RDN held four well-attended public open houses in January 2020 to view and provide input on alternatives for upgrades to Ravensong.

It turns out, all that effort may have just been so much (expensive) window-dressing.

The tough decisions that need to be made by municipal governments are often about infrastructure — especially facilities such as pools and arenas which are costly to create, and costly to operate — typically requiring large subsidies from general tax revenues (75%), in addition to direct user fees (25%). Also, once built, physical infrastructure decisions are difficult to impossible to reverse or re-purpose.

Dean Banman, RDN’s Manager of Recreation Services, in his report to the June 25, 2020 Oceanside Services Committee meeting, did not even mention the existence of the fundamental game changer of a competing facility under consideration in Parksville.

For example, if the RDN Board has been given responsibility for planning recreational facilities and services in District 69, which it has, then the RDN staff need to have the commensurate authority to carry out the responsibility. If individual communities were to go off and unilaterally do their own thing, their short-term, self-interests could readily kneecap regional initiatives, especially capital-intensive infrastructure projects. Conversely, some degree of local community autonomy is also appropriate.

Governance matters. How do priorities get set? Who takes responsibility for construction, operations and maintenance?

In any federation, be it national or regional, a set of stable rules of governance, rules that sustain broad consent from the governed, are crucial. Evidence suggests that our Region is failing miserably in this regard.

Aquatic services for District 69 – the RDN Master Plan

Planners stated that “Stakeholders generally identified that the Ravensong Aquatics Centre is deficient and at capacity (which is supported by an analysis of available utilization data). However, various perspectives exist on the best future course of action for indoor aquatics in District 69. … While operational and day to day roles and responsibilities are well understood (among RDN and partners); less clarity exists around roles and responsibilities related to future facility planning and potential new development.” The latter has proved to be an understatement, as this article will examine. Nor is it limited to aquatic services.

Three options were presented in the RDN Recreation Master Plan. Option 1 (at a capital cost estimate of $8.7 million in 2018 dollars) would upgrade the existing (25 metre) Ravensong Aquatics Centre resulting in additional pool functions, as well as an indoor fitness facility, and upgraded change rooms and washrooms. Option 2 (at an estimated capital cost of $10.9 million) would be option 1 plus two additional lanes in a wider main tank.

RDN presented next steps for the Ravensong facility upgrade to the public in four open houses held in January 2020.

An option 3 to construct a new facility from scratch, providing comparable features and capacity to Option 2, but at an estimated cost of $20 million, was presented but not recommended. Going all out and creating an Olympic-length 50 metre pool was not even presented for a host of reasons, including its expected capital cost in excess of $60 million. Planners noted that “District 69 would be challenged financially to sustain two indoor aquatics facilities [option 3]. Re-purposing or decommissioning of the Ravensong Aquatic Centre would likely be required at an additional cost.”

One specific recommendation (#19) stated: “Based on current population and demand indicators, it is recommended that the RDN maintain the provision level of one indoor aquatics facility in District 69. The investigation of a second indoor aquatics facility is not likely warranted until the population of District 69 is nearing or exceeds at least 60,000 – 70,000 residents. Based on current population growth projections, it is not anticipated that District 69 will reach this population level until at least 2030.”

Once the RDN Recreation Master Plan was completed and received RDN Board approval, concept design and planning for the Ravensong Aquatic Expansion project continued for the next two years, including public presentations of four design options in January 2020.

Aquatic services for the City of Parksville — the competing plan

The coronavirus pandemic definitely began to hamper the RDN’s progress in early 2020. But not nearly as much as the fact that the City of Parksville had, shortly after the last municipal election, decided to pursue a parallel track to construct their own pool.

At the June 25, 2020 meeting of the Oceanside Services Committee (OSC) — pick up the discussion at the 32-minute mark of the meeting recording — Parksville Mayor Ed Mayne argued that no Ravensong expansion options should be presented to the public until ALL alternatives were on the table, including a brand-new pool in Parksville.

“We’re moving along very quickly” claimed Mayne, “we’re at the design stage .. we’re practically at the same spot as the Region is with their swimming pool. We’ve done that in 3 or 4 months. We’re there – we’re going to be having our pricing and things ready to go shortly.”

Mayne, supported by Parksville Councillor Adam Fras, put forth a successful motion “that the recommendations from the Ravensong Aquatic Centre Preferred Expansion Options Report [attached to the June 25, 2020 OSC meeting Agenda] be deferred to no later than October 15, 2020 so that the City of Parksville’s pool costing and design can be presented.” The RDN acquiesced to Parkville’s request, and hit the pause button.

The Parksville design team received the “order of magnitude” conceptual design estimates from Ross Templeton, Quantity Surveyor, on July 7, 2020. These estimates are appended to the Feasibility Study final report released to the public by the City of Parksville on February 1, 2021.

Yes, folks, we have had two independent teams of consultants, all being paid for by taxpayers, beavering away, at the same time, on two separate plans for two separate aquatic facilities 10 km apart in District 69.

RDN appears to have abdicated its Regional government responsibilities

Some folks claim that Parksville isn’t playing fair. Fair or not, they appear to be acting within jurisdictional rules or norms. The current state of regional governance in the province of BC, at least in our Region, appears to allow any municipality to do their own thing, regardless of impact on neighbouring communities and taxpayers in the Region.

Planners noted that “District 69 would be challenged financially to sustain two indoor aquatics facilities. Re-purposing or decommissioning of the Ravensong Aquatic Centre would likely be required at an additional cost.”

For example, speaking of pools, somehow Area E (Nanoose, Fairwinds) exempted themselves 15 years ago from participating in property taxation for any regional aquatic services, but are welcomed to swim, at no extra charge, at Ravensong and City of Nanaimo pools. Pause for head-scratching.

While on the topic of Regional governance, by its very make-up, the existing RDN Board is designed to primarily protect the interests of the City of Nanaimo — they have a majority of 11 of the 19 seats on the Board (eight from the City, plus one each from adjacent electoral areas A, B, C). This Nanaimo-centered veto can certainly stifle the voice and influence of Qualicum Beach and the other ‘northern communities’ from Nanoose to Bowser, an area home to about 50,000 residents.

The RDN and its Oceanside Services Committee were well aware of Parksville’s pool planning

Should we be surprised by the apparent ‘sudden’ halt to the RDN’s Ravensong upgrades planning, prompted by Mayor Mayne’s June 2020 spanner in the works? Most certainly not — although most QB residents may be unaware of these moves and their implications.

Two years ago, the City of Parksville, ignoring the RDN’s Recreation Master Plan and their work-in-progress to upgrade District aquatic facilities at Ravensong, decided to proceed with their own proposal for a pool. With Recreation as one of the City’s five core priorities, Parksville’s 2019-22 Strategic Plan stated that “Council will work with the community to improve indoor and athletic recreational opportunities. Council will explore the feasibility of constructing a pool and sports multiplex.”

During 2020, despite constraints imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, Parksville staff and contractors openly pushed ahead with the preliminary work of community engagement, needs assessment and conceptual design, and presented a summary to Parksville Council in July 2020. Further work on siting and costing continued through to October 2020, when Parksville Council authorized the planning team to “prepare detailed budget and workplan, seek grant funding, engage First Nations, [and] investigate options for third-party operation.”

Is the proposed City of Parksville aquatic facility intended to serve the needs of all residents of District 69? In a word — no.

The documented Needs Assessment is almost entirely Parksville-focused. The Regional District of Nanaimo is listed as one of eleven stakeholders who supposedly participated in a Group 1 Needs Assessment session, but not one of the documented “Key Insights” from this group session (4) is attributed to the RDN representative (whoever that was) — if they even attended.

The RDN is not even mentioned in Parksville’s Feasibility Report as a potential operator of the proposed facility. In fact, a single mention of the RDN’s invitation to the stakeholder needs assessment session is the ONLY acknowledgement in the entire report of the RDN’s participation in Parksville’s planning.

A pox on both their houses

Oddly, Dean Banman, RDN’s Manager of Recreation Services, in his six-page staff report to the June 25, 2020 OSC meeting discussed above, did not even mention the existence of the fundamental game changer of a competing facility under consideration in Parksville. However, in his report, Banman did mention the urgency of applying for grant funding support, for example from the Community Culture and Recreation (CCR) stream of the Investing in Canada Infrastructure Plan.

We have had two independent teams of consultants, all being paid for by taxpayers, beavering away, at the same time, on two separate plans for two separate aquatic facilities 10 km apart in District 69.

The Parksville Feasibility Study was not officially received and discussed by the Oceanside Services Committee, chaired by Qualicum Beach Mayor Brian Wiese, until their meeting on February 11, 2021 — eight months later.

The OSC then recommended that the options already presented by the RDN Ravensong planning team — after two years of work and expense — be tossed aside, and that any proposed Ravensong renovations be re-planned under an assumption that “there will be a future second tank” [location to be determined, … wink-wink]. In other words, ditch any plans for expanded capacity of aquatic services at Ravensong — just tell us what maintenance work is recommended on the existing facility (washroom improvements etc.). Or so it would seem…

Picture yourself as the CCR grant request reviewer in Victoria who has to review an avalanche of submissions, and sees two competing proposals for increasing indoor aquatic services from the same Regional District. When she checks her map and sees that the two locations are 10 km apart, what is she to do? Frankly, no one should be surprised if she reaches for her REJECTED stamp, and discards both applications.

In a previous article, we analyzed Qualicum Beach’s dismal positioning as a potential infrastructure grant recipient. We suggested that one general criterion applicable to any grant application has to be: Does the community have its ship together? When it comes to the planning of our District’s aquatic facilities, the answer is a resounding NO.

Unless and until some heads roll, and an effective management structure for shared services replaces the current dysfunctional, competing chaos in our District, we all might well end up having to get our aquatic exercise in the Salish Sea.

This fiasco has been allowed to go on, indeed has been enabled, by the three Chief Administrative Officers — the RDN CAO Phyllis Carlyle, City of Parksville CAO Keeva Kehler, and Town of Qualicum Beach CAO Daniel Sailland. They are responsible for making the mess, they need to clean up the mess, and they need to do it pronto.