Rural Directors opposed to their residents paying for Strathcona Garden renovations

The Directors of Cortes Island (Area B), Areas A and C are opposed to the idea that their ratepayers should help finance renovations to the Strathcona Gardens facility in Campbell River. The Strathcona Regional District’s portion of financing the new aquatic and wellness centre is expected to be around $73 million. Last April the SRD Board approved a bylaw allowing them to borrow $64,670.000. This debt is currently the responsibility of property owners in the City of Campbell River and Electoral Area D, where most of the facility’s users reside. At the June 28 SRD Board meeting, Directors John Rice of Area D and Susan Sinnot of Campbell River brought forward a motion that staff look into the option that ratepayers in Areas A, B, and C pick up part of the tab.

Strathcona Gardens photo by Richard Eriksson via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

The idea arose at the previous meeting of the Strathcona Gardens commission, where Rice stated, “I think it’s about time for this commission to take a look at the fact that we have three other electoral areas that are not paying fees for the Gardens and I think it’s time that they should.” 

At last week’s SRD board meeting. Chief administrative Officer David Leitch explained this was just a motion to explore expanding the service area for the Strathcona Gardens. 

Gerald Whalley, Regional Director of Area A responded, “This appears to be an electoral area issue here, so I’d like to move that we refer this item to the electoral areas for further discussion.” 

His motion was defeated, when the Directors of Area D, Sayward and every Campbell River Director except Lanyon voted in opposition.

At that point Whalley went on the offensive, “We’re obviously very much opposed to this and, anyway, it just seems to me to be a total waste of staff time and nothing but the cause of another big fight between electoral areas and municipalities that we really don’t need.” 

Regional Director Robyn Mawhinney of Area C pointed out, “Two months ago, at the end of April, we sat at this table while the $77 million REC-REATE Project was voted on. The vote was to decide whether or not to take on $65 million of debt and the only board members entitled to vote were the participating service members, the municipality of Campbell River and electoral area D. That $65 million of debt was approved and an alternative approval process (AAP) was also voted in favor of. I recall asking which areas within the SRD would be participants of the AAP and heard Area D and Campbell River. Here we are two months later and there’s a request for a report to include Areas A, B and C into this high debt service. I believe residents of these electoral areas deserve every opportunity to weigh in on this, and should it proceed I will insist on a referendum to truly decipher how Area A, B and C residents feel about taking on debt for a new swimming pool and skating rink in Campbell River.

Regional Director Mark Vonesch of Cortes Island added, “For Cortes, we’re four hours round trip away from Strathcona Gardens. It just seems ridiculous that we’ve been exploring this. I think if we are exposed, the first step would be to look at the usage. Let’s get a report back on who’s actually using the Strathcona Gardens and then we can make an informed decision.”

The Directors of Areas A and B pointed out several perceived inconsistencies with the proposal. 

Director Vonesch said that if Cortes Islanders are expected to pay for facilities in Campbell River, maybe Campbell River residents should help pay for the community halls on Cortes Island as well. Some of them come here for holidays.

Director Whalley said that it was unfair to ask Area A to pay for the renovations to the Strathcona Gardens and not make a similar request of the village of Sayward, which is in the midst of Area A. 

This led to a motion that Sayward be included in the study, which carried.

Mayor Kermit Dahl of Campbell River warned, “I just want to make it clear that this isn’t a fight that you want to start today. This is just a request for information. The City of Campbell River didn’t ask for this motion, but we do support the motion. We think thats worth at least looking at it. And since we contribute 70 cents of every dollar that is spent, and there’s many communities represented here that don’t submit enough revenue to even cover their own expenses, I would be very careful about what fights we want to pick.” 

Chair Mark Baker, of Sayward, agreed, “The bottom line is, this is just for information. This is not holding anybody into account.” 

To which Whalley responded, “Thank you, Mr. Chair. This is true. This report is just for information, however the intent of this motion obviously is to carry through with it. Otherwise we wouldn’t want a report. Let me be very clear, yes, the fight has started today. This is very very serious to us.”

Regional Director Rice defended his motion, “One of the things that really glares at me when I have these conversations with other directors, is that they don’t see the regional benefits. What would it be like for this region, if you didn’t have that? What would be here? What would be the attraction? When we take a look at the fact that, we have a strategic direction that says we’re interested in health and wellness, well isn’t a recreation centre part of that? Why can’t we support it on a regional level?” 

He said the residents of Area D want to know why the other electoral areas are not paying.

This led to the observation that the community halls in Sayward, Tahsis and other remote areas have not received any funding from the Strathcona Regional District.

Mayor Martin Davis of Tahsis said, “If we’re going to get into these conversations, maybe we should be talking about a regional service that takes care of all the rec centers in our district.” 

The SRD Board finally voted on a motion that a report be prepared that explores options for additional participation in the Strathcona Gardens recreational service by electoral areas A, B, C and the village of Sayward. 

This carried, with directors Davis, Lott (Gold River), Mawhinney, Vonesch and Whalley voting in opposition.  

Chair Baker commented, “When the report is completed, that will give the board the opportunity to speak to it with factual information in front of them. Perhaps the report’s going to show that there is no participation from some of the electoral areas because it only had one or two using it. We don’t know for sure until we see the report.” 

* Campbell River had a population of 35,519 , and the SRD a population of 48,150 according to the 2021 census.

Top photo credit: Doing laps – U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Samuel via Wikimedia (Public Domain)

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