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Council grapples with $36 million repair bill to refurbish Prince George Aquatic Centre

Taxpayers could be facing 1.34 per cent tax hike to keep pool operational
Prince George Aquatic Centre
The Prince George Aquatic Centre features a 50-metre pool and 10-metre dive tower.

City council has recommended spending $36 million to refurbish the Prince George Aquatic Centre to the finance and audit committee.

The four-phase project is needed to address building system failures, end-of-service-life infrastructure, energy efficiency and meet health and safety code requirements.

The project phases are as follows:

- Phase 1 – Replacement of the building envelope, glazing, roof system, exterior doors, entry columns, leisure pool tiles, acoustic baffles and DDC (controls) system. As well as the addition of a dehumidification system and new electrical transformer with electrical system upgrades.

- Phase 2 – Repairs to the structural steel/columns and dive tank sparger system. Replacement of main entry soffits, curtain wall and air handling units cooling coils. Addition of energy recovery on air handling units.

- Phase 3 – Replacement of health/life safety items including deck, lobby and visitor area tile, handrails, plumbing fixtures, fire alarm system and sprinkler heads.

-  Phase 4 – Replacement of moveable bulkheads, change room tiles, overhead and underwater light fixtures and emergency system lighting, as well as interior painting, hydronic piping reconfiguration, increased access controls, accessibility improvements and a reconfigured reception desk.

Andy Beesley, the city director of civic facilities and events, said the price tag for a new aquatic centre built from scratch would be more than $100 million.

“We’re trying to show there could be some efficiencies with trying to get some of the work done right now while the building is cracked open,” said Beesley. “While the budget numbers are intimidating, it would be considerably more financially efficient to do as much as possible right now at the same time.”

Beesley said forced closures during repairs and disruptions for pool users would be reduced if work was allowed to proceed on more phases at one time.

Council in 2019 approved spending of $8.58 million for the building/mechanical envelope upgrade, which in 2020 was topped up to $14.858 million with the addition of $6.3 million in grant funding from the Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program BC-Green Infrastructure-Climate Change Mitigation-CleanBC Communities Fund.

Mayor Simon Yu said because the money is required for maintenance of an existing facility council can approve the additional $22 million in spending needed for the project without going to a public referendum or finding an alternate funding source.

The remaining $22 million needed for the project would mean an annual debt servicing cost of $1,853,939 over 20 years, which would raise the tax levy by 1.34 per cent. That cost could rise or fall depending on interest rates, which can only be locked in for a five-year term.

The project was put on hold in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic and market constraints and was further delayed because the facility was needed to host the 2022 BC Summer Games.

A 2023 assessment study to determine what was needed to extend the life expectancy of the Aquatic Centre found escalating building envelope failure with additional repairs needed such as replacement of concrete masonry units. The current cost estimates increase energy efficiency and provide a contingency allowance in the event of unforeseen conditions associated with a potential failing building structure.

Coun. Brian Skakun suggested the city could use Capital Expenditure Reserve Fund to lower the tax rate or use the FortisBC lease-in, lease-out reserve fund to help finance the pool refurbishment.

The Fortis fund was generated over 17 years, following a 2004 referendum, when the city entered into a lease-in, lease-out agreement with FortisBC  (then called Terasen Gas), to fund a natural gas distribution system in the city that was subsequently purchased from the city by Fortis in 2021. Skakun said that fund has grown to more than $30 million.

The Aquatic Centre was built in 1998, It has been in operation for more than 25 years and serves more than 240,000 visitors annually. It’s one of two public pools the city operates and its 50-metre lap pool is the training/competition home of the Prince George Barracudas/Pisces swim clubs and the Water Lillies synchronized swim club. It also has a diving tower/springboards, leisure wave pool/river, sauna, steam room, hot tub and fitness centre. Its operating costs are 42 per cent recovered by user fees.

Yu and Coun. Trudy Klassen voted against the proposal presented by Tina Schaeffer, the city’s manager of capital program management, and Dale Martens, manager of facilities project delivery and maintenance.

“For that kind of expenditure I would like the public to be informed and debate it first before we make a decision, this is too big,” said Yu.

“To spend $36 million, people from College Heights from the Hart could say, perhaps we can use a smaller pool. This study did not exactly separate the  mechanical from the envelope (of the building) so therefore I think we need to take a look at a more innovative way to do this upgrade, perhaps building a brand-new mechanical room and keep using the existing system.”

Yu also suggested the city look at building on to the east side of the Aquatic Centre to add room for spectators around the pool area, which could be connected to a hotel built on the adjacent soccer fields.

“We need to be innovative, we cannot just keep fixing things and not adding value,” he said.