Local MP Gord Johns believes the West Coast still wants a multiplex.
“We went to the taxpayer and they voted overwhelmingly, 63 per cent in support, of it and that hasn’t changed,” Johns told the Westerly News.
“The people that were against it then are the same people speaking against it today…Are we going to let that one-third control the agenda or are we going to listen to the people? The people spoke. They spoke in 2012. We don’t need to do another referendum. We need to move forward.”
Johns was the West Coast Multiplex Society’s project manager from 2012-2013.
The 2012 referendum saw a 679-395 vote in favour of covering a multiplex’s operating costs up to $450,000 annually through property taxes.
The project was expected to include an ice rink, swimming pool and fitness centre.
In the past year, local leaders have raised concerns over the project’s phased approach that would see an ice rink come first, followed by a swimming pool, and have suggested voters thought they would be getting both from the get go.
Concerns have also been raised around the referendum process that allowed anyone living on the West Coast to vote, regardless of whether they paid property taxes.
Compounding these concerns is Tofino’s pursuit of an indoor gym and the perceived conflict this has created as officials question whether locals would be willing to support a gym and a multiplex through taxation.
Johns acknowledged these concerns but said they are misguided. He said the multiplex’s phased approach was laid out before the referendum was held and that voters who do not own homes would still be hit with the associated property tax increase.
“The notion that people who don’t own homes are not taxpayers is not true. They pay taxes through their rent. Everybody’s a taxpayer,” he said.
He said Tofino’s plans for an indoor gym should not be competing with the multiplex because the community has capacity for both.
Average annual property taxes in Tofino would rise by about $77 to cover the gym and by about $122 to cover the multiplex.
“I’m a taxpayer in Tofino and I’ll be returning to Tofino someday and I think that Tofino can really easily handle a gym and multiplex,” Johns said.
“I really believe that there’s more than enough capacity, especially with the healthy people of the West Coast and the tremendous appetite for people to get out and play. When it’s dark at 4 p.m. in the winter and it’s raining and it’s 2 C, we know our facilities are at 100 per cent capacity.”
He added his children are frequent users of Port Alberni’s recreational facilities and said this is consistent with most local youth who move away.
“The kids that are leaving Tofino are all ending up using these facilities that we talked about building in our community,” he said. “Ask any resident who’s moved away from the West Coast whether they enjoy their local arena or pool and they’ll tell you they’re probably using it more than anybody else because they didn’t have it.”
Along with the enjoyment he believes the multiplex would bring to locals, Johns said the facility could become an economic driver as well and cited a recent lacrosse tournament in Port Alberni that, he said, brought roughly 600 people to the community during the winter.
“The hotels were full and every small business in the community would have felt the tremendous effects that that brings to the community,” he said.
“In terms of diversifying the economy in the winter, it will make a significant impact.”
Johns said he was “enthused and excited” to see the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation commit $100,000 towards an updated business plan for the multiplex this year and was impressed with the West Coast Multiplex Society’s work to bring the phase-one ice rink’s estimated $12 million cost down to $6 million.
“They’ve reduced the cost of the first phase by a half. That is tremendous. What an effort,” he said. “The community should get behind it.”
He said he has stayed in close communication with the multiplex society and local leaders and assured he is ready to tout the project to Ottawa in search of federal funding.
“I’m staying involved and absolutely listening and, when they’re shelf-ready to apply for funding, I’ll be going to Ottawa to ask for Ottawa to contribute to a very important piece for keeping families in our communities, a very important piece for health and a very important piece for the economy,” he said.