Comox Valley Agriplex: white elephant or dream facility?
For more than three decades, some Comox Valley community organizations and elected officials have touted the need for a convention center.
The Comox Valley lacks a facility that can accommodate the large numbers of people or trade show booths and equipment required by big event promoters, which some see as a potential economic driver.
But others view such large facilities as future white elephants, often underused and almost always a drain on taxpayers. In this view, the Valley simply has unrequited conference center envy.
So while there’s been much discussion about building a convention center in the Comox Valley, it has never gotten further than a lot of talk.
The Comox Valley Farmers Institute (CVFI) and the Comox Valley Exhibition Grounds (CVEG) have recently formed an unlikely and somewhat uneasy alliance to achieve what generations of community organizations could not: a multi-use facility for a variety of community user groups that can seat up to 5,000 people.
The CVFI imagines a facility where people can play indoor soccer, tennis, pickleball or ride horses. Where groups can hold large sit-down dinners. Where promoters can stage equipment trade shows, monster truck events, BMX competitions and concerts.
The CVEG envisions a smaller Agricultural Awareness Center that has gotten a little lost in the grand idea of a multi-use facility. They imagine a 12,000 square-foot facility that would benefit farmers with a commercial kitchen and diagnostic lab to develop and test new products.
But in order to get support from MLA Don McRae and other elected officials, the two groups had to merge their competing proposals. The payoff was a B.C. Liberal Party promise of $5 million toward the project, if they’re re-elected.
Courtenay and Comox councils have supported the idea and the Comox Valley Regional District is playing along. Its Committee of the Whole green-lighted a master plan for the Comox Valley Exhibition Grounds this week that includes a future 78,000 square-foot-plus multi-use event center.
But that doesn’t mean the facility is a certainty because there are a number of public and financial concerns that haven’t been addressed. They are:
Traffic congestion — The exhibition grounds area is already congested during event days. Cars often park along Headquarters Road even during regular Saturday morning Farmers Market events. When larger events take place — Music Fest, Rib Fest, etc. — the roadside parking extends further and along side roads like Vanier Drive. Daily traffic to Mt. Washington or to the Island Highway — it’s the truck route — complicates the congestion, though the dead-ending of Piercy Road at the old bridge and large roundabouts will help.
Parking — A new 500-car parking lot is proposed on the CVRD’s recently acquired property, the former Stonehenge Farm, which will help and be adequate for most community user groups, but parking will still spill onto side roads for large events.
Loss of ALR land — Removing property from the Agricultural Land Reserve must meet a provincial test. Calling the facility an ‘agriplex’ and having one or two farm-related events isn’t enough. The CVEG’s Agricultural Awareness Center, however, does qualify.
Construction costs — Current estimates range from $12 million to $15 million, but that could go higher after the CVFI meets with user groups and finalizes a design for the proposed project. Soil engineers may add extra cost to the project given the nearby floodplain and how far down they find bedrock suitable for the foundation’s footings.
Politics — The B.C. Liberal Party has promised $5 million, but what happens if the NDP forms the next provincial government? There’s been no promise of funding from the NDP. Or, what happens if the B.C. Liberals win the May 9 election, but the Comox Valley riding elects an NDP member?
How much are taxpayers willing to pay? — There is no formal business plan yet that estimates the amount of taxes Valley residents will pay to subsidize the multiplex operation on an annual basis. And these types of publicly owned facilities always need an annual public subsidy.
With the regional district’s approval, the CVFI and CVEG now know they can build a multi-use facility on the site. The next step is to meet with potential community user groups to determine if they will use it, at what rental price and if they have specific requirements that must be built into the design. Only after that, can the groups accurately estimate construction costs.
But they also need a professional management firm to assess the potential market of organizations likely to rent the facility. Because without sufficient outside revenue to pay operating expenses, including administrative overhead, one of two things will happen: local community user groups won’t be able to afford the rental fees (outside revenue keeps them low), or Comox Valley property owners will pay higher taxes to subsidize the facility.