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Victoria eyes referendum to kick-start Crystal Pool replacement

Victoria council voted unanimously Thursday to have staff dust off budgets and plans for a new centre to replace a 52-year-old facility.
The swimming pool at the Crystal Pool & Fitness Centre is temporarily closed but the gym remains open. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

The City of Victoria has directed city staff to turn its mind once again to replacing Crystal Pool.

Council voted unanimously Thursday to have staff dust off budgets and plans for a new centre to replace a 52-year-old facility.

Staff were also asked to report on the implications and procedures required for a ­referendum to gauge ­public ­sentiment on borrowing money for what is likely to be one of the ­largest capital projects ever undertaken in the city, as well as getting guidance on its location and ­features.

Coun. Jeremy Caradonna, who introduced the idea of a referendum, said it would get the city past the current standstill on the project. “Victoria has been left with an outdated, finicky and inaccessible facility,” he said.

“The purpose of this motion is to overcome the ­political impasse and, via a public ­referendum, gain a clear mandate from the public to move ahead with the project.”

The previous council left the issue of replacing Crystal Pool for this council to deal with, after it was left out of the strategic plan last year.

The city has talked about replacing Crystal Pool for years, though the last plan in February 2020 featured a return to an ­earlier design for a 50-metre pool and fitness centre.

Over the past four years, the city has spent about $2 million on pre-construction planning and design, with very little to show for it.

Caradonna said the pool no longer meets service needs and has accessibility issues, while its mechanical ­systems are ­inefficient and account for about 40 per cent of the City of Victoria’s ­corporate greenhouse gas emissions.

“Victoria needs a new recreation centre and public pool, and a public referendum will ­provide the city with clear direction on how to proceed,” he said.

A referendum is likely i­nevitable as the city is required to seek public guidance for capital projects that break the $50-million threshold.

Caradonna believes a new facility could cost $100 million, or at least more than the $70 million originally budgeted.

Coun. Matt Dell said his first job when he returned to Victoria in 2002 was at the Crystal Pool and it was run down back then.

“This project is so overdue,” he said. “The struggle I had with it is how do we move forward? Frankly, I’m ready to kind of step back and let the public decide. I really like this approach and I hope that the public and all stakeholders can get on board with this.”

Coun. Chris Coleman was in favour of moving the idea forward, but cautioned the city must make it clear to the public how long a replacement building will take and that any non-binding question included in the referendum would be used for guidance only.

“I’m quite supportive of this going forward, but let’s do it with our eyes wide open,” he said.

In 2019, before the spectre of supply-chain issues, inflation and labour shortage problems had spread across the city, council was told to expect design and construction to take more than five years.

An unexpected temporary closure of the pool has left swimmers feeling frustrated.

Sunday’s closure followed an issue with a valve in the filtration system, which ensures the water is safe for use, said Thomas Soulliere, the city’s director of parks, recreation and facilities. The pool is expected to reopen next week after a replacement part arrives from the United States. The fitness facilities remain open.

Passes for Crystal Pool are being accepted in Oak Bay, Esquimalt, Saanich, Westshore, SeaParc and Panorama.

“It’s a difficult situation when you have aging systems with parts that aren’t easy to obtain, compounded by some of the supply-chain issues we find in the marketplace,” Soulliere said.

Maintaining the pool costs more than $2 million annually, he said, and the city regularly inspects equipment and orders parts before they’re needed.

“In this instance, this was not a part that we expected to fail. This was an area that actually had been looked at not that long ago,” Soulliere said.

Susan Simmons, a long-distance swimmer and coach to dozens of Special Olympics athletes, lamented a lack of direction more than a decade after a report indicated the pool systems were at the end of their useful lives.

“There is only so long that the facility will last, and we’re seeing that now,” she said. “We’re seeing all the parts break down all the time. All the signs that it’s failing are there.”

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