Nanaimo moves closer to landing WHL team

Nanaimo’s plan to attract a Western Hockey League club to become an anchor tenant for a new events centre will come down to a referendum, which city officials hope to have in place between February and March of 2017.

Should an approval of the process regarding the financing and planning and construction of an events centre pass, the harbor city might be able to attract a Western Hockey League club, possibly as soon as next season at Frank Crane Arena, should a team be looking to move.

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“It’s not news that the Western Hockey League has expressed an interest in an expansion or relocation to Nanaimo,” said Coun. Bill Bestwick. “They made that expression of interest known for many years. How soon that might occur is a decision they would have to make and it would have to be conditional on whether or not a referendum was successful before any decision like that would be formalized.

“The most critical stage now is the information necessary in which to provide the citizenry with the information they need when the referendum takes place in early Quarter 1, 2017,” said Bestwick.

Nanaimo council has now completed two phases of the process for an events centre initiative that forms part of a strategic plan, which was adopted by council more than six months ago.

On Monday night, council approved proceeding to the third of five phases, which according to Bestwick: “allows the city to determine that referendum date and the question, and far more information that the electorate need and deserve to make an educated decision on referendum day.”

To no one’s surprise, Bestwick is fully behind the plan.

“I’m a proponent of investing in our future and infrastructure to optimally redefine our city and its obvious benefits. I certainly understand there are people who don’t agree with my view of the importance of a significant gathering place to replace the aged-out Frank Crane Arena,” he said.

Nanaimo, which did maintain a WHL club with the Islanders in the 1982-83 season, could benefit from an expansion team, but many reports across the league suggest the region is more likely interested in the purchase of the Kootenay Ice.

The Cranbrook-based team has officially been for sale for the last five years as the Chynoweth family looks to get out of ownership. Should Nanaimo manage to attract the team, which has struggled with attendance issues for the last few years, the club could play out of Frank Crane Arena until a new facility is completed in two years time. Currently the Ice are last in attendance in the WHL, averaging 1,672 fans per game at the 4,268-seat Western Financial Place.

Nanaimo is considering plans for an all-purpose events centre on two sites: the Howard Johnson site at Comox Road and Terminal Avenue, and the 1 Port Drive Site located in the south downtown waterfront lands.

According to the City of Nanaimo’s website, Brisbin Brook Beynon Architects was hired to complete a study designed to: respond to council’s designation of an events centre as one of their updated strategic plan’s top five priorities; report on the implications of Nanaimo having the opportunity to secure a WHL team if a facility is developed; and provide an initial overview on an event centre’s financial and physical planning realities and benefits to allow council to make an informed decision on whether to pursue this initiative.

Cost for the development for a 5,700-seat facility is said to range from $69.8 to $86.6 million, with the high-end of the estimate including any unique architecture and more concert seats.

Western Hockey League commissioner Ron Robison issued this statement Tuesday regarding Nanaimo: “The WHL remains very interested in the City of Nanaimo as a potential market in the future for a WHL club. Should the City of Nanaimo approve the construction of a new facility which meets WHL standards, the WHL will seek the necessary approvals to deliver a WHL team either through relocation of an existing franchise or expansion.”

The Chynoweth family now owns 100 per cent of the Ice.

Jeff Chynoweth, team president, governor and general manager, this year announced that his family had purchased 24.5 per cent of the ownership from former WHL/NHL players Rob and Scott Niedermayer to now retain full ownership.

The Ice, under the then ownership of the late Ed Chynoweth (a former commissioner of the WHL), moved the major-junior team from Edmonton to Cranbrook in time for the 1998-99 season.

Jeff Chynoweth was not available for comment Tuesday as he is on vacation for the Christmas season.

mannicchiarico@timescolonist.com

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