City council voted unanimously to move ahead with next phase of the proposed event centre but not before hearing from nearly a dozen people, most wanting the public to decide its fate.
Deputants, including city council hopefuls and past candidates, argued that the the project should become a ballot question during the next municipal election on a sometimes heated Monday night that had to be cooled several times by shouts of order from chair Coun. Aldo Ruberto.
Frank Armiento, who has run in Northwood in past elections, said that he doesn't have an opinion either way on the proposed $106 million project but with so much at stake, the decision shouldn't be council's alone when the city seems so divided on the issue.
"Your job is to represent what the people want whether right or wrong,” he said.
Armiento then took issue with ward councillors being able to make a decision for the whole city when they're only elected by a part of it. Several ward councillors, including McIntyre Coun. Trevor Giertuga, took issue with that asking Armiento why he was a candidate in a ward if he doesn't agree with the system.
"I’ll tell you why uts because it’s the easiest place to get in,” he said to laughter from the gallery and calls for order.
Current River Coun. Andrew Foulds said that for a ballot question to be binding, around 41,000 people or 51 per cent of voters would have to turn out. How many people are going to read the various reports council has received on the event centre over the years in order to make an informed decision.
"That is our job and you're saying I'm not reading this stuff and I'm not representing (the public)," Foulds said.
Armiento, before saying maybe he was a bit too rough on the ward system, didn't think a lot of people would take the time to get informed.
"I expect you to do what they want," Armiento said.
McKellar hopeful Doug Powell said the city has more important things to worry about, like affordable housing and infrastructure, than an event centre. The public should decide on a project that will burden future generations with more debt. He also called out the mayor Keith Hobbs for previously wanting the public to decide on the project before retracting the idea in a recent editorial.
Hobbs said he made the statements before he was informed and had since changed his mind after getting the facts.
Phase 2 of the project projects annual spending impacts from the event centre to be around $17 million with 380 full-time jobs not including another $6 million directly from visitors, including conferences.
He asked Powell if he'd read any of the previous reports that state the project will be an economic driver for the city. Powell said he hadn't.
“How could you ask for a plebiscite when you’re uneducated (on the project) yourself?” Hobbs asked.
Council regular Joanne Richard said if the city wouldn't agree to a plebiscite it should at least send out a survey on the idea.
"It should be to every household," she said.
City manager Tim Commisso later said that the city will have a third party do a survey that includes 850 to 1,000 people, well above the standard 500, in order to gauge public interest.
A group calling itself Citizens for the Waterfront Event Centre also made a deputation supporting council and administration on the project. Rod Bosh and John Susin said there is a lot of misinformation about the project out there.
“You’re moving in the right direction. You’re following a logical set of steps,” Bosh told councillors.
The $1.4 million final phase of the project's feasibility, funded mostly through the provincial and federal governments, was eventually voted on. It was awarded to BBB Architects.
The study will include the design, final business plan and capital and operating costs. It's expected in September.