WHEN COUNCILLOR RICK Downes called for a referendum on the entertainment centre issue, it was like sticking up a lightning rod in the middle of a hurricane.
Predictably, the first bolt came shooting down from the pro-LVEC side. Ken Wong, who was on the mayor’s original task force looking into construction of a large venue entertainment centre, condemned Downes for taking “desperate steps.”
Carl Holmberg, a founding member of Friends of the Entertainment Centre, said there was simply no need to canvass the public because “by far and away the majority of people do support an LVEC.”
Of course, Holmberg has no proof to back his claim. No poll has ever been commissioned to determine what kind of public support exists for the proposed $37-million arena.
What’s certain is that this has never been a grassroots movement. Instead, it has been prodded along by Mayor Harvey Rosen, who made it a campaign issue. Which is precisely why Downes, who has almost singlehandedly fought a rearguard action to slow down the LVEC approval process and get it back into the hands of citizens, is proposing the referendum.
His question is worded this way: “The city council of the corporation of the City of Kingston is proposing the construction of a new Large Venue Entertainment Centre at a cost of [final cost inserted here] after an architectural rendering as displayed at Kingston City Hall. Do you support the construction of this facility? Yes or No.”
The appearance of this question on the municipal ballot next November would mean the ultimate democratization of the project. It would also kill the LVEC. The way the question is worded, if you didn’t like the look of the display, or disagreed with the cost, a no vote is almost certain to follow.
Rosen must have seen this coming. But it’s not enough for him to simply portray Downes as a lone dissenting voice in the wilderness. In fact, the mayor has created his own problems.
The first snag came when Rosen hand-selected the members of the LVEC task force to study the issue. No stakeholders were on the committee and it looked like the project was being manipulated by the mayor. The fact that the committee also tied the sale of the Memorial Centre to the financing of the LVEC caused tremendous public outcry
Another major snag was the site chosen by the panel — right on the waterfront on Anglin Bay. Citizens revolted, forcing councillors to change the location of the arena to the North Block, which is closer to downtown and away from the valuable shoreline.
Wong points to this change of location as proof that a referendum isn’t necessary — that coundillors are listening to the people. But the battle was hardfought and hard-won.
A referendum won’t be necessary if the public and councillors, who make the final decision, are fully informed and prepared for the ultimate LVEC vote at City Hall. Is the $37 million an accurate estimate of construction costs? Are revenue targets achievable so that taxpayers aren’t stuck paying off millions of dollars in debt? This information is crucial.
If Rosen doesn’t want the LVEC to go off the rails in a referendum, he must promise to make the process more open and transparent to public scrutiny Otherwise, the final decision rests with council.