In the city’s attempt to secure the 2017 Canada Summer Games, there was a point last summer where someone should have recognized that Brandon’s bid was about to go south — or rather, further east to Winnipeg as the case may be.
Last July — long before last week’s disappointing announcement — the bid committee, our city mayor and council, and officials with Canada Games failed to halt a process that had already taken considerable time and money to follow.
But the seeds of that failure began with a political promise made by Shari Decter Hirst during the 2010 mayoral election.
Not long before the end of their four-year term, former mayor Dave Burgess and the council of the day chose to close the pool at the Canada Games Sportsplex when the YMCA’s new pool opened and contribute $5 million in upfront capital and annual funding of $250,000 to the Y’s project.
It was a decision that would have thrown a wrench into preliminary plans by Brandon First to bid for the 2017 Summer Games.
During her run for the chains of office, then-candidate Decter Hirst used the pending closure to her advantage, and wrapped her promise to save the Sportsplex pool in the Summer Games flag. In an interview with the Brandon Sun shortly after news broke of the council’s decision, Decter Hirst said leveraging money to reinvigorate the Sportsplex while hosting another, first-class sporting event seemed like a no-brainer.
“I can’t imagine anyone looking at a bid that didn’t involve water and we wouldn’t have any water to bid with,” she said. “How competitive would our bid be? It would be a lost opportunity, not to rebuild the Sportsplex pool for the 2017 Games.”
She made this statement long before any attempt had been made to ascertain how much it would cost to transform the pool from a substandard six-lane facility to an international-quality eight-lane facility.
After her successful election as Brandon’s mayor, council pledged to reverse the previous council’s decision to close the Sportsplex pool. Instead, it would contribute only $4 million in upfront capital and $100,000 to the Y’s annual operating costs, with the idea that the savings could then be funnelled to the aging Sportsplex facility to fund necessary infrastructure upgrades.
Fast forward to May 2012. The March bid deadline had already passed, and the Canada Games Council had confirmed that Brandon’s was the only initial bid. By this point, however, it also appears that the city had quietly scuttled plans to upgrade the Sportsplex to an eight-lane pool. Instead, the committee was working on a plan for a temporary outdoor facility.
Nevertheless, in preparation for the July 30 final bid deadline — which had been moved up by six months due to the non-competitive process — bid committee chair Jeff Cristall told the Sun in May that the city hired consultants months earlier to coach Brandon through the process.
As part of the final bid the city needed to provide technical review information showing where the events would be hosted, what the venues would look like, and list what work was required to bring them up to Canada Games standards. Such advice comes with a substantial cost. But according to Cristall’s comments at the time, it appeared the Canada Games Council had not indicated whether the Sportsplex situation was a deal breaker.
“We don’t know yet whether they will accept the Sportsplex or whether they will tell us to use one of the alternatives,” Cristall said. “That’s part of the negotiation that will take place over the next couple of months to kind of look around ... We don’t know if they will accept the Sportsplex, regardless of what we do with it.”
Then, following a visit to the city in July the Canada Games technical review committee informed the city’s bid operation committee that the sub-standard size of the Sportsplex was not what they were looking for. This came only a few weeks before the final bid deadline at the end of the month.
Because Brandon was the sole bidder, Decter Hirst said she was led to believe that the Canada Games Council would allow for the venue requirements to be more flexible, and help the city to find an alternate solution.
There was also some question regarding plans for the athlete’s village at Brandon University, whether there would be enough space to house all the athletes.
Nevertheless, Cristall and Decter Hirst said the city would still go forward “regardless” and put in a bid for the Canada Games.
In our opinion, the review committee’s concerns should have put up a major red flag on the process — one that had the potential of ending the city’s attempt before the final bid was made. And there’s the flaw. The technical review committee should have been brutally honest — no eight-lane indoor legacy facility, no Games.
And it must be said, making the 2017 Canada Summer Games and saving the Sportsplex part of her election platform no doubt coloured the mayor’s view of the situation. It became more than a city project — it became a vanity project.
To every bid there is a process. But somewhere in that process, when significant red flags pop up, cooler heads on both sides must prevail over wishful thinking. Unfortunately, the Brandon experience has set a precedent for all Canada Games to come, and for other the small cities that compete to host them. And we spent $250,000 to set it.
We suggest the Canada Games Council be more up front with small communities like Brandon in the future, so to spare them some expense and certain disappointment.