NANAIMO, B.C. — It looks like it could have been made by a bomb. And in some ways the gigantic hole that you now find smack dab in the middle of this hard-luck city’s historic downtown core did set off reverberations that can still be felt today.
“Quite a sight isn’t it?” says Don Stone, a college professor, pointing at the Nanaimo construction site. “It’s madness, absolute madness. But in many ways, I guess, it’s typical of the kind of decision making that has been a hallmark of this city. It’s a shame. A crying shame.”
The centerpiece of Mr. Korpan’s dream for a revitalized city centre is something being called the New Nanaimo Centre. The entire development is a joint project of the city and Suro, the U.S. real estate giant based in Stamford, Conn.
The Americans swung a pretty sweet deal. As part of the agreement, the city will pay $3.5-million to replace parking for a nearby park, $1.3-million for a new road to the condos and the park and the costs of hooking up sewer and water services to the site.
Beyond that, the city will also be on the hook for the costs associated with soil cleanup, which could end up being huge. The site was the location of an old foundry for many years, as well as a battery plant and lumber mill.
“The mayor thought he was playing in the big leagues with these guys, but they knew they were dealing with a total rube,” Mr. Stone said.
Beyond the conference centre and the condo towers being built by Suro, two other condo towers are going up right on the harbour. One of them is being erected at the site of the once-famous Malispina Hotel, the concrete carcass of which has sat vacant for nearly 15 years, to the embarrassment of everyone.
The proliferation of condo towers is also part of Mr. Korpan’s overarching plan to bring the city’s battered and depressed downtown core back to life.
You could trace the city’s reputation as a dusty, blue-collar repository for the likes of groups such as the Hells Angels, whose Nanaimo chapter has been one of the most visible and controversial over the years, way back to 1849 when coal was found in the area. It turned Nanaimo into one gigantic industrial site. Half the current city is built on top of mine shafts. On top of generations of hard-working labourers, lumberjacks and fishermen too.
In modern times, the 1970s to be precise, giant malls began popping up on the outskirts of town, dealing a severe blow to the downtown core (and leading one anonymous poet to declare: “Nanaimo is an Indian word meaning too many malls.”) Despite a major recession in the area in the 80s, the downtown retail sector, as recently as 1996, comprised 34 per cent of the city’s total commercial tax base. By 2003, that was down to 15 per cent.
Skyrocketing construction costs, as well as additional expenditures for things like site cleanup, have already pushed the costs to the up to $72.2-million.
And they’re climbing.
Mr. Korpan, however, has no intention of backing off. No intention of filling in the big hole in the middle of town and starting over. But if he doesn’t exactly sound desperate, there is something in the mayor’s voice that suggests the city’s time is now, that it doesn’t have to continue being the butt of everyone’s jokes. It has a spectacular harbour, agreeable year-round weather and a great, commerce-friendly position on the island.
Time will tell.