A proposed ocean-themed tourist attraction for downtown Nanaimo is afloat thanks to a recent decision by city councillors.
Nanaimo city councillors voted unanimously in favour of endorsing the Nanaimo Deep Discovery Association’s proposed Ocean Discovery Centre as well as allocating roughly 8,000 square metres of land along Port Drive for the facility during a committee of the whole meeting on Monday. Councillors also agreed to provide a letter of support and gave the group an 18-month mandate to secure funding for the centre.
The Ocean Discovery Centre is a proposed $50-million interactive marine ecology display centre showcasing deep water marine technology and First Nations marine history through various virtual and underwater exhibits. It has been pitched as Canada’s first deep-water-technology marine display facility and proponents say it would generate tourism and boost Nanaimo’s economy. It would feature touch-tank aquariums, a virtual reality shark cage and a moving theatre.
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Lorne Hildebrand, president of the NDDA, requested Monday that councillors act quickly to endorse the project and allocate land for it so that his group could begin courting potential funding sources such as the provincial and federal governments.
“We have corporate and private funding willing to make announcement of some very significant money and now we need to go to Ottawa and Victoria to get the rest,” Hildebrand said.
Councillors were generally supportive of the requests, but there were questions relating to whether the city should allocate land and what type of deal would be in place. However, councillors settled on allocating land and later discussing an arrangement with the NDDA once the project reaches the appropriate stage. There were also comments regarding consultation with the Snuneymuxw First Nation. Hildebrand said that while there have been discussions with the Snuneymuxw and one of the First Nation’s members is part of the NDDA, it has been hard to have serious discussions with any level of government because there hasn’t been a physical location for the proposed centre.
“We are having a hard time engaging with anybody,” Hildebrand said. “They simply turn back to us and say ‘where is the city at? And where do you think you are going to build this?’ and we simply say we don’t know.”
Citing places such as Fisherman’s Market in Seattle and False Creek in Vancouver, Coun. Bill Bestwick there needs to be a catalyst to drive future development and to drive investors’ wishes and desires to be in a downtown location. He said he felt the requests from the NDDA were reasonable, noting that it’s hard to advance discussions with potential funding sources without having a piece of land or support from the city.
“This give you the opportunity to advance more conversations with more organizations,” he said. “Why would you have those conversations if don’t know if you can even do it or not?”
Nanaimo Mayor Bill McKay said he’s concerned about the uniqueness of the project given that one of the individuals involved in the project, Phil Nuytten, recently stated his own intentions to create a similar project using an old barge from Expo 86.
“I read some coverage … that Mr. Nuytten has gone to another proponent that are proposing, what appears to me, to be a very similar type of facility, utilizing ex-McBarge in a completely modernized state, to go to a location undisclosed in the Lower Mainland,” he said.
Hildebrand told councillors the city’s delays are one of the reasons why Nuytten, who has a large collection of underwater equipment and artifacts that would be incorporated into the project, has begun pursuing other avenues.
“The reason that is happening is that every time we go back to Mr. Nuytten, he asks where the city is and where we are at and guess what we’ve been able to say? Nothing,” he said. “He is a smart man. He is not going to sit on this stuff forever, he is making alternative arrangements.”
Speaking to the News Bulletin afterwards, Hildebrand said he’s very thankful that councillors decided to commit to the project and that without their endorsement the centre could have been in serious jeopardy. He said the discovery centre will put Nanaimo on the map, locally, regionally and even globally, especially if the facility’s design is bold, adding that the will be a big win for the community.
“I think one of the things we all need in Nanaimo is a real win. Chemainus has got paintings on the side of a wall and people flock from all over. We can’t even do that,” he said. “We need a win in Nanaimo. We need something that we can point at and say this is world class, this is unique and this is ours, that is what we need.”
Hildebrand said the involvement of Nuytten, who has a trove of underwater and deep-sea artifacts, in the Nanaimo project is very important.
“He’s got the best collection in the world and we wanted to base our whole centre on environment and undersea technology and what has been good and what has been bad about it and what we need to do,” Hildebrand said. “Without his display, we could probably make something work but it would sure be difficult. He’s got the world’s premier display.”
Council’s decision means Hildebrand and the NDDA can begin to have more serious discussions with everyone including the Snuneymuxw. He said council’s endorsement is an important first step and that the NDDA plan to meet with the provincial and federal governments as soon as possible.
“We passed a major hurdle, but we have a lot of work left to do,” he said.