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NDP Seeks BC Place Probe

Retrofit 'escalated quickly' to over five times $100 million estimate, and still no business case.

By Bob Mackin 14 Jan 2013 |

Vancouver-based journalist Bob Mackin frequently reports for The Tyee. Find his previous articles here.

The NDP wants British Columbia's auditor general to investigate the B.C. Place Stadium renovation project.

Spencer Chandra Herbert, the Opposition critic for B.C. Pavilion Corporation, made a formal written complaint on Jan. 11 to John Doyle, seeking a value for money audit of the budgetary decisions throughout the process of rebuilding B.C. Place.

"Since 2007, I and many other B.C. taxpayers have followed the strange story of the revitalization of B.C. Place with increasing incredulity," Chandra Herbert wrote. "Though the B.C. Liberal government frequently claimed the project was on time and on budget, we remember when, in 2009, the Liberal government approved a budget of $365 million for the project that would wind up costing $514 million by the time the stadium opened in 2011."

Attached to the complaint is a confidential Jan. 22, 2008 letter from B.C. Pavilion Corporation chair David Podmore advising Vancouver city manager Judy Rogers that the project was to cost $100 million, including a new roof.

Chandra Herbert wrote that it is "crucial to the public interest" for British Columbians to learn how the cost of the project escalated so quickly and "whether the Liberal government acted with appropriate fiscal responsibility."

"To date, the Liberal government has never made the business case for the public project, leaving British Columbians to ask if this was a good use of scarce public dollars, or if there were other ways to improve B.C. Place at a lower cost," Chandra Herbert wrote.

'Botched $35 million naming rights agreement'

By April 2008, PavCo considered a $253 million renovation with a German-engineered, spoke/wheel-style retractable roof, but delayed the renovation until after the 2010 Winter Olympics for fear it may not be completed in times for the Games. Podmore and then-premier Gordon Campbell announced plans for the renovation and new retractable roof in May 2008, but refused to comment on the budget at a glitzy news conference under the stadium's 1983-inflated roof.

The budget eventually ballooned to $563 million. Podmore announced his resignation from PavCo in August 2012. Rogers was replaced as city manager by Penny Ballem when Gregor Robertson won the mayoralty in 2008.

Chandra Herbert's letter also acknowledges the "botched $35 million naming rights agreement with Telus and the unravelling of a controversial plan for a casino expansion adjacent to the stadium." Taxpayers were told that naming rights and land leases would help defray part of the cost of the project.

Chandra Herbert's letter was released eight days after it became known that a Liberal-majority committee voted behind closed doors against renewing Doyle's contract. Doyle has been heavily critical of the government and is suing for access to the $6 million indemnity agreement granted to guilty ex-Liberal aides Dave Basi and Bob Virk, who copped a surprise plea bargain in 2010 over their roles in the BC Rail corruption case.

If Doyle acts on Chandra Herbert's request, it wouldn't be the first time the Office of the Auditor General examined major capital cost overruns by the B.C. government. The NDP's controversial Fast Ferries project, which rose from $210 million to $462 million, and the Liberals' Vancouver Convention Centre expansion, which grew from $495 million to $883.2 million, were both subject of audits.

The stadium renovation project was spurred by the Jan. 5, 2007 snow-caused rip and collapse of the original roof. A heavily censored June 20, 2006 PavCo report to the Tourism Ministry proposed major improvements to the stadium, because it had "worn out assets."

Dueling lawsuits

Meanwhile, lawyers for B.C. Place steel contractor Canam and cable subcontractor Freyssinet appeared in B.C. Supreme Court Friday for a case management hearing before Justice Gregory Bowden. A marathon, multimillion-dollar trial over cost overruns is scheduled to begin Oct. 21, 2013 and Bowden agreed to a request by Canam for it to be extended from 85 days to 100.

Canam lawyer Stuart Hankinson successfully applied for Freyssinet's 176-page internal "lessons learned" report about the project. The report was written in French and must be translated to English. Hankinson told the court that it is crucial for his cross-examination of Freyssinet executives. Freyssinet lawyer Douglas Lahay tried to downplay the document, claiming it was "not a smoking gun."

Freyssinet sued Canam for $6.5 million and Canam countersued for $26.15 million in fall 2011. General contractor PCL and PavCo are both named as defendants.

In his December-filed case management proposal, Hankinson wrote that the damage to the stadium's roof from grease leaks may be as high as $15 million and the insurance company is investigating whether to pay for repairs. Leaks from the Geobrugg-supplied cables were noticed more than six months before work began installing the roof fabric.

The stadium reopened Sept. 30, 2011, but has been dogged by rainwater leaks. On Dec. 19, the plaza around the stadium was closed and surrounded by red tape marked "danger" when chunks of ice from the roof support towers crashed to the ground.

"This was a troubled project," Hankinson told Bowden.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, BC Politics

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