The councillor, who heads the city’s important finance and audit committee, was under fire over the massive spending when he appeared to shift blame on to city staff in comments to local media.
Mr. Bestwick told NanaimoNewsNow that staff had failed to express concerns about spending or cost overruns for the February 2017 event.
‘Don’t worry I’ll get the money’
But two former members of the event’s local Hometown Hockey organizing committee, which was chaired by Mr. Bestwick, told News Nanaimo it was the councillor who pressed staff to pursue expensive projects and who was cavalier about the costs.
“Bestwick led the discussion and delegated to staff to make it happen. The cost almost never came up and when it did, his comments were along the lines of, ‘Don’t worry I’ll get the money’,” said one member of the committee.
Another former committee member said the most expensive part of the event — renting an outdoor ice rink — was Mr. Bestwick’s idea.
The rink’s costs accounted for almost 60% of the $470,157 that the councillor’s committee spent on Hometown Hockey, an amount that far exceeds what any other community in Canada has disclosed spending on the corporate marketing event.
In January, Duncan played host to Hometown Hockey with a budget less than one-tenth –$40,000 — of what Nanaimo spent last year.
“He [Mr. Bestwick] needs to take responsibility for championing the outdoor rink. That was very expensive, he shouldn’t blame city staff for that one,” said the committee member.
At a council meeting on Nov. 28, 2016, Mr. Bestwick spoke out strongly in favor of the outdoor rink, calling it a “legacy piece” that could be reused in future, even though the city only owns one piece of the needed equipment.
A promotion for multiplex
Nanaimo’s lavish outlay for Hometown Hockey has been widely viewed as a promotional tool for Mr. Bestwick to drum up support for his failed proposal to build a $100-million multiplex on the city’s waterfront.
This week, News Nanaimo was provided with information showing that when Hometown Hockey executives contacted the city to be a host they did not ask for any significant spending.
Instead, the organizers told city council that they only needed “in kind support on some small out of pocket expenses.”
Hometown Hockey, which visits 24 communities each year, is mostly paid for by Rogers Communications, Scotiabank and several other large corporate sponsors.
The information provided to News Nanaimo also suggests that the city had previously been approached to be a host but had shown no interest until May 2016.
And while the original plan had been for Tourism Nanaimo staff to manage the event for the city, on June 6, 2016, council unanimously appointed Mr. Bestwick as the “lead for the Rogers Hometown Hockey event planning.”
Unknown at the time was that Mr. Bestwick, who has controlled council with a core five-four majority since the last election, was already pitching the idea behind the scenes for the city to build a multiplex.
One week after he took charge of Hometown Hockey, the multiplex emerged as a priority project at a secret council “strategic planning” session.
The local Hometown Hockey organizing committee was created in August 2016 with Mr. Bestwick as chair. Its members came from various city departments, local hockey organizations, the school district, the business community and Snuneymuxw First Nation.
After Nanaimo was officially named as the Feb. 25-26, 2017 stop on the tour, the committee’s work kicked into gear. City records show that under Mr. Bestwick’s lead, the budget started at a mere $5,000 and ballooned to $127,750 by Nov. 21, 2016 when council approved a draft budget.
That budget included $30,000 for a fireworks show, $25,000 for a traditional Snuneymuxw salmon feast and celebration, $15,000 for marketing and $10,000 for entertainment. Both the fireworks and Snuneymuxw components ended up being under budget, according to city figures.
Rink 40% over budget
The next week, on Nov. 28, council approved another $200,000 for Mr. Bestwick’s most expensive idea — a temporary outdoor ice rink. Mayor Bill McKay was the only one to vote against it.
Most of the $200,000 went to renting the equipment, but the city purchased the rink mat for around $50,000 because it was more cost effective to buy. Buying all of the rink equipment would have cost almost $600,000.
However, costs for setting up and running the rink ending up being much higher than expected, coming in 40% over budget at almost $280,000.
Part of the overrun was recovered by selling almost $15,000 in ice time and sponsorship, mostly due to Mr. Bestwick’s efforts.
Another $50,000 was donated by the Nanaimo Hospitality Association (NHA), whose president is Dan Brady of the Howard Johnson Hotel on Terminal Ave. The hotel would later emerge as one of the two potential sites council considered for Mr. Bestwick’s proposed multiplex.
Although the city accounted for the NHA’s grant as a “private contribution” the funds came out of accommodation taxes collected by the Province under the Sales Tax Act, remitted to the city and administered by the NHA for tourism marketing.
Mr. Brady told News Nanaimo that the NHA’s executive “felt that the temporary ice rink, which became property of the City of Nanaimo would provide a great legacy piece for the city to create a Winter Festival around in future years.”
Of course, the city only owns the rink mat and still must rent or purchase the chiller and other equipment to use it.
Preliminary discussions have been held between the city, the NHA and the Greater Nanaimo Chamber of Commerce about having an outdoor rink next winter in Bowen Park.
Richard Harding, the city’s director of parks and recreation, said he wasn’t able to estimate how much setting up an outdoor rink might cost without knowing where and for how long it would operate.
However, the city’s costs for Hometown Hockey suggest that setting up an outdoor rink will conservatively cost about $200,000 for a week.
Zipline cost $40K
The most popular legacy investment to come out of Hometown Hockey appears to be the zipline that was installed in Maffeo Sutton Park. The city originally set aside $10,000 for “wildplay activities” but the total cost ended up being just over $40,000.
Mr. Harding said the city will be putting out an RFP to get the popular zipline back in operation during the coming summer festival season.
While the outdoor rink and zipline account for about $100,000 in cost overruns, there are still questions about where all of the $470,000 went.
News Nanaimo asked the city for a list of all the recipients of Hometown Hockey funds but was told to file a freedom of information request, which wouldn’t take long. By Friday, the information was still not received.
Despite the huge costs involved, everyone News Nanaimo interviewed agreed that the Hometown Hockey event was a success for the city. The city estimates that about 12,000 people enjoyed some aspect of the festival, including 4,000 skaters on the outdoor rink and 2,000 zipliners.
One hotel alone reported that the event generated about 400 room nights in February, a typically slow time for the industry. And the city was featured on national cable TV during two NHL games, providing valuable national exposure for tourism.
However, for Mr. Bestwick, who said he put hundreds of hours into the event, it all had a bittersweet outcome. Two weeks after the Hometown Hockey tour packed up and left town, more than 80 percent of voters in a referendum roundly rejected Mr. Bestwick’s proposed multiplex project.