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Metro Vancouver's $9m sewage academy a money loser

A $9-million research centre that Metro Vancouver opened in 2011 at its Annacis Island sewage treatment plant has largely morphed into a costly, underused white elephant that periodically hosts meetings.

Originally to be the first of five Metro "sustainability academies" that have largely fallen by the wayside, the Annacis Wastewater Centre ended up costing regional taxpayers more than expected because UBC never came through on an original pledge to contribute $1 million.

The centre also now faces a $390,000 annual deficit to operate.

"A sewage treatment plant is not really the best place for conventions," said White Rock Mayor Wayne Baldwin, one of the Metro politicians who expressed dismay with the project at a Feb. 28 board meeting.

"The hole just keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger," Baldwin said, noting the project ballooned in cost from its original estimate of $4 million. "I don't know why we would want to continue with this."

Metro originally expected to shoulder just $100,000 of the annual cost but it's paying more because UBC declined to taking on the cost of managing the building for research and other researchers and consultants have yet to flock to the centre and help defray costs.

Two-thirds of the capital money – $6 million – came from federal and provincial infrastructure stimulus grants.

The original plan was for UBC to own the building but that became impossible because it would violate the terms of the federal grant, so the university backed away – some Metro directors say reneged – on its $1-million pledge.

Instead, university administrators had offered to pay $90,000 a year over six years.

But due to a communication breakdown – senior administrators at both Metro and UBC retired in recent years – Metro's board did not learn of the dropped pledge until last fall.

Directors belatedly voted Friday to accept UBC's annual contributions to help pare the deficit.

"We're here, we own the building, we're required to keep the building," Vancouver Coun. Heather Deal said. "These fees will help offset the costs."

She said research there into the mining of phosphorous from sewage and other promising resource and energy recovery options may help reduce Metro's long-term costs of running the sewage system.

UBC staff have since 2012 had free use of the centre's research hall, which allows lab testing of various waste water effluent streams, and Metro still hopes to negotiate a retroactive contribution for that use.

Metro staff and affiliated groups have used the centre for conferences, saving an estimated $40,000 that would have otherwise been spent renting external meeting space.

Metro now aims to rent out the meeting room to other customers to help staunch the red ink.

"Staff are aggressively promoting use of the conference facility, and have established competitive rates to encourage this," a staff report says.

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