National

Tsukuba voters overwhelmingly vote 'no' on ¥30.5 billion park

Kyodo

More than 80 percent of the people in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, who voted in Sunday’s referendum on whether to build a massive park voted against the project.

A total of 63,482 people voted “no” on the ¥30.5 billion park, which was to include 11 sports facilities. Only 15,101 people voted in favor. Turnout was 47.3 percent.

While the referendum is not legally binding, a city ordinance stipulates that the mayor and the municipal assembly must respect the results.

“The outcome is regrettable, but I have to accept it sincerely,” Mayor Kenichi Ichihara told a news conference Sunday night.

He said he will “consider the option of canceling the construction plan” in view of the overwhelming “no” vote.

He said the city had initially planned only to conduct a survey to gauge public opinion.

A local citizens’ group opposed to the park demanded that the city reconsider the project with direct participation of residents.

The group said the massive park would be a huge financial burden for future generations. Its campaign gained momentum after the central government decided July 17 to scrap the initial plan for the main stadium for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics due to spiraling costs.

The decision on whether to scrap the park plan will be made by the Tsukuba Municipal Assembly in September.

“I’m surprised we managed to get more than 50,000 votes, which was our goal,” said Etsuko Nagai, 62, a member of the group opposing the park. “When we distributed fliers, I saw many residents becoming interested in the future of our city.”

Chiaki Yamamoto, 75, who played an active role in the opposition group, said it was unlikely that voters would endorse the plan, stressing that the project was “too costly and not even well thought out.”

The municipal government approved a basic plan for the construction project in February. According to the plan, the city would build 11 sports facilities over 10 years. Ichihara has said he wants to make the park a centerpiece of the city’s redevelopment efforts.

The local government said in February it would ask the central government to subsidize ¥14 billion of the cost and issue bonds totaling ¥14.8 billion, which would be repaid over the next 30 years. The remaining cost would be financed through the city’s general revenue.

The citizens’ group argued that the project is too costly for a city with an annual revenue of ¥70 billion and collected signatures against it from residents, setting the stage for Sunday’s referendum.

The plan was initially drafted in 2000, but it was shelved as the local government failed to acquire the needed land. The debate was rekindled last year when the municipal government established a council to lead the project.

The assembly failed to reach an agreement on the plan, and in January it sought opinions from the public. It received responses from 251 residents.

“In the approved plan, none of counter-opinions had been taken into account,” said one of the group’s representatives, 74-year-old Eiji Matsumoto.

Out of concern that residents’ voices would remain unheard, the group started collecting signatures of opponents of the plan in February.

The group managed to collect some 11,000 signatures in just one month. Tsukuba had 167,589 eligible voters as of Sunday.

The group argued that building the park would undercut efforts “for welfare issues like child-rearing and nursing care.”

Local governments all over Japan have had a hard time dealing with aging public facilities amid severe fiscal conditions, and the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry has requested that municipalities plan to manage old facilities and infrastructure systematically.

A 36-year-old woman who voted against the plan said she did not want her children to be left to deal with the public debt.

“The facility will continue to incur high maintenance expenses” and is a costly initiative that is not needed in the city, said a 68-year-old small business owner.

Proponents said the project would help the local economy.

The park “would help draw new customers, which is vital in coping with economic stagnation,” said a 59-year-old sports trainer.