The Western Hockey League has raised the stakes in Nanaimo’s event centre debate.

The league vowed Monday to bring an WHL club to the Harbour City if residents vote yes this weekend on the proposed sports and entertainment complex, which could cost taxpayers close to $80-million.

It’s the first time the WHL has outright committed to bringing a franchise to Nanaimo.

“The WHL has never wavered in its interest in the Nanaimo market. The WHL believes Nanaimo would be a great addition to our BC Division as a natural rival with the Victoria Royals and other Divisional opponents including the Vancouver Giants, Kelowna Rockets, Kamloops Blazers and the Prince George Cougars,” the league said in a statement.

“They’ve identified the City of Nanaimo and its surrounding areas to be a strong market, and they’re a pretty strong machine,” said Nanaimo Coun. Bill Bestwick. “So if that’s something that they believe we should believe it too, and support the opportunity we have in front of us.”

If the vote is yes, the WHL says a club will begin playing this September at Frank Crane Arena and enter into a 20-year lease.

But the coach and general manager of the hockey club currently playing at the arena says a yes vote will spell the end of their team.

Mike Vandekamp says an incoming club will bump the Nanaimo Clippers and leave them with no place to play.

“We can’t operate in the same facility as they can, so the clear cut facts of the matter are if the Western league’s coming to play in the Frank Crane arena the junior A Clippers will no longer be there,” he said.

There’s still no word as to who potential owners of a WHL team might be, but the league statement says ownership will include local investment.

Voting in the referendum takes place Saturday, March 11 at several schools and community centres throughout the city.

For more information, go to the City of Nanaimo’s referendum website.