Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

There's more to new arenas than hockey

Multi-use facilities could be back on table with rink bids killed

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Here we are, two years after city hall sounded the alarm over its aging and decaying arenas, and we're no closer to a solution.

Last Monday, hopes were riding high that one or more of eight proposals for new arenas would pass city muster and be approved for construction. Unfortunately, that hope was replaced by crushing defeat; not one of the eight proposals was ready to go.

How could it be that after two years of deliberation and widespread consensus that many of the city's 15 rinks are at risk of permanent closure, we could have made so little progress? You have to dig deep on this story to find the good news, but it's there.

First however, a quick review. In 2010, the city released a seminal report on its rinks that concluded they were all past their due date and at risk of closing. There is a huge outcry, lots of wringing hands and a commitment to finding a plan to replace these aging facilities. Another year goes by and the city formally asks for expressions of interest (EOI) from those groups interested in working with the city to establish new rinks.

Yet another year goes by, and a report comes to a council committee indicating eight different proposals -- some public and some private -- came forward but none that met the city's requirements. So for the time being, the city will continue to work with some of the more promising proposals with no specific timeline for bringing one to fruition.

Confusion reigned in the wake of those revelations. Which groups had come forward, what were the details of their proposals and why did none of them warrant a green light? The city does not reveal the identities of unsuccessful proponents in any EOI process. As a result, city officials could not specifically say why it was that nobody made the grade for a new arena proposal.

However, even without that information, we can deduce certain inalienable conclusions.

First and foremost, it appears none of the eight proponents was willing to assume enough financial risk to attract the city's attention. Clive Wightman, director of community services, said the city expects proponents to come to the table with a couple of important commodities: some of the money to build a new facility and a willingness to take on long-term debt.

Wightman confirmed that "having skin in the game" is a principal requirement for any group looking for support from the city. Exactly how much skin and in what form remains a bit of a mystery. In general, however, the city is looking at recreating the deals it made with community clubs to build rinks. The city helped with up-front funding and loan guarantees, but the community club took over responsibility for operating costs, maintenance and the mortgage. It is, in essence, the deal made with Southdale Community Club for its new rink.

The advantages of this approach are self-evident. The city does not have to cover the operating costs or the cost of repairs at community club rinks. It does provide an operating grant based on heated square-footage.

However, it costs the city between $125,000 and $200,000 a year to subsidize the operation of the city's own rinks. Extrapolate that over 15 rinks, and it begins to add up.

It all looks rather bleak, although there is a silver lining: The decision to shelve this EOI might have been the smartest thing the city has done.

Some of the proponents that did respond to the EOI found it to be limited in scope. It focused entirely on new, multi-sheet arenas even though many of the community groups were pursuing multi-purpose facilities. These projects would see general recreation, wellness and indoor ice combined in a facility that would operate year-round and feature revenue streams other than ice rentals.

Under the current EOI, those facilities did not fit. And given the difficulty that many arena operators have in covering their costs solely on ice-rental fees, it perhaps makes more sense to look at buildings that draw visitors for a multitude of activities.

The possibilities may be endless, even if the lifespan of the existing rinks is not. After two years of hand-wringing, it's probably time to start seeing some progress on developing and approving new projects.

There are groups that have the energy and vision to get something done. But as always, the city remains the bottleneck through which all these proposals must flow. Freed from a narrow EOI, the timing seems right to get one or two of the most promising projects off the ground.

The city has asked the community to step forward and put some skin in the game. That's fair. As long as it's prepared to put some of its own skin in the game.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 24, 2012 A10


Updated on Sunday, November 25, 2012 at 9:23 AM CST: Corrects spelling of Clive Wightman.

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