Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Arena neglect no longer a spectator sport

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In case you were wondering, few things anger the citizenry more than the closure of an arena, pool, or library.

These are the building blocks of a community. They are ground zero for community activities, the places we watch our children learn and grow.

Take that away and you're stirring up a hornet's nest.

In that context, it's not surprising a tangible uneasiness has descended on Winnipeg city hall. The cause is a report from the community services department that suggests most of Winnipeg's arenas are on their last legs.

There is more than $50 million in overdue repairs at the 15 city-owned and operated arenas, money the city has not set aside. Coun. Mike Pagtakhan, chairman of the community services committee, said the city may be forced to close some of the rinks.

Closure? Not this year, we can be sure of that. There's an election in the fall, and no one has ever been re-elected to city council by closing a rink.

What about the year after that? The city people have made it sound as if they aren't entirely sure how they will address this problem. Nobody is rushing to find the money to repair or upgrade the arenas, hoping instead that third parties will approach the city with plans to build new multiplex rinks that will replace the aging facilities. Best of luck.

This "have-no-plan-and-hope-for-the-best" approach is standard operating procedure at the city.

The city has known for years about this mounting unfunded liability. However, when it comes to the elected representatives, property tax freezes and business tax cuts have been so much more important than fixing arenas. In fact, decaying rinks don't rank as a pressing problem until someone writes a report that can't be ignored.

Make no mistake, this is a problem that has been years in the making. In fact, over the past 20 years, the city has engaged in what can only be described as a deliberate effort to ignore the upkeep of the arenas. Councillors will say the buildings are old -- some more than 40 years -- and beyond their life expectancy. Common sense tells us the life expectancy of any building is shorter when you neglect it.

Some councillors have complained as well about the poor design of the arenas. Most have desperately small dressing rooms and a complete absence of spectator areas. In some, the roofs are extraordinarily low. Some of the ice surfaces are also very small, so much so that the neutral zones are half of what they should be.

One is left to wonder what addled mind designed these buildings.

Despite their shortcomings, most of the arenas are more than adequate for the community's needs. Taken together, they form a pretty solid inventory of facilities. The city tells us we actually have more arenas per capita than most cities in this country. Unfortunately, the arena report suggests this is an opportunity to close a few of them and still remain near the average. That's not good policy.

Despite the dire situation, there is some hope. The report should serve as a wake-up call for community groups to take over operation of city rinks. This has been done successfully with the St. Vital, Kinsmen-Allard, and West Kildonan rinks.

Coun. Gord Steeves, who has been active in supporting the St. Vital rink, said the city still provides ongoing support for maintenance and repairs, but the community group is completely responsible for covering all operating costs. This has worked well in St. Vital, where the hockey community has rallied to fundraise and develop new streams of revenue.

In addition, as a community-run facility, it is eligible to receive federal and provincial funding for major upgrades, Steeves added.

If this kind of relationship has been so successful in saving and developing some city-owned rinks, why isn't it more widely applied? Again, the city must bear the responsibility for not making the offers harder for community groups to refuse.

Therein lies the purpose of the report. The arenas have been neglected by council and taken for granted by the community. It's going to be tough to do that anymore. It's unfortunate you have to convince people the city might close a rink to get that kind of response. But that's politics. Nothing stirs up a community more than the prospect of a closed arena. Consider this community stirred.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 19, 2010 B1

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