Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Rural communities are going all out to build state-of-the-art sports facilities

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PORTAGE LA PRAIRIE -- Tired of waiting for Winnipeg to build that long-promised indoor water park?

Why not drive out the Trans-Canada Highway to the new $44-million recreational complex in Portage la Prairie? It houses the Shindleman Aquatic Centre, the largest indoor leisure pool in Manitoba with the largest wave pool between here and the West Edmonton Mall, plus a 64.6-metre (212-foot) waterslide.

Or drive to the Steinbach Aquatic Centre. It's got six Olympic-sized lanes, two waterslides, a lazy river and hot tub. It's worth the trip, but book ahead because it's busy.

Or, if you're near Dauphin, try the Kinsmen Aquatic Centre indoor water park and its 45.7-metre (150-foot) waterslide. Then walk down the hall to a Dauphin Kings hockey game at the 1,800-seat Credit Union Place arena, or catch a movie next door at the Countryfest Cinema, a new, 3-D multiplex movie theatre.

While Winnipeg's city council has struggled for years to get a family-friendly indoor water park, recreation complexes have been sprouting up in rural Manitoba like asparagus spears in May.

"We've had councillors from Winnipeg come here (to Portage la Prairie) and wonder, 'Why don't we have this in Winnipeg?' " said Jeff Bereza, one of the prime movers behind Portage's PCU (Portage Credit Union) Centre.

Dauphin, Portage and Virden have all recently opened spectacular rec complexes you wouldn't believe possible for communities their size. You have to see them to believe them. Meanwhile, Rivers opened a $7-million hockey and curling arena on March 18. Russell and Swan River are on deck. A $10-million rec centre in Asessippi will open later this year, and Swan River has just approved construction of its own $12-million centre.

"You almost can't put into words how much it means to a community. A town doesn't exist without some form of community recreation centre," said Virden Mayor Jeff McConnell.

How are they doing it?

Sometimes, people just pull together. Nowhere is that more true than in the village of Pilot Mound, where the community makes the Little Engine That Could look like an Edsel. Located 193 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg, Pilot Mound built its recreation complex, complete with hockey and curling arenas, with virtually all local volunteer labour.

For $25,000, they purchased a recreation complex at Sundance, the temporary townsite for Manitoba Hydro workers building the Limestone Generating Station on the Nelson River. Volunteers took it apart, moved all the pieces along a 12-hour drive back to Pilot Mound -- with the precision of an ant colony -- and reassembled the complex while customizing it to their needs. Contractors were hired, but more as supervisors for the volunteer staff. It took almost a decade to complete, but how else could a community of 630 people own an $11-million facility today?

It helps to be lucky. Virden's recreation centre came along when a minority Tory government in Ottawa was throwing around money like Frisbees as part of its economic stimulus plan. Virden snared $5.45 million from federal and provincial governments under the plan.

It also has a guardian angel. The Richardson Foundation chipped in $1.5 million toward the town's rec centre. Richardson-owned Tundra Oil and Gas has pulled a lot of oil out of the area, after all. Virden is also fortunate to have an arrangement with environmental an cleanup company, Tervita, to accept oil-contaminated soils at the town's landfill. Tervita payments made up the town's $2.6-million down payment on the rec centre.

As well, all rec complexes require extensive fundraising over a several years. They also require local families who aren't necessarily celebrity names to dig deep into their pockets. That allowed Virden to raise another $2.4 million, including $200,000 from an outfit called Trinidad Drilling, and $150,000 each from the local Virden foundation and credit union.

The town has been left with a $6-million debt, which its regular payments from Tervita should cover. So it will hardly cost taxpayers a dime. The result is an $18-million, two-and-a-half-storey glass-fronted edifice that stands out like the Taj Mahal.

Ah, the bucolic life. Where everyone works in harmony all the time. Not like the city where people just bicker and complain.

And if you believe that...

The truth is there's always some controversy surrounding new rec centres in rural communities, and often there's a lot of it. It certainly wasn't all sweetness when Killarney built its Shamrock Centre, which opened in 2008. People were up in arms about their taxes, the mayor resigned, and cost overruns pushed the final tab, which was originally budgeted at $6 million, to $14 million. Meanwhile, the RM of Springfield has been trying to build a rec centre for years. Basically, residents are telling council if its largest urban centre, Oakbank -- growing rapidly thanks to the influx of commuters -- wants a rec centre, then let Oakbank pay for it. The problem is, like in many commuter communities Springfield has the population but not the commerce to offset multiplex costs through business taxes and corporate sponsorships.

Also, some communities just back away. Gimli was looking at building a new recreational complex and the estimate came back in the $35-million range. No thanks. It is now studying a much more modest 800- to 900-seat community hall. Probably the most controversial rec centre in recent times involved the grandest of them all, the aforementioned PCU Centre. The PCU Centre, which opened Feb. 27, 2010, recently hosted the Manitoba Scotties Tournament of Hearts while about 70 per cent of the Canadian hockey movie, Goon, was shot inside its facilities.

But when first proposed, the PCU Centre drew placard-waving protesters to Portage city hall for the first time in recent memory. There was also a tax revolt and threats of a lawsuit on that issue. Later, the Portage Terriers junior hockey team, the complex's main tenant, threatened to move to another community. Some people still refuse to step inside the complex to this day. "If I could count the number of times our phone rang and my wife was sworn at, or my kids were sworn at (over controversy with the rec complex)..." said Bereza, who was a city councillor for Portage at the time. "The hardest part for me was the effect on my family."

"Do you smell any chlorine?" Bereza asked suddenly. Bereza, a.k.a. "Mr. PCU," recently provided the Free Press with a tour of the PCU Centre, frequently interrupting his narrative to point out its features. "We decided to spend an extra $25,000 for a second treatment for chlorine. Now you can barely smell it, even when you're in the pool."

The pool can hold 422 people. It was built "for the whole community, ages two months to 92." One in five Portage residents is a senior. It can be entered with a wheelchair and has a soft bottom so it feels like walking in sand. During our tour, about three dozen seniors were being led through an aqua-cize class and it brought to mind Ron Howard's movie, Cocoon.

Portage city council thought of everything -- and paid for it. Council spent an extra $200,000 for the wave pool. "The kids love it," Bereza said. For the pool change rooms, they purchased composite plastic lockers so they won't rust like metal ones. That was $40,000. Also, the waterslide is positioned off to the side so kids don't eject into the main pool. There's even a swimsuit dryer that looks like it was shipped from NASA.

Then there's the 2,000-seat arena. The rink seats are 53 centimetres wide with cup holders. The seats in the MTS Centre in Winnipeg are just 48 cm wide. Even the end boards move, like in the pros, so players aren't hurt when they're bodychecked there. "It's (an) extra cost but you're building for a long time," Bereza said.

It's a wondrous facility. They didn't scrimp anywhere. In some new arenas in rural Manitoba, the acoustics are so bad you can't make out what they say over the public address system. Not at the PCU, where they have sound-absorbing panels around the top of the arena to benefit acoustics. The building is heated with more than 100 kilometres of heated pipe running through the floors, much of it reclaimed heat from things such as the swimming pool. The Portage Terrier dressing room has individual player stalls like the pros, mill-worked benches and individual shower stalls. Motion detectors operate the lights in the dressing area.

The PCU Centre went first rate right down to the food. Its canteen was until recently run by the local Horfrost Restaurant, which got a rave review from Free Press critic Marion Warhaft.

Portage first tried to build a recreation centre in the 1970s. The city held a referendum and residents defeated it. The backlash was so great no one touched the issue again for 40 years.

Bereza, who has lived in Portage all of his 49 years, and a handful of others, decided to form the Portage Recreation Committee and resurrect the issue. After all, its Centennial Arena was starting to crumble. They kicked off discussions. Bereza would go around town sporting a button from the 1970s failed attempt that read: Portage: Let's Build This Complex and Be Proud. (The button is now buried in concrete beneath centre ice at the PCU Centre, along with a loonie, a rabbit's foot and a Portage commemorative coin.)

Much of the tax revolt came from the rural surroundings after the RM of Portage la Prairie agreed to pay $8 million into the project that's inside the city of Portage La Prairie. There were even threats of a lawsuit. The RM has one of the richest farming communities in Western Canada, if not the country. It is also one of the most conservative. Rural resident Kam Blight rode the tax revolt all the way to the reeve's seat for the RM of Portage. Blight now chairs the PCU Centre board. He did not return telephone or email messages.

In the city of Portage, some people claimed taxes would go up 50 per cent. (They've gone up 23 per cent since 2007, not all of that due to the PCU.) Both the province and federal government chipped in $5 million each.

Is it too rich for Portage's blood? The PCU debt is $15 million. About 15 per cent of the property tax bill for Portage homeowners goes to pay that debt. For a $150,000 home, that works out to $256.41 per year. The debt is on a 15-year term. If those figures stay constant, the cost will be about $4,000 for a home currently valued at $150,000.

Another extra cost was political. Only one of seven elected officials was returned in the 2010 election. Most of the councilors, and the mayor, didn't stand for re-election. On the street, people say they didn't run again because they knew they couldn't win. Bereza disagrees, and said most of the council didn't run for re-election simply because they were burned out. Bereza ran for mayor in 2010 but lost to former used car dealer, Earl Potter.

Since the PCU went up two years ago, it has hosted the 2010 PowerSmart Winter Games; the World Under-17 Hockey Tournament; the Canadian Broomball Championship; the 2011 Avenot Cup final (Major Junior Hockey League); filming of The Goon, and Manitoba Scotties Tournament of Hearts. Build a new sportsplex and they will come.

Yet its operating deficit was still $1.6 million. That's about $500,000 more than the previous recreation operating costs for Portage. The RM covers 25 per cent of the cost. There will still have to be some fine-tuning of costs versus revenues, said Jennifer Sarna, director of recreation services with the city.

Yet the PCU Centre has been tremendously successful in becoming the hub of the community where there wasn't really one before. You could call it business versus busy-ness. It's busy day and night. It's the place to go. Some 1,100 filled the centre on Louis Riel Day for a free public skate. During the Scotties, more than 2,300 people were in the facility at one time.

"I believe this is our Winnipeg Jets, our MTS Centre, our human rights museum," said Bereza.

Plus, it's bringing in people.

"The number of people who come out from Winnipeg is unreal," Bereza said. "It's helped our economy. I know new doctors come to the PCU" before deciding whether to practise in Portage. "From my understanding, people look at the health and recreation. They don't ask what the mill rate is," Bereza said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 23, 2012 A13

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