Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Once again, city drops the ball on recreation facility

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Another day, another threat of impending doom for a critical piece of the city's recreation infrastructure.

This time, it's the venerable Sherbrook Pool, which has been closed since November because of profound structural and mechanical deficiencies. A report released this week identifies $2.7 million in immediate repairs and another $3.5 million over the next 20 years to keep it open.

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The city has not said it will save the pool, or tear it down. There will be consultation with residents, and more debate at city committees. For the time being, it appears annoyingly obvious city hall is satisfied to keep it closed.

It would be easy to ignore this story; another city asset in disrepair at a time when infrastructure demands are outstripping resources. In that environment, it's easy to forget how important the Sherbrook Pool is to the residents of this neighbourhood.

How did things get so bad? The methodology used to create this crisis has become all too familiar.

How did things get so bad? The methodology used to create this crisis has become all too familiar.

First, you deliberately cut back, if not completely eliminate, all serious investment in repairs and rehabilitation. This allows major structural and mechanical problems to grow. And you definitely do not save money to cover major repairs or build a new facility.

Finally, you let the problems grow until they become so expensive you cannot afford to make them right.

This is more or less exactly what the city did with its arenas. City staff made heroic efforts to keep arenas safe and operating, but no money was invested in major upgrades or repairs. More importantly, the city never set aside any money to replace these facilities. Instead, a few years ago the city released a report listing the total cost of saving the old arenas, a report that also included not-so-thinly veiled threats to start closing rinks.

The threats ultimately forced community clubs and other groups to step forward with proposals for new facilities. More importantly, it convinced the province to cost-share.

This is a process that has all of the hallmarks of crisis management, where tough decisions are only made after facilities are on the verge of closing. Just like the pool.

Could the city be manufacturing these crises to lure the province and others into sharing the cost of a new pool? If so, that's a pretty awkward way of planning for the future of your recreation facilities.

First, it means you cannot begin serious planning for replacement facilities, or cost-sharing agreements, until your crisis has fully manifested. And that means the facility is usually closed, on the verge of closing or in such a state of disrepair it is barely functional.

The city was able to get new, cost-shared arena projects approved and started before it had to close old rinks, but only by the skin of its teeth. We haven't been as lucky with the pool. Despite knowing for years this was a facility nearing the end of its shelf life, it was allowed to decay to the point of closure. No one at city hall -- not councillors or bureaucrats -- can claim they didn't see this one coming.

And yet, there is no indication aggressive steps are being taken to come up with a plan to save the pool. The report released Friday indicates, rather remarkably, the pool is in pretty decent shape considering it was built in 1931. Further, that repairs could bring it back to full operation.

The big question is whether the city can find a funding partner. Ottawa has still not indicated whether recreational facilities will be eligible under the new edition of the Building Canada Fund. The province is setting aside some of the new revenue generated by the one-point hike in the PST to repair community recreation facilities. However, that puts Mayor Sam Katz in a difficult political predicament.

Katz has soundly, repeatedly rebuked the province for not dedicating all of the new PST money -- estimated at $270 million annually -- to basic infrastructure such as roads, water/sewer services and bridges. Although he did not specifically exclude recreation facilities, he hasn't seen fit to mention them as one of the eligible projects.

Provincial sources confirm the city has not yet raised Sherbrook Pool as a project for possible cost-sharing. At this point, we have to assume the crisis isn't big enough.

The city says it needs time to determine whether people in the area around the pool still want it. That is a very troubling sign indeed. If there is anything we know from the history of this file, it is that this is a beloved, well-used and essential part of the fabric of that central-west core neighbourhood. More consultation will not change that.

It is similarly disturbing the city, despite pleas for more infrastructure help, has not seen fit to put this into the discussion for provincial cost-sharing.

This is a problem that everyone knew was coming. The city needs to stop generating crises and start finding solutions. Preferably before it has to close the next facility.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 8, 2013 A10

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