Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Southdale centre hits families with hike

Building overruns, city neglect to blame

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At first blush, it's easy to see why people are angry at the board of the Southdale Community Centre for a massive increase in user fees charged to its families. The Southdale board, which faced off with constituents Monday night at a public meeting, has done just about everything it could to make this a big, fat, hairy mess.

First and foremost, there was little warning fees would go up from $85 per family to $110 per hockey and ringette player. The decision was made in July, during the dead of summer, with no advance publicity or public debate because the board had only just received its 2011-12 financial statements from the first year for the expanded facility, and there was a cash crunch.

The cost of the expansion, once pegged at $6 million, had ballooned to $9 million because of construction delays. As a result, the board was facing a mortgage of more than $3 million, twice original estimates. Along with the additional carrying costs -- a whopping $18,000 per month -- the centre underestimated utilities and other operating costs. All this meant Southdale needed to find additional revenue and find it fast.

Like other community centres, Southdale charges a facility fee on top of the cost of registration for the sports it hosts. Given the fact the expansion was primarily to provide more indoor ice, the board went directly to hockey and ringette families.

The board should be applauded for addressing the shortfall as quickly as possible. However, Southdale will take its lumps for the complete lack of warning for the fee increase and the fact it appears the board simply lost control of both the costs of building and operating the expanded facility. The solution is less than ideal.

There are too many people involved in the administration of our national game who believe it should only be available to those who can handle the rapidly escalating cost. They won't say it out loud for anyone to hear, but when you look at the policies and programs set forth by organized minor hockey, there is little evidence those who can pay have any interest in helping those who cannot pay.

In this context, Southdale's solution is only making a bad situation worse. The additional user fee ignores, for example, that hockey and ringette families already pay hundreds of dollars each in team fees to rent the ice at Southdale's rinks. Adding another $110 fee per player may be portrayed as a modest increase in total cost for those who can cover the cost of hockey. For those who struggle or gave up hope of having their children play hockey, it's an added disparity and despondency.

How did Southdale get into this mess? The board's principal beef is the lack of support from the city. On this point, the Southdale board is bang on. The city, which some years ago simply turned its back on the growing problem of decaying arenas, ignored the Southdale board's ambitious plans for years. The logjam broke for Southdale in 2007 when the province offered $2 million for the expansion, a gesture soundly criticized by the opposition Tories as a cynical NDP bid to steal a constituency it had never held.

In addition to winning Southdale for the NDP, the provincial grant paved the way for a matching $2-million federal grant. Ultimately, the city kicked in $700,000, a paltry sum given the fact this was a major boost to a piece of Winnipeg infrastructure.

It's not clear why the city gave Southdale the cold shoulder. The city argued there were other community centre projects of greater priority and Southdale jumped the queue. The problem was, the city wasn't moving ahead with any of the other projects. And queue-jumping or no, the city faced a significant problem with its existing arenas.

City neglect has already led to two arena closures and is threatening to take countless others out of service. In this context, one might expect the city would have found a way to support the Southdale project. It was an opportunity to get a $9-million facility at significantly reduced cost to the city. Not contributing an equal share of the funding is a shockingly pathetic bit of public policy that in many ways paved the way for the current fee debacle.

The city's network of community centres was created as a resource for all citizens, safe havens for the wealthy and the impoverished alike to engage in activities that make for healthier minds and bodies. In the Southdale mess, we are witnessing a significant perversion of that original vision.

The city and the Southdale board have, inadvertently working in concert, created two significant problems.

First, they have pushed the national game just a bit further out of reach for financially strapped families. And they have turned what should have been a valuable public amenity into an exclusive playground where the colour of your money is more important than your need.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 21, 2012 A4

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