Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The city's got to invest in community centres

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For decades, Winnipeg's network of active community centres has greatly enhanced our quality of life by providing affordable access to much-needed community programming. However, community centres are facing increasing challenges in finding the people needed to keep the programs going and the money to support it all.

The newly expanded Southdale Community Centre is exposing the broader problem of funding that plagues community clubs that often run on a core of burnt-out volunteers with limited resources to manage complex projects.

In an article, Our Lost Olympians (Aug. 15), Sel Burrows pointed out the disparities in participation rates, arguing that the inner city faces an unfair disadvantage, serving an area of poorer families.

Both scenarios show that far too many children don't play organized sports as rising fees and long commitments have become insurmountable for many households that can't afford the costs for hockey, basketball and even soccer, where team fees are unaffordable. In fact, for hockey, it is not simply team registration fees and the cost of equipment, it's also the dreaded "cash calls" that cover indoor ice and entry fees for tournaments that really put a dent in the pocketbook. Add in the additional costs of facility and other fees and the situation becomes more burdensome.

Burrows is right. Community clubs are neither well funded nor supported by enough volunteers. As president of Riverview Community Centre, I can attest to the challenge in getting lawyers, labourers or anyone to help support the programs we try to offer through our aging centre. This is equally true in the newest community centres that Burrows singles out as "bulging with programs" and old centres that struggle with dated and costly buildings and a core of volunteers, many of whom offer their unwavering support long after their children grow out of club sports and events.

Our club has come a long way from its modest beginnings in the 1930s when a donated CNR boxcar from the nearby Fort Rouge yards was all we had. Today, we face 80 years of additions, adaptations and dubious riggings that leave us scratching our heads as to what's next to go! We too can recall when the City of Winnipeg was much more active in recreation and provided dedicated support.

Now, all clubs compete for every extra dollar made available. We all try to write the best proposals and hope we get selected for upgrade money or perhaps program dollars to offer youth at risk or young families with children a safe and inviting space. Now we face an additional fear in that should we go down the road of big projects, we, too, might face managing a debt load that has really never been incurred at the community club level.

Some community centres have dedicated staff to manage day-to-day activities while others rely solely on their ability to attract and retain volunteers and board members. In either case, burnout is high and for community clubs that cannot attract or retain volunteers, the outcome is simply not offering children safe places to play. Worse yet, the clubs close their doors far too often.

Community clubs build strong and vibrant neighbourhoods while keeping kids off the streets and engaged. They are places kids should be able to walk to with skates and sticks for a game of shinny or to cool off in a wading pool. They are also places where Winnipeggers go for socials, to learn karate or take a Pilates class.

They should not be places where we burden communities with debt and force volunteer boards to come up with ways to pay for major infrastructure projects. We need a better approach.

Today, many community clubs are in jeopardy. Many clubs do not have the capacity to write effective grant applications, scramble for money or mobilize the resources needed to manage programs and teams, regardless of where they are located. For some reason we have undervalued their importance in contributing to building sustainable communities.

As well, we have let the City of Winnipeg off the hook on properly funding and supporting activities and reinvesting in aging infrastructure. We should certainly not encourage community centres to take on massive debt loads and expect that families will be able shoulder the burden through increased fees.

The funding model is flawed, as the bulk of funding is based almost entirely on a simple per-square-foot formula that leaves clubs like ours to scramble to deal with each crisis while falling further behind on bigger-ticket items. Many clubs are in a precarious financial situation, staring down the barrel of hundred of thousands of dollars of needed repairs and upgrades.

I can say that our club is luckier than some as we have the volunteer capacity to make it through each crisis and often dip into the great social capital reserve we have.

Perhaps if the mayor and council could have seen the smiles on the faces of the Burton Cummings Rockers they would understand that community clubs are more than buildings and grounds -- they are places that bind generations together with so many bearing names of local heroes like our own Sam Southern arena nearby. In short, it takes the city to help sustain our community club as much as it takes the community to keep it running.

Jino Distasio is the president of the Riverview Community Centre

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 22, 2012 A10

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