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What does Winnipeg want?

Wasylycia-Leis would change funding for community centres

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There was a gem of a revelation in the lengthy interview Judy Wasylycia-Leis gave to CJOB host Richard Cloutier two weeks ago. It didn't get much attention, but it should, for a couple of reasons.

First off, amid her meanderings about whether property taxes under her mayoralty would or wouldn't rise -- I'm thinking yes -- Wasylycia-Leis committed to changing the way community centres in this town are funded.

That's significant because, aside from those that have been constructed or expanded recently, with or without cash found in the midst of an NDP election campaign or via recession-busting federal infrastructure funds, a lot of community centres are old, inadequate and deteriorating.

In the North End and inner city many are all that and small, to boot. Some of them, satellites or kiddie parks, in our poorer neighbourhoods are little more than sheds with a swing set and a patch of grass.

Wasylycia-Leis said she wants to change the current model that funds maintenance of recreation centres by square footage.

Under Sam Katz, the policy, in areas of little or no population growth, has been to expand square footage at one community centre only if footage was closed or reduced in another centre. Operating funds are primarily drawn from registration fees for the activities and sports offered at the community centre.

Centres in growing communities, particularly in south Winnipeg, are teeming with kids, parents, volunteers and choice in activities and the budgets are fairly healthy.

Wasylycia-Leis was targeting centres in depressed neighbourhoods that are hanging on by their fingernails. They lack volunteers. And, small in size, they lose out in funding based on square footage, the mayoral candidate told Cloutier. She harkened back to the 1960s when community centres were city-funded directly for an employee, who would act as maintenance or recreation director, sometimes both apparently.

Up until the 1980s, this was the case in many central Winnipeg centres, until funding policy shifted to the current square-footage formula. In the last 30 years, some 25 community centres have either closed, or merged with others.

The recreation director is the linchpin to a centre's daily operations and its relationship with the neighbourhood. If you can't afford one, no one will turn on the lights, open the doors and welcome the kids. There is no one to recruit volunteers or run the office. The centre's board of directors is responsible for hiring staff, but if there isn't a robust volunteer board, there's no oversight of operations and no support for basic staff.

It all comes crumbling down. In 2008, Kelvin Community Centre on Henderson Highway was demolished after being declared essentially defunct by the Greater Council of Winnipeg Community Centres. The city, however, says there was an agreement by community members to amalgamate with Bronx Park, further up Henderson Highway.

It is not far, by car or bus, from where Kelvin once was. But it is not a walk, either, if you have a toddler in tow. It moved a recreation hub from an economically depressed neighbourhood with a high percentage of single-parent homes into a wealthier area.

Wasylycia-Leis's question comes down to this: Is that what Winnipeggers want?

This doesn't touch just upon the neighbourhoods where resources are scarce. In my own neck of the woods, amalgamation was on the agenda a few years back when PPCLI's exodus from Kapyong on Kenaston Boulevard appeared to open up land and a recreation centre, spurring the discussion of folding Tuxedo, Sir John Franklin and River Heights into a super-centre.

That, I argue, would meet the needs of hockey players, who typically drive to the arena, but not for the elderly, toddlers and soccer players and the kids who just kick around in the neighbourhood.

The concern is for the neighbourhoods that will see spots of green disappear or go to ruin if amalgamation wins out over community development.

Punctuating the need in some communities, last summer the provincial government announced it would spend $1.3 million to hire 20 full- and part-time recreation staff for 10 inner-city centres, allowing them to stay open longer. That funding runs out next March.

The parachuting in of capital and grant money to community centres handpicked at higher levels of government is not a strategy for sustainable municipal recreation. It is Winnipeg's responsibility to dedicate funding to keep its neighbourhoods healthy, happy places for residents.

Wasylycia-Leis' proposal is one of the first she's enunciated since jumping into the civic game this spring. It delineates the choice between Katz and the former NDP member of Parliament. It welcomes debate on the city's future.

It will lead us into the debate about taxes, city revenues and provincial control -- another story, another time.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 6, 2010 A10

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