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Editorials

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Delay is no longer an option

Posted: 11/22/2012 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

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The City of Winnipeg must get serious -- and creative -- about the crisis facing the community's indoor skating rinks, most of which are on the verge of collapse.

The city has known the crunch was coming for more than a decade, but it has averted its gaze, choosing instead to keep the old plants alive with little more than duct tape and prayer.

According to a study by the Province of Manitoba, the average lifespan of an arena is 32 years, but most facilities in Winnipeg have been around for more than 40 years. Some are on their last legs and could fail at any time.

Seven years ago, the city adopted a policy that aimed "to eliminate or reduce its role as a direct provider over time, while ensuring that the number of arenas remains within the facility-to-population ratio," or about one sheet of indoor ice for every 17,500 citizens.

The plan was to engage the private sector and community groups, but it took another five years before the city decided it would issue a formal call for expressions of interest, which it finally did in October 2011.

The city received eight responses, but, not surprisingly, none of them was prepared to lift the city's burden. Some were prepared to take on a paid management role, but no one offered to spend a dime on building new facilities because the cost was prohibitive.

The city says it will work with the respondents to see if they can refine their business plans, but it's just another delaying tactic.

The new trend in community arenas is to build facilities with two, three or even four sheets of ice. One private facility in Winnipeg has three sheets of ice and an indoor soccer pitch, which can be rented for other sports and even social gatherings.

Regina recently built a $55-million six-plex facility for hockey, curling and other events, with help from the province and Ottawa under a national infrastructure program. The facility is managed by a non-profit group.

The larger size offers higher economies of scale by attracting more people and creating opportunities for ancillary businesses, such as restaurants, lounges, daycares and other services. Naming rights would also be more valuable in a larger facility.

A single refrigeration plant could serve multiple sheets of ice, as well as being more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly. Most of the older plants use ammonia or freon as a coolant.

The problem, of course, is the high cost of building indoor arenas. A complex with three ice sheets and a soccer pitch, for example, could cost $30 million.

The city doesn't have that kind of money, particularly if it had to replace 30 sheets of ice over the next decade, which is why it needs to get to work on a long-term business plan that involves higher revenues and professional management.

Above all, the city needs to be creative in seeking new partners and business opportunities. Saskatoon, for example, found an advantage in building an indoor soccer pitch next to a school.

Doing nothing is not an alternative. The city says it could cost $52 million over 10 years to maintain its arenas in their current form, or $80 million to improve them, but eventually the city will face a much larger bill.

Arenas aren't essential infrastructure such as bridges, roads and public transit, but in Canada they are part of the culture and quality of life. Some 10,000 Winnipeg kids are involved in minor hockey alone, but the popularity of the game is growing rapidly among girls and women, too. There is even a demand for co-ed hockey.

The point is the need for quality indoor ice is rising, even as the calibre of the facilities declines.

Winnipeg's problem is not unique -- every city in Canada is struggling with ancient facilities -- which suggests a special federal-provincial infrastructure program might be in order.

As usual, there are more needs than money to go around, but the city is skating on thin ice if it plans to stickhandle around the problem forever.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 22, 2012 A14

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