December 12, 2018

Winnipeg
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City rec facilities crumbling

Emergency closures looming as buildings near end-of-life stage

St. James council candidate Kurt Morton, sitting at a playground at Marjorie Park on Marjorie Street, says recreation infrastructure hasn't been a city priority for years. 
 RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

St. James council candidate Kurt Morton, sitting at a playground at Marjorie Park on Marjorie Street, says recreation infrastructure hasn't been a city priority for years. RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Throughout Winnipeg, decades-old community assets — pools, arenas and recreation and leisure centres — are deteriorating so quickly that service disruptions are inevitable.

Meanwhile, the city’s community services department, which is responsible for managing those assets, operates with an annual deficit of roughly $80 million, meaning there are scant resources to do little more than bail water on a sinking ship.

Soon, Winnipeggers will have a choice: fewer community services or higher costs.

“It poses a huge challenge because we have very limited dollars that we have to invest in our existing facilities. We also have growing demands for new amenities in new areas. We have to be very strategic,” said Ken McKim, manager of asset management for the department.

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Throughout Winnipeg, decades-old community assets — pools, arenas and recreation and leisure centres — are deteriorating so quickly that service disruptions are inevitable.

Meanwhile, the city’s community services department, which is responsible for managing those assets, operates with an annual deficit of roughly $80 million, meaning there are scant resources to do little more than bail water on a sinking ship.

Soon, Winnipeggers will have a choice: fewer community services or higher costs.

"It poses a huge challenge because we have very limited dollars that we have to invest in our existing facilities. We also have growing demands for new amenities in new areas. We have to be very strategic," said Ken McKim, manager of asset management for the department.

The 2018 municipal infrastructure report shows a "significant number" of Winnipeg’s community services are in "poor to very poor condition." The average remaining lifespan of the assets is 12 years.

Most of Winnipeg’s recreation, leisure and community centres, indoor, outdoor and wading pools, spray pads and arenas were built before 1972 when the city amalgamated.

"Over the years, insufficient capital and operational investments have led to the deterioration of these assets and their building systems. Functional obsolescence and poor physical accessibility further compromises the ability of existing assets to adequately meet current service level needs," the infrastructure report says.

'A lot of councillors are willing to admit that we have a recreation infrastructure deficit, but there aren’t a lot of councillors… who are willing to put the money into it' - Kurt Morton, council candidate in the St. James ward

The Norwood and Sherbrook pools, as well as the Notre Dame Recreation Centre in St. Boniface, are three examples: all have had significant service disruptions.

The Sherbrook Pool was supposed to be temporarily closed in November 2012. What was anticipated to be a quick fix, however, turned into a four-year closure as more problems were discovered. The pool didn’t reopen until January 2017.

The Norwood Pool, which the city is considering shutting down, has become a municipal election issue. Mayoral candidate Jenny Motkaluk and St. Boniface candidate Marcel Boille have promised to fight to keep the pool open if they’re elected.

That was welcome news to Monique LaCoste, chairwoman of the Save Norwood Pool Committee. She said she recognizes the "issues facing the Norwood Pool are not unique" and are "consistent with larger issues around Winnipeg."

The Norwood Pool, which the city is considering shutting down, has become an election issue.  RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The Norwood Pool, which the city is considering shutting down, has become an election issue. RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The city is looking at decommissioning the pool due to structural problems caused by rising ground water. The administration says it can’t afford the annual repairs when balanced against other recreational concerns. But for LaCoste, and many others in her neighbourhood, it’s an investment the city can’t afford not to make.

"Active living is a big part of the lifestyle in Norwood. We have tennis courts. We have the pool and basketball courts. People use these amenities. We consider the pool a really important part of the fabric of this community," LaCoste said.

"We think it contributes to strong property values and it has a certain stabilizing effect on the city’s development as well. To me, recreation is one of the main ways the city can speak to and improve the quality of life of its citizens. In my mind, we can’t afford not to invest in these things."

However, McKim said Winnipeggers should prepare themselves for more service disruptions.

"The city is budgeting roughly $800 million less than what we need to meet best practices over a 10-year period. Basically, we have $80 million less than we need every year," McKim said.

"There’s been a lot of dialogue about roads. That’s certainly an important service. But we’re reaching a point where we’re going to have to have some tough conversations about whether recreation is important to Winnipeggers."

Kurt Morton, a council candidate in the St. James ward, said recreation infrastructure has not been a priority for years.

(ImageTagFull)In his teenage years, Morton was a competitive swimmer, which means he saw the city’s deteriorating swimming pools up close. As an adult, he landed a job with the city — first as a lifeguard and later as a pool maintenance worker — which reaffirmed his suspicions about the state of Winnipeg’s recreation infrastructure.

"A lot of councillors are willing to admit that we have a recreation infrastructure deficit, but there aren’t a lot of councillors… who are willing to put the money into it," Morton said.

"We’re dumping money into a series of patch jobs. In the end, we spend as much money as we would have if we did a one-time investment of creating a new facility."

Addressing the state of the city’s recreation infrastructure has become a major campaign plank for Morton, who is focused on improving parks, pools, community centres and libraries.

He points out that as Winnipeg expands, and demand for facilities in new neighbourhoods grows, budget freezes in the community services department are essentially funding cuts.

"Right now a lot of buildings still function, but it’s going to be in the next five to 10 years that a lot of them reach the end of their useful life. There will be emergency closures. That’s when council is going to really start to take notice," Morton said.

McKim agrees that service disruptions are inevitable. That’s why the city is funding a study, set for release in 2019, that will take a closer look at recreation infrastructure and parks.

During the second phase of public consultations for the study, McKim said his department will have to ask Winnipeggers some tough questions.

"The current situation isn’t sustainable. So we’ll have to ask people what they expect for services and what they’re willing to pay for. We’ll have to ask what potential tradeoffs they’re willing to make to get the desired level of service," he said.

Whether or not he’s elected to represent St. James, Morton hopes the next council makes it a priority to address the state of recreation infrastructure.

He believes money spent on arenas, splash pads, pools and parks is an investment in the health of the community itself.

"Money put into those things gets put back into the community in the form of better physical health, better mental health. It’s a huge part of citizen’s lives and there’s a wide generational spread. It’s appealing to seniors, it’s appealing to adults, it’s appealing to kids. It’s how we teach them to swim and get the family out of the house for a cheap, fun activity," Morton said.

"It’s more than just providing a pool or an arena. These are true community hubs and it’s important that the city views them as important spaces."

ryan.thorpe@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @rk_thorpe

Ryan Thorpe

Ryan Thorpe
Reporter

Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.

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