Saturday, May 21, 2022

What Should This Municipality Do About Our Arena & Community Centre?

If you thought it was expensive to build a new library, the initial estimates for the long overdue overhaul of the Meaford & St. Vincent Community Centre may shock you.

While the $7 million cost of Meaford’s new library, completed in late 2020, was cause for significant debate with many suggesting the cost was too high, over the past few years I have cautioned that in the coming years there would be some uncomfortable conversations to be had relating to the municipal arena and community centre. The cost to overhaul and update the facility includes ensuring that the facility will comply with provincial accessibility legislation set to kick in fully in 2025. That time has arrived, after staff provided council with a report on Monday outlining the work that needs to be done on the facility, along with the estimated cost of some $12 million.

When you consider that this municipality is already grappling with the need for a replacement for the cramped municipal administration office, an estimate of nearly $2 million in order to fully replace the 54-year-old Blue Dolphin public swimming pool, and $12 million for the arena and community centre, it adds to the pressures on precious few tax dollars, particularly when core needs like road and bridge rehabilitation along with other major infrastructure costs must take priority.

The opinions on this issue are certain to be wide ranging. Two years ago, for example, then municipal Treasurer Darcy Chapman advised council that there are more than a dozen ice surfaces within a half hour drive of Meaford, and he suggested the municipality might be wise to consider getting out of the costly business of operating an arena. At the time I heard many that agreed with the suggestion, while others were outraged.

Similarly, the idea of building a brand new facility incorporating the community centre, arena, and public swimming pool, along with new municipal administration offices has been suggested a number of times, including at Monday’s council meeting. Many support the idea, though others point to a price tag that is likely to exceed $20 million for the construction of such a facility, and they balk at such a high cost for a small municipality.

While Meaford’s current arena and community centre was constructed nearly 50 years ago with a Wintario lottery grant, such funding can be hard to come by these days, and if the municipality wants to rehabilitate or replace the arena or any other facility, identifying funding sources outside of municipal tax dollars will be crucial – as was done by library supporters in the efforts to construct a new library. The users of the arena and community centre will no doubt need to launch a significant fundraising campaign to help fund rehabilitation or replacement.

Our arena is nearly 50 years old, and our public swimming pool is more than 50 years old, both are in dire need of a significant injection of funding for rehabilitation or replacement, and as a community we have some uncomfortable conversations ahead.

Should small towns like Meaford be funding money-losing facilities such as arenas, or is there a better way to approach the need for such facilities. Perhaps neighbouring communities could come together, as I have heard suggested a time or two, and one community operates an arena, while another a public pool, while another could be responsible for soccer and baseball fields. It is a suggestion I have heard a number of times, and though I have my doubts about how such an arrangement would work, it is certainly worth exploring, as none of these facilities are cheap, and small municipalities simply don’t have the resources to be everything to everyone.

Naturally, when the idea of Meaford residents utilizing an arena 20 minutes away is raised, we hear complaints that people would have to drive, and that’s not fair, and what about people without vehicles? The reality is that very few are within walking distance of the arena to begin with, and from what I understand, few walk to their hockey games or figure skating classes anyway. We in rural communities are quite used to the reality that for some things we simply must drive elsewhere: have you ever tried to buy a suit in Meaford for example? Anyone have any luck finding hockey equipment like skates or helmets in Meaford? Heck, you can’t even buy a hockey stick in this community.

Sometimes we forget that we are a small, rural municipality, and some of the bells and whistles are simply out of our price range, which is why regional facilities exists.

Similarly, the suggestion that multiple facilities be combined into one brand new one stop shop for the arena, swimming pool, community centre, and administration offices makes sense, though as mentioned, the cost would be major, and would require the support of a number of local stakeholders, not to mention the ratepayers who would have to foot the bill.

So the conversation has begun, and the report presented to council on Monday is a great way to begin a conversation that will at times be uncomfortable, but as a community we need to come to a decision about how much we can invest into the old arena.

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