Councillor wants Winnipeg community groups to take over city-owned arenas

By | May 14, 2020

A Winnipeg city councillor is asking the city to hand over management of old municipally-owned hockey arenas to not-for-profits and community groups, but some worry the proposal could backfire or increase barriers to ice time for youth.

Coun. Kevin Klein (Charleswood-Tuxedo) tabled a motion Thursday during a meeting of the standing policy committee on protection, community services and parks asking the city to open a request for proposals to take over city arenas.

“This is truly meant to give the communities an opportunity to begin discussion with the public service to assume the management responsibilities of the facilities,” Klein said. 

“I think we have to do it as a partnership as opposed to selling privately.”

Several city-owned rinks are getting on in age and are badly in need of repairs that the city has struggled to afford for years. Forty per cent are considered in very poor condition while the remaining 60 per cent are listed as in poor condition, according to a 2018 city infrastructure report.

There are 44 sheets of ice in and around Winnipeg city limits. Community centres manage 22 sheets of ice at 16 sites and private organizations manage another 10 sheets at five sites, while the city owns and runs 12 arenas.

But the operating costs have become increasingly challenging for the city to manage, especially in recent years as city administrators have been ordered to find savings amid budget freezes.

Kevin Klein (Charleswood-Tuxedo) said he wants to give community groups first dibs on any requests for proposals to take over arenas. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

In one recent example, last November the city suggested it might have to keep Terry Sawchuk Arena closed to rein in spending.

The community groups would be required to raise funds for facility improvements, said Klein, and to pay city staff who are certified to do things like operate Zambonis and perform ice maintenance. 

Klein said free ice time and learn-to-skate programming is important and he would expect any agreements with community groups would ensure new management keeps them going.

Lingering questions

Council voted to accept the motion as information, effectively taking no action or shelving the motion. Several councillors questioned details of Klein’s plan.

Coun. Brian Mayes (St. Vital) agreed it’s time to reopen the debate on city-owned arenas, saying the last time it was on the agenda was April 2010.

Coun. Brian Mayes said it’s time to debate what to do about city-owned arenas. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

The city closed three arenas in 2013 hoping to make money from those land sales, but that didn’t happen. Old Ex and Michener arenas haven’t sold, and Vimy was sold for $1 to a group that plans to create an addiciton recovery centre.

“So that’s not the easy way out,” said Mayes. “I don’t want to give a blanket endorsement of what Coun. Klein is necessarily saying.”

Coun. Orlikow suggested there are avenues already in place for community groups to lobby to take over management of centres and arenas.

“That’s why I found this motion a little strange.”

Despite Klein stating his intention with the motion was to enlist community groups to take over, several speakers raised concerns about privatization.

If arena management and operations were to be privatized or handed over to specific community groups, Mike Sutherland with the Manitoba Aboriginal Sports & Recreation Council worries it could create higher costs and other barriers for Indigenous youth who rely on the city arenas for core programming.

“It is imperative that the city improves and maintains current facilities and keeps open the arenas located in the centre of our city and towards the North End,” he said

“Closing and privatizing the centrally located arenas in favour of  large new multi-plexes will make accessibility, increased travel and cost out of reach for many of our families.”

Challenges facing inner-city groups

The president of CUPE Local 500, which represents some city workers, suggested the content and timing of the motion is off give the financial crisis facing the city amid the pandemic.

Gord Delbridge said Klein’s motion could unintentionally pit community groups against each other. Such groups have their own needs and concerns, as opposed to the city which takes a broader approach to providing diverse services, including learn-to-skate and public skating programs, he said.

“[These programs] really offer very little to no revenue and we shouldn’t be looking at the operation of these facilities as operating a business. It’s providing a service for the public,” he said.

“We shouldn’t be shifting additional responsibilities and burdens of operating these facilities.”

Social Planning Council’s Josh Brandon worries Klein’s motion could result in a two-tiered system, where some community-run or arenas with more resources end up OK but others suffer. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Community groups in low income neighbourhoods might not be in a position to step forward and shoulder more responsibility but nonetheless still rely on city-run arenas, said Josh Brandon with the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg.

“We have decades of social science research that has shown that when one part of a public system is privatized the remaining part of the public sector receives less attention and resources,” he said.

“The inner city neighbourhoods, for example, who already face enormous community challenges, would be forced to advocate on their own for funding and prioritization. This could lead to an ongoing decline of those facilities.”

Council is expected to receive a revamped strategies report on arenas this fall that is separate to Klein’s motion.

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