Is it time to say goodbye to community rinks?

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As Gatineau moves forward with its plan to build multi-skate ice-skating facilities and demolish old neighborhood rinks, Ottawa’s neighbor is crushing diversity in hockey, disrupting neighborhood concept 15 minutes, stifles creativity and ends a Canadian tradition.

Moreover, national statistics show that this trend could sweep the country. Many communities from coast to coast have one thing in common: the local barn. For residents who have their arena – even those in need of repairs – the neighborhood arena holds a special place in their hearts. Like the grocery store, it is a meeting point, sometimes more so than the community center or the town hall. Parents, children and residents of all ages converge on the arena; they play, talk about the weather and the shortcomings of the Senses, while building a community.

This image of the Center Robert-Guertin in Vieux-Hull by Christian Villemaire was part of his 2018 exhibition which explored the changing nature of Gatineau.

But recently, in an effort to reduce construction and maintenance costs that total nearly $5 million, Gatineau is working with the private sector to consolidate and centralize skating surfaces under large roofs. Examples include Center Branchaud Brière, which was built in 2013, and Center Slush Puppie, which opened last year. These types of centers are growing in popularity; in Ottawa, there are the three Sensplex rinks to the east, west and northwest. While residents can still congregate in these cross-platform arenas, the sense of belonging certainly differs. The intimacy of a small arena is missing from a large complex, where it’s not as easy to spot a familiar face, simply because there are more people coming and going. In short, the well-known characters often present in the stands, the canteen or the pro-shop will be lost in the crowd.

The trend in the 1970s and 1980s was to build arenas in residential neighborhoods, the current trend is to build large complexes with a minimum of two rinks along major road arteries, serving a much larger population. This is in addition to the demolition of aging neighborhood community arenas, which become more difficult and expensive to maintain, if they are not in poor condition.

This evolving situation forces an overwhelming number of users to drive to get to the rink. This certainly discourages active transportation and goes against the urban concept of the city in 15 minutes which promotes proximity and walking. Walk to local arena with sound
equipment, whether for an early morning workout or meeting friends in the evening to skate in public, may soon be a thing of the past.

Last fall, Gatineau closed the Robert-Guertin Center in Old Hull, stripping the only arena of its oldest neighborhood. The municipality also plans to close the Beaudry, Baribeau and Campeau arenas in the very near future. A municipal report commissioned in 2017
prepared by the firm Planifika recommends the demolition of eight of Gatineau’s then ten arenas by 2027. To replace this lost ice time, the city wants to build another sports complex in or near the suburb of the Plateau residents already depend on a vehicle to get around. For those who
don’t have a vehicle, ice skating sports will become even more difficult to afford.

A Canadian problem?
The management of aging arenas is not unique to Gatineau. According to the most recent National Arena Census, conducted in 2005, of the 1,857 Canadian arenas surveyed, approximately 45% of Canada’s rinks had already exceeded their expected lifespan. The report
states that the approximate life expectancy of an arena is 32 years. Of the 1,857 arenas included in the census, about 85% are owned by the municipality, making their future a municipal affair and one that citizens can influence. The decision to move or demolish arenas is often made by city council.

Travel is already a significant barrier for new families and low-income families who want to afford hockey. Racialized or marginalized community members seeking to enter the sport of ice skating face many barriers. Along with the financial burden, there’s transportation: when a local arena closes, the extra travel time can stretch a family’s ability to support young players.

Having the arena outside of residential neighborhoods also makes those late night beer leagues less appealing. Traveling an extra 15 minutes one way to play a game at 11 p.m., instead of the short drive to
a local rink, may deter older players from participating in Canada’s national winter sport.

When the local arena, as many have, has lost its usefulness, municipalities can consolidate other municipal services, such as a branch library, community center, with the new arena. Creating adjacent commercial space to house a gym, restaurant or even a pub (selling the local beer of course) could be another way to generate funds to maintain an arena. As most skaters rent the ice surface for an hour, there is a constant flow of traffic; commercial space in an arena might be considered desirable for cafes, bakeries, and casual dining. The
commercial rent can in turn help with maintenance. Last September, construction began on a facility at Wasaga Beach that will house two skating rinks, a library and meeting rooms. The mayor presented the project as an economic driver for local businesses, as the tournaments
would bring customers to surrounding businesses.

With a little imagination and creativity, policy makers can come up with solutions to keep arenas nestled in different neighborhoods and maintain the Canadian tradition of the local barn. If all else fails, there’s always the Hockeyville grand prize of $250,000 in arena upgrades. Better start working on that nomination, the competition is fierce.

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