Cobden – Whitewater Region council has approved a recommendation to only have one arena operational for the 2023-2024 winter season with the caveat the issue will be re-examined by September if it appears there is a need to operate a second arena.

“It is not just two facilities, but we have three facilities basically with a lot of failing infrastructure in it,” said Councillor Mark Bell, the recreation lead, during a meeting of council. “Obviously the demand has been falling and it looks like that is going to increase with the opening of Ma-Te-Way.”

Several teams are transitioning most or all of their ice time to the new ice pad in Renfrew at Ma-Te-Way and this is heavily impacting the ice usage in Whitewater Region, he said. 

The recommendation approved by council would have the Astrolabe Arena in Cobden open in September and if needed Westmeath could open in October.  

“This is probably one of the most emotional decisions we have had to come to since my nine years on council,” Councillor Chris Olmstead said. “I was really hoping this day would never come.”

He said there is a sentiment the township took over the facilities in 2017 and is now closing them. However, he said it was really delaying the inevitable because many of the recreation groups which were running the facilities until 2017 were at the point of closing them. 

“We delayed,” he said. “We stayed open as long as we could. The tipping point is really Ma-Te-Way coming along and taking half of our prime-time users.”

He said he has played Sunday morning hockey in Beachburg and Westmeath and sees what the demand is on the facilities. It is about usage at the facilities or the burden on the municipal taxbase is too great. 

“You got to have users,” he said. “The taxpayers did not like the nine percent tax increase this year.”

The municipality has three arenas – Cobden, Beachburg and Westmeath – but in recent years the three facilities have not been open. Last season Cobden and Westmeath were operational. 

A report to Whitewater Region council showed if the three arenas were operating, there would be a deficit of $353,700. It would cost $622,300 to keep all the facilities open but the anticipated revenue was only $268,800, based on previous season rentals. 

This year there is uncertainty of how busy the three rinks would be with staff reporting one rink would be at 109 percent utilization, two rinks at 56 percent and three rinks at 39 percent. While some users have indicated they anticipated reduced use, other organizations are anticipating an increase in usage.

“Uncertainty will remain until the Parks and Recreation Department commences engaging in July with users relating to their user agreements and the registration numbers with hockey associations,” a report from staff noted. 

As well, it was pointed out even if the Beachburg and Westmeath facilities were not being operated as an ice facility, the township’s operating cost remains in the range of $100,000-$120,000. 

Engaging

This report follows on a May resolution asking for staff to engage with the Westmeath, Cobden and Beachburg recreation association, Muskrat Minor Hockey Association and the Beachburg Agricultural Society. As well staff were to consult with local school boards, independent hockey associations and the Town of Renfrew. CAO Ivan Burton said he also spoke with representatives from the ringette association and the Aces minor hockey team. 

If the township were to go to only one arena there would be an impact on public skating. There would also be an impact in Beachburg during the winter festival, he added. 

Mayor Neil Nicholson, who was involved in the discussions with users of the facility and recreation groups, said the efforts of those who built the arenas need to be recognized. 

“Recreation is an important part of the township and we cannot lose sight of just how much our volunteer community organizations carried this function for our residents over the past 50 years,” he said. 

“We have had unfettered and full access to some of the most incredible arenas since the 1960s,” he said.
Very little of this was due to tax dollars and the township but this was about community fundraising, the mayor said. 

“These were fundraised, built and run by community,” he said. “Unfortunately, the realities of aging infrastructure and rising costs and decreasing users and a decreasing volunteer base have all led to the township taking responsibility for rink operations in 2017.”

It was noted in the report the arena usage has not fully recovered from pre-pandemic numbers and the past season is not fully representative. There is anticipated increase in users in the younger age groups. At the same time there are accessibility and accommodation concerns at all facilities, including the number of dressing rooms. 

The recommendation to council was to hire staff this summer, commence ice operations in Cobden in September and report to council if there is anticipated demand and a need for a second ice facility. If a second ice facility is needed, it could open in October. 

Coun. Bell said following this policy was a good use of taxpayer dollars and he was pleased there was the caveat to re-examine the issue in September if there is a call for more ice time in the fall. 

Councillor Joey Trimm, who seconded the motion, said this was a very emotional topic for people who had worked their whole lives to make the facilities a reality. 

“What would trigger the decision to open Westmeath in October?” he questioned. 

“There are going to be people who would want that to happen and like to know what they can do to get that to happen,” he said. 

CAO Burton said looking at the potential usage needs in the fall will determine if a second facility is recommended to open. 

“We want to avoid the single bookings of an hour or an hour-and-a half on a weekday,” he said, noting staff would have to be in place then. 

The report in the fall would look at the demand and cost for a second facility. It would show the revenue and cost, the CAO said. 

Mayor Nicholson called for a vote and concluded the discussions, saying council needs to look at the vision for the future.

 “What are we building for 20 years from now?” he asked. “And how do we shape that budgeting, policies, those aspects from a recreation and a culture perspective in the community?”

By Debbi Christinck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Jul 13, 2023 at 13:24

This item reprinted with permission from   The Eganville Leader   Eganville, Ontario
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