CBRM Council: We HEART Rinks

I can’t be the only CBRM resident struck by the contrast between our council discussing supportive housing and our council discussing rinks, as they did during last night’s meeting.

They are so much happier talking about rinks, they don’t even mind doing it in public. They just relate more to rinks: they love the volunteer boards that oversee them, they respect the hard work of the people who operate them and they freely acknowledge the needs of the people who use them.

A photo of the Emera Centre Northside, North Sydney, NS

(Source: Facebook)

They get to talk about “volunteers” who put their “heart and soul” into rinks and reminisce about their own time coaching Major Bantam hockey. They get to shudder imagining what would happen if the community rink closed. And then they get to vote to take the rink over, at a cost of $250,000 annually.

District 5 Councilor Eldon MacDonald, who expressed something akin to horror at the mere possibility the CBRM might be on the hook for cost over-runs or operational expenses associated with a supportive housing project proposed by New Dawn and the Ally Centre, agreed to take on the quarter million dollar subsidy for a rink without batting an eye. (Not to mention the general consternation caused by the estimated operating costs for a new central library which, at “up to $240,000” would be less than the rink subsidy.)


“Like a gift”

The rink in question is the Emera Centre in North Sydney and its finances have been shaky from the get-go—the non-profit Northside Community Civic Centre Society that launched the project failed to meet its $1.5 million fundraising goal for the construction of the $12 million arena and had to borrow $230,000 from the municipality to cover its share of the costs.

In 2017, the Society stopped paying off its loan, leaving a balance owing of $172,000.

A photo of CBRM Councilor Earlene MacMullin

District 2 Councilor Earlene MacMullin

In 2021, the CBRM forgave this debt. At the time, Councilor Earlene MacMullin, who represents District 2 in which the Emera Centre is located, argued that staff had already deemed the debt uncollectable, so forgiving it would cost the municipality nothing; last night, she argued that one of the attractions of taking over the facility was that it was “debt free,” leaving District 11 Councilor Darren O’Quinn to point out that it was only debt free because the CBRM had forgiven its debt.

Councilors were not nearly as sanguine about the 2021 debt forgiveness as they were about last night’s decision to take ownership of the rink and the arguments raised both for and against writing off the loan are fascinating in retrospect. As  the CBC reported at the time, some councilors who voted for the debt forgiveness argued that:

…forcing the North Sydney group to repay its loan might end up with the municipality owning another building and then being responsible for it entirely.

Councillors O’Quinn, Steve Parsons, James Edwards and Lorne Green voted against forgiving the debt, with Green telling the CBC:

Look, I’ve got a rink in my community that’s doing the same thing, suffering, and I’m sure if I was to give them $172,000, they’d be quite pleased.

Last night, concerns about other rinks boiled down to a call (from Councilor O’Quinn) to consider what could be done for them during budget talks. And all worries about “owning another building” and “being responsible for it entirely” vanished to the point where Councilor Eldon MacDonald could declare the Emera Centre was “like a gift” to the municipality.


Ice plant

But what sort of gift? That depends on whether you’re looking to unload it or take it over, apparently.

Back in February, when Emera Centre interim manager Lloyd Wilkie (who lost the District 2 council seat to MacMulllin by just five votes in 2016) was telling the CBC the rink was about to run out of money, the building was “13 years old” and there were “things that need to be replaced.”

“It seems like every time we get money something else breaks down, so we just can’t keep up,” Wilkie said.

A photo of CBRM District 7 Councilor Steve ParsonsLast night, when the CBRM was debating taking the facility over, the building was 12 years old and in “really good shape.”

District 7 Councilor Parsons, although he said he wasn’t opposed to taking ownership of the Emera Centre, did not support last night’s motion because he felt the municipality needed to do further due diligence on the building. Parsons asked about the condition of the ice plant, in particular, noting that he understood there had been problems in the past and wanting to know what kind of repairs had been done.

He was assured by Kirk Durning, director of recreation, parks and facilities, that CBRM staff had toured the building and an external contractor had looked at the roof and they were all satisfied with the rink’s condition.

The motion to take ownership of the Emera Centre was moved by Councilor MacMullin, who had to admit she’d been less than enthusiastic about the CBRM taking over sports facilities in the past, a reference to council’s 2017 decision to take over the struggling Bayplex which had been allowed to deteriorate to the point where it was deemed unsafe and closed that summer. CBRM had to come up with its share of a $10 million refit of the facility, which was built with federal monies prior to amalgamation.

But MacMullin’s fellow councilors were almost entirely sympathetic to her cause, only Parsons voted against the motion and he didn’t really oppose it, so the CBRM now owns another rink, although it will apparently continue to be called the Emera Centre for some time to come because Emera bought the naming rights for 25 years.

Councilors got to make all the right noises about retaining the Centre’s existing staff, although regional solicitor Demetri Kachafanas was pretty clear that this would not be possible, given the Emera Centre staff was not unionized and its employees have no claim to jobs within the CBRM.


Two Cents’ Worth

Council will probably argue that the difference between this debate and the debate over supportive housing is that recreation is clearly a municipal responsibility and housing is not, but I have two things to say about that.

First, recreation may be a municipal responsibility, but the Emera Centre was not a CBRM facility, so taking it over involved going above and beyond the municipality’s responsibilities.

And second, when the federal government gives you $5 million for housing, housing becomes your responsibility, and if you are not capable of accepting that responsibility, if you cannot rise to that challenge, then you should not be in government.

I don’t actually begrudge the Emera Centre this lifeline and I do understand the value of rinks to communities but if you can see the value in a rink, then you should also be able to see the value in housing for your most vulnerable citizens. How can the Emera Centre be a “gift” to the CBRM and $5 million from the federal government a burden?