C-K arenas at crossroads

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Increased costs, decreased usage cost taxpayers
Increased costs, decreased usage cost taxpayers

Scott Mailing knows the value of an arena to a community.

He also knows the challenges facing Chatham-Kent in keeping its 10 arenas open.

What he doesn’t know is how it’s going to be possible.

For the past several years, Mailing, Chatham-Kent’s Manager of Recreation Facilities, has been implementing cost-cutting and consolidation measures.

“We’ve pretty well taken (operations) down to the bone,” he said. “Over the past few years we’ve cut full time staffing by about 20 per cent, we’ve adjusted times buildings are open, saved thousands through energy conservation, looked at outsourcing canteens and lots of other measures. At some point we can’t cut anymore.”

Mailing said Chatham-Kent’s arenas are operating at a $1.5 million annual deficit (including lifecycle costs) that will increase if current trends continue.

Chatham-Kent Council has already identified the closure of the Bothwell arena as a possibility, causing concern in East Kent.

“I understand why people are upset,” he said. “No one wants to see their arena close. It’s a matter of finding a way to make operations affordable.”

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The crisis is being driven by decreased demand and increased costs, especially the cost of electricity.

A 2013 analysis showed unused ice time at C-K’s 10 arenas was substantial. Based on a 16 hour per day benchmark, Bothwell Arena sites idle 56.7 per cent of the time.

Wheatley (44.5) Ridgetown (43.9) Wallaceburg (43) and Dresden (42.7) all topped the 40 per cent mark for unused ice time.

In the 30 per cent or more unused category were Erickson (38.3) Chatham Memorial (34.3) and Tilbury (31.1).

Blenheim (25.8) and Thames Campus (22.5) had the lowest rate of unused ice time.

Since then, Mailing said, the figures have only gotten worse.

“We’ve been working with school boards and other users to make the rentals as attractive as possible but usage keeps declining,” he said.

Mailing said there are a variety of factors including decreases in minor sports registration and an older, smaller population.

“We’ve had minor sports organizations in smaller communities merging because they don’t have the players they once did,” he said.

Prime/adult ice time rental in 2014/15 was $207 while non prime/minor cost was $165 per hour. Five years ago those prices were $178 and $143 respectively.

Chatham Kent’s ice times include “lifecycle” costs used to defray some of the ongoing maintenance and upgrading needed while many nearby communities do not.

With the exception of Sarnia, whose prime rates are $241 (non-subsidized) and $181 (subsidized), Chatham-Kent has the highest rate west of London.

LaSalle is the only other arena above the $200 mark at $201.

Lakeshore, Windsor and Essex are between $190 and $200 while Leamington, Tecumseh and Harrow are in the $180s. Glencoe, West Lorne, Petrolia and Mooretown are in the $150 per hour range.

One item facing all arenas is the cost of electricity.

Council budgeted more than $750,000 in 2014. Hydro One increased rates by more than three percent last November and further increases are planned.

“We’ve been very aggressive with energy efficiency projects but since electricity is a corporate expense, we don’t see the savings tied directly back to our individual operations,” he said.

Mailing said the idea of outsourcing canteen operations would be re-examined at some point.

“The entire issue of having enough canteen availability when you need it but closing when you don’t has been something we’ve wrestled with so at some point it could be on the table again,” he said.

Although four of the 10 canteens lost money in 2014, collectively they had a profit of just over $5,000.

“I know that arenas are more than just places to play hockey or figure skate,” Mailing said. “We don’t want to close any facilities but the final decisions rest with the public and with council. It’s a question of what people are willing to pay for.”

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