WINDSOR, N.S. — On Aug. 7, Windsor council cancelled the $12.5 (plus) million arena project. Mayor Anna Allen cited cost overruns as one of the reasons for the decision. But another part of the political calculus was the philosophical rift that had developed between community members.
Some were in favour of a new facility near Long Pond, where the game of hockey is said to have originated. The project would have included a walking track, and locations set aside for artifacts from hockey history.
At the same time, many were against the location, saying it would have cost too much money to build and maintain a facility there, especially when other potential sites were available.
In the end, council’s latest attempt to build a new hockey facility for the area has concluded with no new facility in sight.
So what’s next for ice hockey in the Birthplace of Hockey?
Paul Phillips, president of the West Hants Minor Hockey Association, said he was disappointed to see the new Long Pond Arena project get cancelled, especially as their concerns over long-term ice time needs continue to grow.
“Although it would have been nice to see the arena go up near or around Long Pond, we were never concerned about the tourism or location aspect as long as the arena was built soon and costs were kept at or around the same as our current facilities,” Phillips said. “We have said all along that all we need is a new or like-new arena that was affordable and sustainable for our membership long term.”
Phillips said ice time costs at the Hants Exhibition Arena are expected to rise significantly, which could put a strain on their membership.
“We, and the other ice users in the region, need two ice surfaces to meet the needs of our members,” he said. “As we saw when the Newport GFL Centre collapsed, one ice surface is not enough for all the users.”
The GFL Newport Recreation Centre, then called the Newport and District Rink, collapsed in 2015, which lead to many organizations seeking alternative ice surfaces. The result was increased travel costs.
Phillips said if the region is reduced to one ice surface again, they would likely see a decrease in their membership.
Still, he’s optimistic that something can happen to alleviate arena-users’ concerns.
“We hope that another arena project gets proposed in the area as soon as possible,” he said. “We would get behind any project that would give our members a long-term affordable and sustainable facility. We had already committed to help support the Long Pond project if it went ahead and will do the same if a new project goes forward.”
A responsible decision
Lisa Hines, president of Windsor Agricultural Society and general manager of the Hants County Exhibition, said council’s decision was sensible given the mounting costs.
“I think it was a decision that had to be made. The project as it stood did not seem affordable or viable or a sustainable project,” Hines said. “Pulling the plug seemed to be the only sensible and responsible thing that could happen.”
Hines said the future of hockey in the town remains up in the air. The agricultural society has a two-year lease agreement with the town to operate an ice surface out of the Hants Exhibition Arena. This is for the 2018/19 and 2019/20 seasons.
Come springtime 2020, there’s a question mark for what will happen to that arena — as there are some major maintenance items on deck, including the potential need for a new ice plant.
“I would like to see a solution that is sensible, cost effective and meets the needs of a variety of users,” she said.
“If that’s something that can happen on our grounds, I think it would be great. There’s a much broader swath of the population that could benefit from a facility there,” she continued.
“We are open to talking (to the town) about the best way forward, whatever that may be.”
She said a new facility would be more likely to come to fruition once the two municipal units merge.
“The municipality has always been very supportive of what we do, they appreciate what we bring to the community,” she said.
The Windsor Agricultural Society brought an alternative arena option forward during the Long Pond Heritage Arena discussions. Hines said they did so after receiving feedback from the public that they had concerns about the affordability and logistics of a project at Long Pond.
The exhibition option was compared with the Long Pond option in a feasibility study — both sites had pros and cons. The ensuing debate created a philosophical rift amongst stakeholders and the public.
Hines said they didn’t offer up the option to sabotage the project but wanted to provide a potentially more sustainable option.
“To some degree we have been vilified by that, but it was done for the right reason,” she said. “We’re not the bad guys here.”
‘It just wasn’t possible’
Hants West MLA Chuck Porter said he was disappointed to hear the news about the proposed arena being scrapped, but understood council’s decision.
“I can certainly appreciate their position given the financial burden,” Porter said. “They’ve put a lot into it, but at the end of the day they made a decision.”
Porter said the province was unable to increase their $3 million contribution to the project because it was tied to the federal Small Communities Fund.
“I know they asked for more, and it would have been nice to, but these funds are linked to a specific program,” he said. “It just wasn’t possible.”
Porter said he remains hopeful that an arena project of some form will happen at some point, noting that he helped initiate the most recent effort approximately five years ago.
“We need a new facility here; I don’t know how much longer the old arena will be able to work for us,” he said. “I hope we can get something done in the near future.”
Trina Norman, president of the Windsor Hockey Heritage Society, which recently committed a $25,000 pledge to the project, said she was devastated by the news.
“Of course we are disappointed that the project was stopped. We had looked forward to contributing both with our donation and with artifacts that would have been displayed throughout the building,” Norman said. “We appreciate that the town was put in a untenable position and really had no other option at the time.”
Update - MP says window for funding still open
In a letter to the Town of Windsor and Municipality of the District of West Hants, Kings-Hants MP Scott Brison said there's still a chance to build an ice surface with another proposal.
"It is my hope that in the next few days a ‘Plan B’ project can be formulated for the $3 million provincial funding and a possible $3 million federal contribution toward a hockey project in Windsor-West Hants," Brison said in the letter. "While I understand that some view events to date as tragic, the real tragedy will be the loss of a $6 million investment in Windsor-West Hants. There is no certainty when funding opportunities like this will align again."
In the letter, Brison recounted recent efforts to building a hockey project in the Windsor area to honour the area's history with the sport.
"I know that these efforts have created both excitement and disappointment as well as frustration and have led to disagreement among elected officials and citizens alike on the best path forward," Brison said in the letter. "There are historical elements of hockey that deserve to be celebrated in the community and there are also the practical needs of a community that has a near 40 year old arena."
Brison said the ideal envelope to seek federal funding for this type of project is the Small Communities Fund of the New Build Canada Fund.
The deadline for the dollars in this fund to be allocated to projects was April 1, 2018, but that deadline has been extended by a year to April 1, 2019.
The extension stipulated a requirement that all provinces submit project applications by Sept. 15, 2018. Approved projects must reach substantial completion by March 31, 2023.
"The opportunity remains for a project to still be submitted for consideration for federal funding. In January 2016, Premier McNeil committed $3 million to a hockey project in Windsor. I have confirmed that his commitment stands and there is still a window before the Sept. 15, 2018 submission date to Infrastructure Canada to propose a viable project. But that window is now days, not weeks."