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All smiles now as new WMC set to open (Photo Gallery)

There will be nothing but smiles when the township celebrates the official opening of the Woolwich Memorial Centre Sept. 12, but the road hasn’t always been so agreeable.

A recreation master plan approved by councillors in June 2003 called for the aging Elmira pool to be replaced in 2014, with a new arena slated for 2017. That decision set off a storm of protests from user groups, beginning a three-year process that eventually led to plans for what is now the WMC.

Eventually agreeing to build a multi-purpose recreation facility in Elmira, and to accelerate the timeline, council was then embroiled in a battle over whether the building would house one or two arenas. The debate even became an issue in the 2006 municipal election.

That process, sometimes vocal, led to a much better product in the end, suggests one of the early critics who went on to head the community’s fundraising efforts for new recreation projects, including new community centres in Maryhill and Breslau.

“The fighting and discussions from six years ago is all water under the bridge. But those early conflicts led to us having a better facility,” Paul Bossenberry said this week.

Bossenberry, chairman of the Woolwich Recreation Facility Foundation, was involved in the process from the beginning, and saw how a sometimes bitter dispute evolved into a community-wide effort with everyone reading from the same playbook.

“It’s phenomenal how the community got behind these projects. When all is said and done, everybody did a wonderful job.”

Those sentiments were echoed by Graham Snyder. At the time, he was the general manager of the Elmira Sugar Kings hockey club, and became one of the first to react to the 2017 target for a new arena.

Six years ago, he called on council to show some vision by building new and better facilities sooner rather than later. When councillors in turn asked the community groups to undertake a major fundraising drive to show their passion, Snyder, Bossenberry and a host of others answered the call.

“I think it’s wonderful. It’s really a credit to the community for getting behind it and making it a reality,” said Snyder of the effort that went into building the WMC, now open for business.

“We showed the passion … that councillors asked for.”

All told, community groups have committed more than $5.5 million toward a slate of new recreation facilities in the township, anchored by the $23-million Woolwich Memorial Centre.

That was a major accomplishment for a township the size of Woolwich, said Coun. Ruby Weber, originally the lone voice on council calling for the timely construction of a new facility, one with twin ice pads.

While its finished form isn’t exactly what all of the user groups asked for – the wish list was scaled back due to budget constraints – the final product is bound to impress, she added.

“We have a beautiful facility, and it’s going to serve our needs for quite some time.”

User groups such as the Kings, minor hockey and figure skating club that were upset with the construction timelines approved in 2003 eventually got a great deal of say in how the project came together, walking the talk by rallying behind fundraising efforts, she explained.

From the very beginning, both the timelines and budgets identified in a recreation needs study proved out of touch with the community.

“Those original budget numbers were pure fantasy,” she said of a study predicting the replacement cost of the pool and arena at $3 million apiece.

Budget forecasts that swelled as the projects drew closer were the norm for every one of the buildings, recreation or otherwise, that Woolwich has tackled in recent years.

The Woolwich Memorial Centre ended up with a budget of $22 million, up substantially from the $12 million forecast in 2005 – even without the addition of a second ice pad, the project would still be set at $18 million.
While smaller in scale, the other projects all experienced cost overrun issues.

The Breslau community centre’s original budget of $925,000 has been revised to $2.2 million.

The Maryhill Heritage Park Community Centre saw the original budget of $350,000 swell to $876,000, though actual tendered costs came in under that, at $660,000.

What was to be a small upgrade at the Woolwich Township Arena in St. Jacobs blossomed in scope and cost. With a budget that eventually hit $210,000, new estimates saw that figure revised upward to $467,000.

With most of the hard work behind it – only the Breslau centre remains outstanding, with construction due to finish by mid-December – the township is dealing only with some outstanding financing issues. More pressing right now, said Larry Devitt, is preparing for the Sept. 12 official opening of the Woolwich Memorial Centre.

Discussions with the groups that will be using the new facility show most are eager to make the move to the WMC.

“We have a good relationship with the community groups, and I think the groups will be happy with the centre.”

“I’m very excited for the public to finally see it,” added Bossenberry who, like most of those involved since the initial talks, is eager to move on to the most enjoyable part of the undertaking: using the new building.

“Many people put in a lot of time and effort. I hope everybody enjoys the facility.”
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