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Rental fee hike gets cold reception

A sport known for its battles is taking the fight off the ice, trying to curtail increases in rental rates at Woolwich facilities, particularly the Dan Snyder Memorial Arena.

Led by the Woolwich Minor Hockey Association, user groups see the price hikes, already approved in principle by council, as prohibitive. The issue has inflamed grievances about some of the practices at the new Woolwich Memorial Centre (WMC).

Concerned residents who addressed councillors Tuesday night got no satisfaction, however, as a motion to reconsider rental rates failed to generate enough support.

The township plans to increase the cost of primetime ice in two of its arenas – St. Jacobs and the Jim McLeod pad at the WMC – to $181.41 an hour from $175.24, a jump of 3.5 per cent. More contentious is a plan to boost the cost of ice at the Dan Snyder Arena to $199.11 per hour, up 13.6 per cent.

That two-tiered pricing has users up in arms, calling on the township to find cost-savings elsewhere to eliminate the disparity planned for next fall.

Elmira resident Rob Waters, armed with computer spreadsheets, suggested councillors look at staffing costs, which are projected to rise by $367,000 this year, largely at the WMC. While revenues at the new facility are up 21 per cent over budget forecasts – showing the community’s willingness to support the twin ice pads once opposed by council – expenses have risen more dramatically.

“Do we really need $367,000 more in staffing? I don’t think it’s all necessary,” he said.

Acknowledging that the township told arena user groups fees would have to increase to pay for the new facility, Waters said the 54 per cent increase in ice rates over the last five years can’t be maintained without a serious impact on minor sports groups.

“Overall, the sentiment is one of frustration with the increase. We need to find a solution now to end this trend.”

Hiking the cost of the Dan Snyder Arena would force users to request time at the other two ice pads instead, ultimately reducing revenues for that arena. The increases would make the ice pad less accessible.

“Every kid wants to play there because that’s their ACC,” he said, likening the arena to the Air Canada Centre, home of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

For the Elmira Sugar Kings, which must play its games and hold its practices in the Snyder arena, the new rates would cause an economic hardship, said president Jeff Seddon. Added to the loss of a 20-per-cent subsidy phased out since 2005, extra expenses related to referee charges from the Ontario Hockey Association and the poor revenues from the old Elmira Arena, the club has lost $20,000 in the last two years.

The new ice fees would add $4,500 in costs, he predicted.

Compounding the problem is a proposal to charge the team for office and dressing room space at the WMC, a potential bill for $12,000 a year. The club paid nothing for a similar arrangement at the old arena.

“We can’t afford to keep paying that kind of money. We have to be able to work something out.”

Long-term viability was on the mind of Jim Radcliffe, president of Woolwich Minor Hockey Association, which has faced budget problems since fees began to climb steeply five years ago – “we’ve always been concerned about rates in Woolwich.”

Even with a subsidy of 30 per cent, the local hockey group is paying 22 to 48 per cent more than organizations in neighbouring communities, when overall rates and subsidies are worked into the equation, he said.

“It’s hard to be competitive with those numbers.”

Pressed by Coun. Murray Martin to indicate where the money will come from if the rates aren’t increased to meet costs, Radcliffe pointed to cost-cutting measures, increased rentals and revenue-generating options such as rink-board advertising.

Those suggestions were a common theme during presentations at Tuesday night’s council meeting.

Waters, for instance, calculated the additional $17.70 per hour spread between the proposed cost of the Snyder arena and the other two would amount to $34,000 over the course of the ice season, adding that sum could be made up by making better use of the St. Jacobs facility or cutting costs at the WMC.

While open to suggestions from the community groups, director of recreation and facilities Larry Devitt said in a later interview that some of the information presented Tuesday night was based on incomplete facts.

Some of the information needed to assess the efficiencies at the WMC won’t be known to the township until after the facility’s first full year of operation, he noted.

Issues such as staffing numbers, operator training and ongoing mechanical deficiencies have added to the frustration level. Expenses are up for staffing, utilities and other operational components. There have been technical problems, and issues with getting staff up to speed on the new building, he admitted.

Some of that was expected and other problems were unforeseen.

“This is a different beast. This is not the Elmira Arena and the Elmira pool anymore. You can’t simply compare the two … to the new facility.”

While the public has high expectations for the WMC, there is a learning curve. And it will take a bit more time to work through some of the glitches, he added. The general contractor is now working with the trades to solve the mechanical difficulties that have led to soft ice in the Snyder arena, for instance.

On the issue of tiered rates for the arenas, he said the practice is common in other municipalities. Ultimately, the decision will be a political one. In order to overturn the previous support for the new fees, two-thirds of council would have to support that move; this week, only three of five did so – Mayor Bill Strauss and Martin were opposed – so the motion failed. However, the 2010 budget is due to be discussed again next Tuesday night prior to final approval.

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