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Council has little choice but to build new arena in Wellesley

Beset with a host of infrastructure projects in need of funding and perennially strapped for cash, Wellesley officials are undoubtedly not overjoyed by the prospect of having to build a new arena. Not building one isn’t an option, however.

The township has already announced it’s closing the Wellesley arena for the upcoming season, the building having been deemed unsafe. Officials knew the roof was a problem – issues were first identified in 2002, with a variety of repairs carried out over the years – but weren’t expecting leaks would render the roof a hazard that would force a closure. At this point, it seems any other repairs would be throwing away money on a stopgap measure.

The plan, then, is to replace the building, a move that will cost millions of dollars.

Built in 1977, the existing facility isn’t particularly old as arenas go, but it wasn’t constructed to premium standards – as is the case today, there was no room in the budget for the Taj Mahal. Moreover, the arena was built to the standards of the day, and the 1970s weren’t known to be either aesthetically pleasing or energy efficient. It’s a simple steel structure with little insulation and a design that wasn’t helpful when it came to keeping the roof in good repair.

A new arena will be much more energy efficient, driving down operating costs at the very least. Its design will have to take into account decades of use, as is not a project the township wants to repeat any time soon.

Closing the arena and foregoing a new one would be the cheapest alternative, both in terms of capital spending and operational costs, but that’s not really an option given the demand for ice sports. Hockey, in particular, is our national obsession, a defining part of our character.

Yes, the project will be expensive. And yes the township has other capital needs. But few things are as quintessentially Canadian as ice sports, particularly hockey. In the same vein, arenas tend to be focal points in small communities across the country. What would a town be without an arena?

That’s not a question Wellesley wants to ask, as councillors this week voted to allocate up to $150,000 to prepare design and construction drawings for a new arena, the money drawn from the gas-tax revenue the township receives from Ottawa.

Having the plans in place will help Wellesley as it looks to the federal and provincial governments for funding for the project – such monies are essential, as there will be no new arena otherwise, at least not in any workable timeframe. The township has, in fact, heard there will be an opportunity to apply for funding for recreation facilities this fall, with funding from Ottawa and Queen’s Park to cover two-thirds of the cost of a new arena. Since such funds are more often awarded to so-called shovel-ready projects – those with planning and engineering already done – Wellesley’s prep work is a good investment.

The township is probably well advised to look to the community for financial support, as well, with service clubs and the user groups themselves as the likeliest candidates for aid. Developing concrete plans for a new facility would undoubtedly spark the public’s imagination. Community members, individual residents and businesspeople alike should be counted on to help the cause.

Council’s job is to provide the leadership – and the initial seed money. Councillors will also have to bring pressure to bear on the upper levels of government to contribute infrastructure funds to this project, along with the other capital developments the township has on the books, including a multitude of road, bridge and sewer projects.

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