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City arena plan puts squeeze on Spruce Kings

After 48 years as faithful tenants who pay their rent on time, the Prince George Spruce Kings are trying to avoid eviction from their home at Rolling Mix Concrete Arena.

After 48 years as faithful tenants who pay their rent on time, the Prince George Spruce Kings are trying to avoid eviction from their home at Rolling Mix Concrete Arena.

But they will get the boot, temporarily, if city council follows through on a plan to keep two of the Prince George arenas shuttered for the rest of the year.

A report from Adam Davey, the city’s director of community services and public safety recommends that RMCA and the Eklsentre, the two swimming pools, and the Prince George Conference and Civic Centre should remain closed through 2020 to reduce the city’s budget shortfall unless the province moves to Phase 4 of its Restart Plan.

According to the report, the least expensive option would be to open CN Centre and the three rinks of the Kin Centre in mid- or late-August and make those rinks available to user groups at an unsubsidized hourly rate.

That won’t help the Spruce Kings, who have considered the rink formerly known as the Prince George Coliseum their home since 1972. The BCHL  announced last week the new season will begin December 1st, pending provincial approval, and for that to happen Hawes says the Kings require ice in RMCA for October and November for team practices.

“I want to start our on-ice sessions October 1st and I certainly want to be able to use our own facility for that, with our dressing room and the things we need to be able to utilize like a proper junior team,” said Hawes. “We recruit players and bring them in here based on what we can offer them and the luxuries of our nice dressing room are very important to that process.

“Sixteen of the 18 teams in our league have camps planned in their home arenas or in an arena in their community in July or August,” he said. “The city of Prince George  is one of the only communities that  I know of that has made the choice to not open any of its arenas yet.”

Hawes said limiting the reopening  to just four rinks is not enough to accommodate all the user groups in the fall, especially considering the increased cleaning time between groups now required by the provincial health authority, which could reduce ice rentals by as much as one-third compared to an average year.

“This is going to have huge implications on us if this passes Monday,” Hawes said. “But I’m going to hope that between now and then the councilors and the group will understand the value of opening the RMCA and make the right decision on Monday night.”

The rink opened in 1958 and is the oldest arena in the city. City staff estimate it would cost $210,000 to operate RMCA for the remaining five months of the year and $500,000 to operate it in 2021. It is the city’s least cost-effective arena. The operational cost recovery was 37 per cent in 2018 and that dipped to 28 per cent in 2019 due to required maintenance and an ice-plant upgrade. If it opens in September, its projected cost recovery is 16 per cent.

“I get it, it’s an old building and that puts the cost recovery pretty low, no doubt, but there was probably some opportunity  from the city to adjust some of that over the years to make the cost recovery a little bit higher on a facility like that,” said Hawes. “Maybe the user fees should have been higher in years past to avoid this sort of stuff. It’s certainly going to affect the user groups moving forward now that the city is in a pickle financially with these facilities.”

The Spruce Kings’ plan to offer a hockey school at their home rink in mid-August and minor hockey skills camps in September. While RCMA, where the team has its office, would be preferred they would be willing to go to any rink to for their coaches to provide that instruction. Hawes said it’s crucial to provide those services to keep young athletes active. The hockey school and skills clinics will also generate income for the community-owned team.

“We’re willing to work with the city,” said Hawes. “The hockey school is much needed for the youth of the community. Based on mental health and wellness, it’s something they really need. We’ve got a tremendous plan in place, based on COVID-19, how we’re going to safely run that hockey school.”

The pandemic and increased precautions and cleaning protocols under the current Phase 3 restrictions have increased the cost of operating arenas and the city foresees  a $6.4 million budget gap in 2021. Staff would be required to monitor the number of people in each rink at any one time to keep it under the 50-person limit. The additional cleaning procedures are expected to add between 15 and 30 minutes of turnaround time between each user group and over the course of a day that will reduce ice availability by as much as one-third over previous years.

The average hourly unsubsidized cost of operating the six rinks in 2020 was $450. Youth rates averaged $112 per hour (about 25 per cent of the unsubsidized rate) and for adults it was $209 per hour (close to 50 per cent). The city anticipates user demand is enough to require three sheets of ice by Aug. 17 and will warrant a fourth rink by mid-September, with enough to justify a fifth or sixth rink by the end of September.

Until the provincial health authority moves to Phase 4 (no restrictions) or a possible Phase 3.5 on its reopening plan, hockey game play will not be allowed because it goes against the rules  on physical distancing. Users would be limited to skills practice or drills.

The incremental cost of operating all six arenas for the five remaining months of the year would lead to an estimated budget shortfall of $930,000, with a forecast budget impact of $2.23 million in 2021. Opening  just CN Centre and the Kin Centre rinks would drop the incremental costs to $600,000 for 2020, with a projected budget impact of $1.44 million in 2021.

The city estimates it would require a city subsidy of $120,000 to open the Elksentre for the next five months. 2018, the cost recovery for the Hart Highway-area rink was 50 per cent. Last year it was 43 per cent and that would drop to 21 per cent in 2020.

CN Centre is the least-subsidized city arena. User groups covered 72 per cent of costs in 2018, 64 per cent in 2019, dipping to 41 per cent this year. It would cost the city about $300,00 to operate the rink for the next five months and operational costs in 2021 would be an estimated $720,000. The Kin Centre would require $300,000 to operate the next five months (37 per cent cost-effective) and $720,000 in 2020. The report did not state the Kin Centre’s cost-recovery rates in 2018 or 2019.

The Prince George Cougars make their home at CN Centre and they anticipate the start of the next Western Hockey League season on Oct. 2, with a game at their home rink. If council approves Davey’s plan on Monday, the Cougars will be able to proceed with training camp starting on Sept. 15. The team declined a request for comment until after that public meeting at City Hall.

Davey acknowledges that keeping the pools closed for the year would downgrade the quality of life for users who reap the benefits of exercise and social activity and would seriously impact the city’s two swim clubs – the Prince George Barracudas and Prince George Pisces.

As Davey’s report explains, city pools would require stringent cleaning requirements and no more than 40 bathers would be allowed in at any time. There are sufficient staff to allow as many as five two-hour blocks open to the public on weekdays and four blocks on weekend days. That would limit capacity to a maximum of 1,320 swim visits per week. Opening one of the pools would increase the city’s estimated subsidized operational costs from $7 per visit to $56 per visit.