P.G. Dome for sale, user groups hope to avoid eviction

The fate of the iconic Prince George Dome, better known as the Roll-a-Dome, which for 68 years has served as an affordable venue for indoor sports and community activities, is in limbo.
The shareholder group that has owned the ‘Dome for 18 years is prepared to sell it, spurred by the decision by leaseholder Jon LaFontaine to not renew his three-year agreement to operate the building. 
Pandemic restrictions on group gatherings brought indoor sports league activity to a standstill in mid-March and LaFontaine, a father of three young children who works full-time as a city utilities supervisor, has ended his involvement in the ‘Dome’s management with the expiry of his lease at the end of August. 
“We basically went to nothing in March,” said LaFontaine. “We had our ice cream shop which we opened in mid-May to try to keep the staff working, but with the weather we had this year that wasn’t doing very well either.
“It seemed like things were piling up and that made the decision easy. At the end of the day it wasn’t much of a decision; it was too much of a gamble to get into a new lease. I don’t know how long COVID’s going on and to try to get programs running is a lot of work for user groups. Every event I might have been running takes that much more and I was pretty stretched for time as it was.”
The ‘Dome remains open for business with longtime manager and part-owner Al Work continuing to oversee the building’s activities, which include an ice cream shop. 
The 30,000 square-foot building, located on Recreation Place across from the Prince George Golf and Curling Club, has two indoor arenas used for basketball, roller skating, roller derby, skateboarding, soccer, ball hockey, lacrosse, rugby, baseball, boxing, freestyle skiing, BMX riding, crossfit workouts, airsoft shooting and dog training. It serves as a venue for small business trade shows, antiques fairs, garage sales, and can be booked for parties, weddings and grad functions. 
“It was super-affordable for all those user groups and people are kind of free to run their own programs, they don’t have as many restrictions and that made it a little bit easier to run stuff,” said LaFontaine.
The Prince George Masters Ball Hockey League still hopes to use the ‘Dome for its league games, which usually start in October. LaFontaine said the league has put together a plan that will allow tracking of players who show up on any given night, in the event of a positive COVID case. But the league startup is contingent on a new leaseholder willing to continue operating the ‘Dome.
For the past two years the ‘Dome has been the home of the Northern Bounce Basketball Academy, which has continued to operate through the pandemic on a reduced schedule. Northern Bounce founder/director Jordan Yu said the venue offers his club players prime-time access to a dedicated facility as an alternative to school gymnasiums, which shut down for the summer and during school vacations. Yu has worked with health authorities to develop a program for the academy’s older players, which has kept them separate on the court to respect COVID-19 regulations.
The academy opened in in 2017 and has invested significant time and effort into making improvements to the basketball court, which started with sanding and refinishing the hardwood floor. Academy skills and training sessions take up three or four hours Monday-Thursday and on Saturdays and Yu said that activity would be stepped up considerably if league play is allowed to resume. He has assurance from the ownership group that Northern Bounce can continue using the court at least until November.
Yu is hopeful a replacement leaseholder will step forward to take over ‘Dome operations under new ownership and that whoever buys the building will share the passion of the current shareholders to keep it open as a community recreation centre. 
The building sits just north of the intersection of Highway 97 and Highway 16 and its central location makes it a valuable piece of property. It was originally a curling rink when it opened in 1952 and was owned by the Prince George Golf and Curling Club until October 2002, when a group of 27 investors bought it for $650,000. 
In 2014, interest from a commercial developer in buying the building and demolishing it to clear the way for a hotel parking lot prompted action from a community group which formed the P.G. Dome Society. The society’s fight to keep the ‘Dome open continued publicly until LaFontaine took on the operating lease in 2017. There are now about a dozen shareholders left, many of whom have reached retirement age, who now want to get back the money they invested.
The Citizen spoke to one of the ‘Dome shareholders on Sunday, who declined comment due to the ongoing negotiations for the sale of the building. 
“I believe there’s a couple different parties willing to take over the lease,” said Yu. “We’re just a renter like everyone else but we’re one of the main user groups there and obviously with us investing sweat equity into the place to help fix up the gym, we obviously want to stay there.” 
Because it is privately-owned, the ‘Dome has the flexibility to set its own schedules and was not subject to COVID-related closures which shut down city-owned recreational facilities. That allowed Northern Bounce to operate basketball camps throughout the summer, after first gaining approval from ViaSport, Basketball Canada and Basketball BC.
“We’re just hoping the next people that take over the lease run it similar to how Jon was running it and how the community wants it and will use the space as it has been in the past,” said Yu. “All the user groups love the space and I think it’s a big part of our city.
“I’m optimistic. I would love to see it as a youth sports centre for after school and weekends for kids to come down and get involved with different sports. I would love to see that place grow for more sports user groups. I know some of the shareholders really well after being there three years now and just the love and passion they have for that place and what it’s done for the community, you want to keep something like that going. They put their heart and soul into that place.”
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