Closure of CFB Halifax auto club sparks criticism

After 40 years, the auto club at CFB Halifax's Windsor Park is being closed. Club members say the decision is costing them much more than a place to work on cars.

After 40 years, club being closed due to debt; members say move takes away vital service

While working on cars might have been the initial attraction for people joining the CFB Halifax auto club, members say the club came to mean much more for them. (CBC)

For Floyd Blakeney and people like him, the auto club at CFB Halifax's Windsor Park has been many things.

Thirty years ago, when he first joined while working as a marine engineer with the navy, it was a place Blakeney could go to enjoy his passion of working on cars. When he started raising a family, it helped him save some money by doing his own auto repair work.

Later in life, after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, it became a vital social club.

"It's just like a legion, without the alcohol," said Blakeney, who retired in 2005. "It's like-minded people that can get together. I'm not the only one there that has problems and it's a great atmosphere for people like me."

'Many years in the making'

But on March 25, that atmosphere will no longer exist.

Personnel Support Programs (PSP), the division of the military that oversees community recreation, is closing the club, citing a large debt and the inability to find a business model that might change the financial circumstances of the club.

"This has been many years in the making," said Joni Sawler, senior manager of PSP at CFB Halifax and 12 Wing Shearwater.

"I always have to keep the base's overall interests at heart. I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't, so unfortunately it's just come down to this."

More than just a garage

Established about 40 years ago, the auto club has everything any garage might — bays, hoists and all the equipment necessary for painting and body work. For an annual membership fee of $100 a year, the approximately 200 club members — most of whom are service members or veterans — get access to the equipment for rock-bottom rental fees.

But Blakeney and others say to look at it as simply a garage is to miss the point.

"You go there, it's therapeutic. I don't need to make an appointment with a doctor of any type — a psychiatrist. I don't need to get medical marijuana. Don't need to drink. No appointments required. We just go there and socialize.

"So that in itself is a benefit to the Forces. If they should close this place, there are people there that are going to need something else to occupy their time, and I fear for them."

'We get the squeeze'

No one disputes the club is in debt — to the tune of at least $200,000. But Blakeney and other club members say the majority of that debt was the result of money that went missing under the watch of a former PSP employee who managed the club. The majority of the club's challenges, they say, have all come while PSP — not club members — handled management and, among other things, reduced hours.

Sawler said the club's problems aren't the result of any single person's actions. She said the tools would remain available for people to sign out for free to do auto work on their own. While club members speculate the military wants them out because officials want the space for something else, Sawler said she has no idea what, if anything, is planned for the site.

"That's way above my paygrade."

Blakeney noted the club caters mostly to junior ranking members, while other clubs, such as the curling club, yacht club and golf club, attract more members of the senior ranks. Those sites also have something else in common, he said.

"The curling rink has a bar. The yacht club has a bar. The golf club has a bar. We don't. We're of a junior rank, we don't sell alcohol and make a great deal of money, we get the squeeze."