Save our rink: Vancouver Island town rallies against arena closure

Residents of Port Alice are hoping to raise enough money to open the community ice rink as the town deals with a financial crisis caused by its biggest employer.

Port Alice residents scrambling after town announces it can no longer afford to run the local ice rink

Port Alice minor hockey players rally outside the Doug Bondue Arena. The rink has been shuttered after it was announced last month that due to a financial crisis, the town can no longer afford to operate the facility. (Natalie Stewart)

To hear Natalie Stewart describe it, Port Alice is nothing short of heaven on earth  — spectacularly beautiful, friendly, the perfect place to raise a family.

So when her two preteen children started compiling real estate listings from other places as a not-so-subtle hint it was time to move away, she was stunned.

"It's really heartbreaking and they are absolutely serious," said Stewart.

Bella, 11, and Lucca, 12, love their northern Vancouver Island community, but they love playing hockey more. And that's a problem now that the town has announced it can no longer afford to operate the Doug Bondue Arena, Port Alice's only ice rink. 

First the mill, now the rink

The rink closure is the latest hard knock to a community already reeling.

It started with the shutdown of the Neucel Cellulose mill in 2015. The mill used to employ 400 people and normally provides 70 per cent of the town's property tax revenue.

Originally cited as a "temporary" situation, Neucell has yet to reopen and has yet to pay its 2018 property tax bill of almost $1 million, which was due July 31.

The closure of the Doug Bondue Arena in Port Alice is having ripple effects across northern Vancouver Island. (Natalie Stewart)

Faced with the shortfall, the town's administration has been forced to cut most municipal services. But the rink announcement hit especially hard.

Heart of the community

The Doug Bondue Arena is a community centrepiece, touted on the town's website as a "hub of activity in Port Alice." 

It's also home of the longest running hockey tournament on Vancouver Island — the Oscar Hickes —  slated to celebrate its 40th anniversary this coming March.

And it's not just the local players who stand to lose. Together, Port Alice, Port Hardy and Port McNeill make up the Tri-Port Minor Hockey Association, which co-ordinates the area rep teams, rotating practices and games through all three towns.

Losing Port Alice means losing an entire third of the association's ice time, leaving parents and organizers with a major scheduling and driving headaches. 

Stewart remains hopeful Neucell will pay some of its debt, however, she's not holding her breath. 

"I've emailed them myself, but I haven't heard anything back. They seem pretty tight lipped," she said.

Knight in shining armour?

Left with no other options, she and others are now on a mission to find the money to get the rink open.

They've formed the Port Alice Arena Society with hopes of raising $250,000 — enough to fund arena operations for the coming hockey season, with some left over for future years.  

Besides closing the hockey rink, Port Alice's four sheet curling rink has also been shuttered due the financial crisis. (Google maps/screenshot)

"We are just looking anywhere we can," said Stewart. "Really, any knight in shining armour that we can think of to keep this place running."

History repeats

It's not the first time Port Alice has rallied for its rink.

Ten years ago during an earlier mill shutdown, townsfolk came together under the leadership of resident Doug Bondue, organizing raffles, dances and bottle drives to raise $20,000 — just enough to get the arena reopened. 

The community was so grateful for Bondue's efforts, they renamed the rink after him. 

Reached at his home in Campbell River where he and his wife moved to after both were laid off from the Port Alice mill, Bondue said the current rink crisis appears much more dire.

"This time they have no mill tax money at all. Back when I was there, the mill did agree to pay their taxes but at a reduced rate."

"I jokingly say I don't want my name attached to a ghost building," he said. "It's just really disheartening."

The Port Alice Arena Society hopes to raise $250,000 to get the rink up and operating. From left to right: Kysa Sutton, Patrick Murray and Natalie Stewart, charter members of the new arena society. (Natalie Stewart)

A quarter of a million dollars is a lot of money for a town of just over 670 people to raise, but Stewart says the community will give it a shot. 

In the meantime, Stewart's children continue to comb the real estate pages in search of a new family home in a town where hockey is guaranteed. 

"We are going to do everything we possibly can to open the arena," said Stewart. "And if we can't, moving is something we will have to look at."

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