Playing favourites: Edmonton's building blitz of mega recreation centres a tough act to follow

In 2008, Edmonton launched an ambitious plan to step up the city's rec facilities that has garnered kudos from around the world - and raised expectations here at home.

In 2008, Edmonton launched an ambitious plan to step up the city's rec facilities

The Meadows Community Recreation Centre was part of an ambitious plan to build major rec centre facilities in all corners of the city. (City of Edmonton)

Edmonton: The New Capital is a special series taking the pulse of the city. From Terwillegar to Castle Downs, CBC journalists are talking to people about how Edmonton is changing and what it means for the future.

Basketballs thump and sneakers screech as teenagers switch gears on the hardwood floor of the court.

It's Tuesday afternoon at the Clareview Recreation Centre and a group of youth is shooting hoops in the main gym. Anyone can grab a ball if they're willing to go toe-to-toe with the skilled teens who have commandeered the space.

Basketball not your thing? You could head to the pool for some laps. Not a swimmer? Pop upstairs to lift weights in the gym. That's still not your gear? Drop in for a zumba class in the main hall.

And if — just maybe — you want to sit down with a coffee and a book, that's fine, too.

The Clareview Recreation Center is part of a rec centre revolution in Edmonton. Think big, sprawling, multiple purpose buildings that are designed to attract hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.

In 2008, city council approved funding for an ambitious, $500-million plan to build multiplex centres in different corners of the city. Ten years later, the model has been so successful that delegations from other jurisdictions — from North Vancouver to Iceland — have visited to learn from our rec centre designs.

"They've probably been even more of a success than we could have imagined," says Brad Badger, the city's director of programs and events at community and recreation facilities.

"They really have exceeded beyond what we envisioned."
The new rec centres all feature elaborate swimming facilities with pools, waterslides and pools for tots. (AME Group)

The hefty price tag of the building blitz was justified by the belief that Edmontonians would embrace these spaces as community hubs. By 2015, facilities were completed at Terwillegar, Commonwealth, the Meadows and Clareview.

Was the city's hunch correct? With almost four million paid visits to the four facilities in 2017 alone, the answer seems to be yes. 

If there is a dark cloud to this success story, it's that it has raised the bar on expectations at home. The west end, for example, doesn't have a mega rec centre and pressure is on the city to approve $200 million to build one in Lewis Farms.

Melody Wilson, a resident of Secord in west Edmonton, has children aged 10, seven and four. She would enrol her children in more activities if there was a facility located closer to her home. "But because it's not, I don't even think about it because it's too much driving."

"Everyone's about the one-stop shop. Everyone wants everything to be convenient and with it being the bigger rec centre, you have everything ... I think that's why people are expecting that in the new neighbourhoods."

One built in 1983, then nothing for decades

The rec centre revolution came out of necessity.

In 1983, the Mill Woods Aquatic Centre opened in southeast Edmonton. That was followed by a decades-long drought in new construction that finally ended when the Terwillegar Community Recreation Centre opened in 2010.

"I think the city was in a model back then that if they were going to build rec centres, it was going to be through partnership. It was that model of, 'We'll only build if we can do it with partners,' " says Badger.

But that hope of money flooding in from private partners didn't materialize. In the end, the city built the current crop of rec centres with help from different orders of government. 
Brad Badger, with the city's recreation facilities branch, says the city's multiplex rec centres have been a bigger success than expected. (CBC/Trevor Wilson)

The buildings were designed to be functional and beautiful — there are soaring ceilings, wood accents and walls of windows that flood the spaces with natural light.

"If it's going to be part of the community, and be a community hub, we want people to feel like it's not only functional inside, but something that they're proud of in their community," says Badger.

The resulting attendance numbers are impressive. Here's how visits in 2017 broke down by facility:

  • Terwillegar, including the four-rink arena: 1,580,796
  • Clareview, including the two-rink arena: 834,364
  • The Meadows, including the two-rink arena: 974,845
  • Commonwealth: 535,298

At Clareview, those numbers don't include people who visit the adjoining library or who might stop in to use the multicultural centre.
The Clareview Community Recreation Centre has a high school and a library on the site, which adds to the foot traffic through the building. (City of Edmonton)

There's also a Catholic high school — Cardinal Collins High School — which is attached to the building. Teenagers gather in the hallways after school and fill the gymnasiums in the evening. 

"The whole community hub idea has really come alive here at Clareview," says Christine Belter, the operations supervisor at Clareview Rec Centre.

"Sometimes the youth don't have a lot to do, and there's a lot of positive energy they can utilize here."

But city council and civic staff weren't always sure it would all work.

Coun. Scott McKeen was an Edmonton Journal columnist in 2008, and wrote that the city should "pause" before plowing ahead with the plan. He suggested multiplexes are "completely lacking in soul" and that retrofitted community halls or small gyms could provide more impact, for less cost.

Today, McKeen recognizes that the "horse has left the barn" on mega rec centres. But he still thinks things might have been done differently.

"What if we'd used all the schools in the city as community hubs and outfitted them with gym equipment and other recreational opportunities, so parents and kids from the neighbourhood were bumping into each other at a local level?"

Future focus will be on aging facilities

Ten years after city council bit the bullet and approved the multiplex master plan, the $500 million has been spent. Now the city is looking ahead to the next decade.

In coming months, the city will release its rec centre master plan for the next 10 years.

It will look quite different from the 2008 one that brought the mega-multiplex model.

"Whereas the last time was really about big and new, this time it's going to be a little bit about big and new," says Badger.

The bigger focus, he adds, will be on what to do with some of the city's aging infrastructure and older facilities.

In June, city council will debate the next capital budget cycle. That's when decisions will be made about whether to fund the hundreds of millions required for a huge recreation centre in Lewis Farms, and whether to fund major renovations to the Kinsmen Sports Centre, Mill Woods Recreation Centre, Peter Hemingway Leisure Centre and a new Coronation Rec Centre.
In building a new crop of recreation centres, the city decided to focus on strong design elements. (City of Edmonton)

Badger says the city will be looking for more partnerships with organizations that could share the facilities, such as arts groups, non-profit groups, and or even businesses.

In the west end, resident Angela Richardson says she's looking for a rec centre that is also a community centre.

"It's about building the community. It's going to be the place where, if I don't feel like swimming, I'll hang out at the library. And the family can still go together," she says.

"I'm excited to have a community centre that's local so (my kids) are running into people they know from school and people from neighbouring schools and they can form meaningful friendships."

Read more stories on our Edmonton: The New Capital series on cbc.ca/edmonton or listen to CBC Radio One, 93.9 FM/740 AM.


Alexandra Zabjek is a journalist with CBC Edmonton.