Staring into an unknown future: Winnipeg's aging recreation facilities face big challenges
More than half the assets in city's Community Services Department are reaching end of useful service life
Winnipeg faces a $271-million deficit in its community and recreation centres but no one is ready to see the doors shut on any of them. Not again.
"We have huge infrastructure issues within the city relative to recreation and community centres, yes," said city Coun. Mike Pagtakhan, who is chair of the community services and parks committee.
"But as our city continues to grow there's definitely going to be a need for those centres into the future."
It's been 11 years since city council voted to close, and later demolish, the 58-year-old Kelvin Community Centre in Elmwood, despite the protests of neighbourhood residents who fought to keep it open.
It was determined the centre was not being used enough and wasn't worth upgrading (the average expected lifespan of a community centre facility is 50 years).
Instead the city directed funds to expand the Bronx Park Community Centre, 1.5 kilometres away.
It then tried to sell the Kelvin land but received low bids. By 2012, after continued pleas from residents, the land was removed from the city's list of surplus properties and funds were put back into it.
It has since been renamed as the Clara Hughes Recreation Park.
That's an example of how valued the community centres are by the neighbourhoods they serve, said Pagtakhan.
"They have deep roots in our city and are the heart and soul of neighbourhoods, and they're sort of reinventing themselves," he said.
As the city becomes more diverse, different sports like cricket are increasing in popularity at the centres, as are requests for programs like family nights, arts and crafts, and even farmers markets and dog obedience training.
And there is a greater push to offer a variety of activities — fencing, pickleball, dodgeball, floor hockey, roller hockey, pre-teen dances, yoga, music and various mini camps for football and soccer and hockey — to entice people to put down their screens.
Electronic devices are leading to more sedentary lives, said Pagtakhan, so there is a push toward physical literacy and reacquainting people, children especially, with basic movement skills to give them the competence to engage in many activities,
"It's a global crisis and community centres have a place in combating that. The more people that embrace the idea of physical literacy, there's going to be a definite desire to direct investment into our centres."
But how to get that money?
Rapid transit formula
Pagtakhan would like to see council consider creating an investment policy, like it did for rapid transit.
In 2016, the city announced it would include a dedicated 0.33 per cent increase in property taxes every year for a decade, with the money going toward expanding its rapid transit routes.
"If we want to increase in our community centres and increase the amenities … then perhaps we need to do the same thing. These are some of the issues this next council is going to have to deal with," said Pagtakhan, who is not running in the October civic election.
"In suburban neighbourhoods there's a need for new centres while the older, established areas of the city are being repopulated with infill homes and multi-family residences, so there's still a need for them there, too."
According to the 2016 City of Winnipeg Population, Housing, and Economic Forecast, the city's annual population growth over the next 25 years is estimated to average 8,200 people. It also notes that the city's Census Metropolitan Area population is predicted to exceed 1 million by 2034-35.
In 2017, Winnipeg's CMA population was 749,500.
Much bigger deficit
The financial situation facing the community and rec centres is part of a larger $778-million deficit for the city's Community Services Department, whose assets also include arenas, indoor and outdoor pools, wading pools and spray pads, libraries and Assiniboine Park Conservancy buildings.
The majority of these assets were constructed prior to the 1972 amalgamation of metro Winnipeg and its municipalities.
"Over the years, insufficient capital and operational investments have led to the deterioration of assets and their building systems," states the city's 2018 Asset Management Plan.
More than half (53 per cent) of those assets are listed in poor to very poor condition and reaching the end of their useful service life, the report notes.
The Community Services and Public Works departments are now partnering to create a 25-year master plan for recreation and parks in Winnipeg.
It will help guide recreation and parks programs, services, policies, standards and procedures, and future investment in existing and new infrastructure, city communications manager David Driedger said in an email statement.
It is anticipated that the strategies will be completed in spring 2019 for consideration by council.
"At the end of the day, whatever is done, we should leave those decisions to the community centres themselves," Pagtakhan said.
The Kelvin closure decision was made by the city but at the request of the the result of the General Council of Winnipeg Community Centres (GCWCC).
The council came to the decision following a sweeping review, called Plan 2025, of all 71 community centres. It also resulted in other decisions, such as amalgamations.
There are now 63 community centres but some of them oversee multiple sites. In total, there are 99 facilities in the city, said Marlene Amell, GCWCC executive director.
Some of the oldest facilities in the city
- Woodhaven C.C. — 1940.
- Bourkevale C.C. — 1940s.
- Bord-Aire C.C. — 1950.
- Morse Place C.C. — 1955.
- Greendell C.C. — 1960.
- Weston Memorial C.C. — 1960.
- Sir John Franklin C.C. — 1960.
- River Heights C.C. — 1960.
- Luxton C.C. — 1964.
- Orioles C.C. — 1965.
Plan 2025 also resulted in a number of projects the GCWCC would like to move on but which await funding, which the council hopes will come from the city's master plan.
The option of closing more facilities "is not a very popular one," said Amell, but she added there are "most definitely a few community centres that have seen better days — some that are quite small and really can't program very well.
"Should they be closed and another community centre down the block take care of what that one should be offering? It's a sensitive subject."
Our volunteer base is dropping.… That pie, I think, has just been cut into too many pieces. Everyone relies on volunteers now.- Marlene Amell, GCWCC
Instead, the GCWCC is "always looking forward to amalgamations" which can help those centres that are having a tough go, Amell said.
"But those amalgamations have to come to us as a request from the community centres. We cannot mandate them."
Sir John Franklin C.C., River Heights C.C. and Crescentwood C.C, began the process of amalgamation in 2009 and were fully transitioned as the Central Corydon C.C. by 2011.
The move reduced three management boards to one, allowing the community centres to reduce staff costs and strengthen the volunteer pool. It also scaled back redundancy by not having every site contain the same amenities and programs.
The Crescentwood site has the football field, and new basketball courts were built where dilapidated tennis courts once stood. Both Sir John and River Heights now have refurbished tennis courts instead.
River Heights also has a new splash pad and playground, and the only indoor arena among the three.
Funding, volunteer challenges
However, the new board must still maintain three aging facilities.
"We're definitely putting a lot of money back into them," said Abbie Bajon, general manager for Central Corydon C.C.
In another example, Sturgeon Creek C.C. and Silver Heights C.C. amalgamated entirely, resulting in their old facilities being demolished and a new one — Sturgeon Heights C.C. — built.
The community centre model in Winnipeg is unique among Canadian cities in that, while the centres are owned by the city, they are not operated or staffed by the city, the GCWCC website explains.
If someone drives down the street and runs over a pothole … that seems to get a lot of the city money. But they just expect that a park's going to be there.- Abbie Bajon, Central Corydon C.C.
Instead, they are governed and operated by a group of volunteers, with an independent, incorporated, community-elected board of directors.
The city covers large capital repairs and provides a small annual operating grant for basic facility maintenance and utilities. For Central Corydon, the city grant only amounts to 12 per cent of the centre's overall operating budget, which must also cover staffing, programming and equipment costs.
The rest of the money comes from registration fees for programs the centres offer, hall rentals and fundraising. But there's not a lot of it.
Bajon said it took nearly five years to raise enough money at Crescentwood to buy a new ice resurfacer for the outdoor rinks, which also involved upgrading the tractor to use it.
"There's a challenge always to come up with funding. The projects are getting more and more and more expensive so you're having to think creatively," she said.
To make things work, the community centres rely heavily on volunteers to keep costs down. Amell isn't sure, though, how long they can keep doing that.
"Our volunteer base is dropping, as it is all across Canada," she said. "That pie, I think, has just been cut into too many pieces. Everyone relies on volunteers now."
Bajon applauds the city for undertaking the effort to create a master plan and hopes it results in some renewed focus —and possibly help — for the community centres.
"To their credit, they are trying to figure this out. People don't, I think, always realize how expensive it is to have all these facilities. They're great to have but they do cost money to run," she said.
"If someone drives down the street and runs over a pothole, they always want the streets to be better and so that seems to get a lot of the city money. But they just expect that a park's going to be there, that a community centre will be there."