Montreal

Future of 'crown jewel of arenas' in doubt as Hochelaga YMCA closes

The YMCA building will close on Dec. 31, although Y officials said the area will stay open until the end of the hockey season. What happens to the arena after that is up to the city, which owns the entire property.

YMCA CEO says shuttering neighbourhood centre is 'heart-wrenching' but it's too expensive to maintain

Stéfan Marquis launched a petition to save the Hochelaga YMCA's hockey arena that collected nearly 6,000 signatures in four days. (Jennifer Yoon/CBC)

For a decade now, Stéfan Marquis has been trekking across the city from his home in Old Montreal three to four nights a week to play hockey in a rundown arena managed by the YMCA.

"The arena in Hochelaga is one of the few on the island that actually offers hockey time for adults," he said. "This one is the crown jewel of arenas."

Most arenas run by the city are geared toward youngsters. That's not a bad thing, Marquis said, but adults need exercise, too.

So when Marquis heard earlier this week that the arena might be closing, he launched an online petition to keep the ice rink open.

In a city that revolves around hockey, the petition caught on fast, garnering nearly 6,000 signatures in four days.

On Wednesday, the YMCA made it official: it's shuttering three Montreal YMCA locations as a cost-cutting measure, including the old schoolhouse in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve that's been home to the neighbourhood Y since 1980, along with the rickety arena next door.

The YMCA building will close on Dec. 31, although Y officials said the arena will stay open until the end of the hockey season. What happens to the arena after that is up to the city, which owns the entire property.

Borough taken by surprise

Marquis's petition is addressed to Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante, and he will bring it to her office next week since Montreal owns the property.

A spokesperson for the borough of Mercier-Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, Julie Bellemare, said there are no plans yet for the schoolhouse or arena.

The YMCA has been located in the old city-owned schoolhouse since 1980, offering a range of services, including a weight room, pool and arena. (Jennifer Yoon/CBC)

"Our priority is to preserve the services available to affected citizens in the borough," Bellemare said.

She said the borough is working with the YMCA to seek out alternative venues for "the programs most relevant to the community."

What will happen to the YMCA property will be part of a reflection on sports and recreation in the borough as a whole and in the Hochelaga neighbourhood, she said.

Hot market for developers

But Marquis doesn't want to wait. He wants Plante to step in before it's too late.

He's heard plenty of talk that developers are already eyeing the property, as the area is ripe for gentrification. Right next door to the arena is a modern housing complex that stands in sharp contrast to the neighbourhood's more modest homes.

It's a hot location, just steps from the Olympic Park, two Metro stations and the Marché Maisonneuve.

The Hochelaga YMCA's arena is located just off Hochelaga Street, at the corner of Aird Avenue, about one block from the Olympic Stadium. (Jennifer Yoon/CBC)

Marquis's biggest fear is that the city will sell the arena to a developer rather than spend the money to bring it up to modern standards.

"The structure might be a little outdated and it might need a bit more than a renovation," said Marquis, who is an architect. "But just completely getting rid of the ice rink and not replacing it or not trying to find a solution for us is just devastating."

Hard but necessary decision

The YMCA pays the city a nominal rent for the old school and arena, in exchange for covering the cost of renovations and repairs

As far as the YMCA is concerned, those costs are now just too high, said Stéphane Vaillancourt, CEO of the YMCAs of Québec.

The building has a pool, weight room, dance studio, locker rooms and gymnasium, attached to the arena.

That arena's freon refrigeration system is outdated and expensive to run, he said, and fees from the membership base isn't covering the overhead.

"The members have been very, very loyal to the YMCA over time," Vaillancourt said.

"It's really a question of how can we maintain a building of that size with the revenues that are generated? Unfortunately, it just doesn't balance."

As a hockey player himself, Vaillancourt said he understands how attached players can be to their arenas. Beyond that, he said, he knows how much the Hochelaga Y means to the community, but he has to ensure the organization stays in good financial health.

It might be old and have a leaky roof, but there's much love in the community for the YMCA-run hockey arena in Mercier–Hochelaga-Maisonneuve. (Jennifer Yoon/CBC)

"It's not a pleasant experience to announce this kind of decision to our staff and volunteers who have been there for so many years, having a great impact and changing people's lives in that community," he said.

"We have been trying for years and years to improve the financial situation of that building and the others."

The YMCA is a charity, and although the decision was heart-wrenching for both him and the board, the organization needs to remain sustainable to continue offering services at all 40 locations in Quebec.

The hope, Vaillancourt said, is to renew the YMCA's presence in Hochelaga, by offering some programs to the community at smaller locations throughout the district.

'Truncating a way of life'

Marquis does not want this hockey season to be his last at the Hochelaga arena.

His hope is the city will find a way to preserve it — perhaps applying for a government grant to replace the greenhouse gas-emitting freon system with an environmentally sustainable refrigerated rink.

Keeping the arena open is important to the regulars, both young and old, said Marquis. He described the looming closure as "truncating a way of life."

"If I had real alternatives, maybe I wouldn't feel so bad about it," he said, citing the difficulty of booking ice time throughout the city. "The adults have very little time to play, and if they do get time, it's very late at night."

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