Stellarton council makes ‘emotional’ decision to cease rink operations

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In almost two decades on town council, Garry Pentz has never made such an emotional decision.

Until March 11.

That’s the date that Stellarton town council made the decision to cease operations of the Stellarton Memorial Rink, effective March 31.

“I’ve been sitting on council for 17 or 18 years and we’ve had a lot of items over those years. But I would say this is the most emotional and the hardest item that I had to work with,” Pentz said.

An Aging Building Audit conducted on the rink indicates it would cost $4.1 million to repair it and keep it safe and operational. The town held two public information sessions to inform residents about the rink status in January.

Pentz said when he first read the engineering report “it was like getting punched in the stomach. My first emotional feeling was there is no way we can close the rink. But when you look at the numbers…”

Darren Stroud spoke to council on behalf of a citizens group interested in saving the rink. He said following the public presentations on Jan. 23, discussions and meetings were held by a group of citizens committed to seeking a better understanding of the issues facing the facility.

“From Day One, discussions have been in the spirit of collaboration with a primary focus on exploring alternative means available to assist the town in addressing the issues facing the rink. It is our understanding that the mayor and council deferred final deliberation from February 11 to March 11 as a result of learning that some level of public interest was brought to council’s attention and we appreciate this fact on the part of the town,” Stroud noted.

The group made a petition available to the public on Feb. 22 that requested the town extend its timeframe on the rink’s potential closure to February 28, 2020 to allow time for the group to come up with a solution for the continued service and life of the rink.

The results of the petition are: total signatures 1,246. Of those, 457 were Stellarton citizens, 364 were from the surrounding Pictou County area, 62 respondents did not specify where they were from and 363 were from areas outside of Pictou County. “It is interesting to note that just within one week nearly 1,100 of those 1,246 were pulled in, so it is evident this matter means much to a lot of us,” Stroud pointed out.

Since the public presentation the citizens group has been meeting to discuss possibilities. Stroud said, “The dialogue and the access provided by the town, mayor, council and staff has been very much appreciated. Forty-five days, however, is not sufficient time to deliver on the intentions of the citizens group. If favoured with more time and support on the part of the town, its citizens will be in a much better position to contribute additional valuable information.”

On behalf of the group Stroud asked the town for three things: 1) To defer until Feb. 28, 2020, its decision as to whether or not to permanently close the rink; 2) to facilitate the citizens group continued access to rink premises and town staff during the deferral period; 3) to keep the rink at a warm idle for the deferral period, meaning services to the building to remain intact, ie, electricity, water, etc.

Mayor Danny MacGillivray said council could give the group until February 2020 to come up with a plan to make the rink sustainable. “If you come up with something we can work with you,” he advised them.

“We understand the emotional attachment. It’s our rink and we feel it too.”

Three out of four councillors voted to pass the motion to cease operations of the rink with Coun. Susan Campbell being the sole no vote.

“My takeaway from the public meetings was that people love our rink and have many fond memories; however, with other pressing municipal priorities residents did not feel the required investment in the rink is the right choice for our town,” MacGillivray said. “It’s not the choice we want to be faced with, but we are faced with it.”

Deputy Mayor Bryan Knight agreed and said council is expected to be frugal while meeting citizens’ demands.

Speaking on the Aging Building report Knight said, “To satisfy my own doubts I verified the shocking report by personally contacting experts.” He listed an expert on refrigeration and rink construction, town accountant and staff, rink managers and a Red Seal electrician as among the experts he consulted. “Each and every one gave me the same advice: Because of years of deferred maintenance, we would need more repairs requiring deep pockets.”

In making his decision in support of ceasing operations Knight said, “I have a duty to be fiscally responsible. Due diligence dictates I cannot ignore the advice of qualified people… it would be irresponsible.”

As much as we would like to preserve the past, Knight said we must “consider the future.”

Coun. Simon Lawand agreed: “The decision is going to be a hard one.”

He asked for council to consider the requests from the citizens group.

Coun. Susan Campbell agreed with Lawand saying, “I think we should give the committee an opportunity to see what they can do. They deserve a chance to see what they can do.”