Citizens group presents case for keeping rink open

Community Featured

STELLARTON — One year after Stellarton Town Council made the difficult decision to cease operations at Stellarton Memorial Rink, a group continues to work hard to save it.

The amount of thought and effort they put into determining other options was evident as their findings were presented last week to the community.

The Stellarton Memorial Rink-Citizens Group was formed last year in an effort to find if an affordable path exists to keep the rink open. The group has been meeting bi-weekly since last year, with some exceptions, to come up with a plan.

Speaking on behalf of the citizens group, Darren Stroud informed a gathering of about 60 people who met at the G.R. Saunders Elementary School last Thursday night that his group has found ways to reduce the costs of upgrades to rink in order to keep it operating — not as a rink, but as a community centre.

Stroud spoke about a third-party engineering report prepared for the Town of Stellarton in 2018 by SNC Lavalin. This report said an estimated $4.1 million was needed to bring the rink up to code and make necessary repairs and renovations over several years; it listed the repairs needed in three stages – Priority 1, 2 and 3. It was this report that prompted a discussion and eventual decision last year to cease rink operations. At the time, town council said in order to continue to operate the rink, it would have to pass along the cost of borrowing the money to taxpayers which would result in a huge increase in both residential and commercial taxes.

Council gave the citizens group one year to come up with a plan to save the rink. While Mayor Danny MacGillivray said the town was willing to work with the group, it would not put any additional taxpayers dollars into saving the 70-plus year-old facility.

Last week, Stroud used the same SNC Lavalin report to inform residents that his group scoured the report and found significant ways to reduce costs to keep the structure viable — $2.6 million now to run the building as opposed to $4 million-plus.

“The SNC Lavalin report was the cornerstone of our study,” Stroud said.

Buoyed by what Stroud said was a “high level of community support” over the past year, the citizens group engaged local tradespeople — contractors, engineers, electricians, brick masons and more — to visit the rink and provide their expertise on repair costs. He said there was “bewilderment” on the parts of the tradespeople consulted as to why the estimates in the SNC Lavalin report were so high.

What they found, he said, was about $660,000 would be needed to at least keep the building open in the short term for use as a community centre, not a rink. The long-term goal would be to bring the ice back and return the building into a rink, but first steps first.

The citizens group’s mandate is not to fundraise the millions of dollars needed to keep the rink open, Stroud said. “That would be irresponsible for us to try to raise money for a building we don’t even own or for a pathway we don’t even know exists yet or the costs associated with it.” He said his group has “zero interest in a lost cause.”

After consultation with experts, including Stellarton’s own refrigeration expert Art Sutherland of Accent Refrigeration, Stroud said savings of about $1.2 million from the original SNC Lavalin report were identified. To get into the facility and use it as a community centre, a new sprinkler system is necessary and it was estimated to cost about $664,590. Also needed are repairs to the electrical system, plumbing, mechanical operations and exterior.

He presented two scenarios to keep the building operational, both of which include the Town of Stellarton providing about $100,000 a year: one scenario involves using money from the town’s operating surplus, the other borrowing through a five-year loan. Funds from the community, corporate and government sources would also be welcomed.

The group recommended keeping the rink building standing and focus on it as a community centre for the time being. In the meantime, Stroud said, fundraise while the facility is living and breathing with activity, and invite the community to participate in generating ideas and proposals for using the rink.

Community members were invited to share their opinions on what to do with the facility. The first to walk to the microphone was Brian Atkinson who voiced his opposition to using taxpayer money to keep the rink open.

“I believe in the Town of Stellarton. I am proud of that council because their objective was, from Day 1, to keep the taxes in Stellarton down and they’ve done that the past three years. Look at the work that was done — streets paved, sidewalks, parks … no tax increase. We’re the lowest taxes in Pictou County.”

His warning that town money put into the old rink would increase taxes was met first with applause by a few then with jeers and angry shouts from others. One woman yelled at him to “go home” and a man in the audience told him to “get the hell out.”

Despite Stroud’s invitation for Atkinson to stay at the meeting so they could continue their discussion Atkinson declined.

Lifelong Stellarton resident Jim MacLeod said he felt the rink was worth saving. “If we’re not going to take a good look at the building and what we can do we’re wasting our time. According to what I’ve seen here tonight I can’t see any reason why we shouldn’t continue…”

Lifelong Stellarton resident Phillip MacLeod said, “Success comes in cans, and not cannots” and the elected trustees are “robbing the identity of our town.”

A second meeting with the citizens group will be held Feb. 6 at 7 p.m. upstairs from the Stellarton Fire Hall.

The group will make a presentation at a committee-of-the-whole meeting in February, and council is expected to further discuss the issue at the March 9 council meeting.

Darren Stroud, second from the right, spoke on behalf of the Stellarton Memorial Rink – Citizens Group last week about saving the rink. Looking over the presentation are, from the left, John MacLeod, committee member; Rev. Andrew MacDonald, Stellarton resident; Stroud; and Brandon Balodis, committee member. (Jardine photo)