This article first appeared in The Watch.
HALIFAX – “It’s called vision. Someone has to have that vision for the future. Politicians should quickly see it and understand it. Somebody has to lead.”
Mayor Peter Kelly’s most recent vision consists of making the North Common skating oval a permanent fixture after the upcoming Canada Winter Games.
The media has been awash with his support as it gains momentum alongside the Save The Oval campaign whose online petition, at press time, had garnered close to 7,000 signatures.
The popularity of the oval is undeniable: a Jan. 6 staff report from City Hall reported that 600-800 people are “on it at a time on a regular basis.” The rink is unique in its providing of a large, free, centrally-located space for skating. The public, then, is overwhelmingly in favor of keeping the oval to fill a long-existing gap in Halifax’s recreational services.
“I see what the public sees. The public is never wrong,” says Kelly.
But some critics say the public may be misinformed and Kelly’s vision a case of the blind leading the blind.
“You’re hearing statements like this from the mayor: ‘The people have spoken. You’ll have an Oval.’ In my experience with him as a politician, he’s looked into things before he’s spoken. In this case, he’s stepped onto the ice without looking,” says Lower Sackville Coun. Bob Harvey.
Harvey is one of a small group of citizens who believe the public—and its visionary leader Kelly—have advocated the permanency of the oval without a comprehensive evaluation of what this process would entail.
“It seems to me to be a situation where it’s clinically inappropriate to ask questions.”
Such questions begin with budgetary concerns. According to Harvey, as the oval was never intended to be permanent, financial discrepancies exist between the original, long-term plans for city skating rinks and the recent report promoting oval permanency.
The oval was originally described in a Jun. 28, 2009 City Hall staff report as “an affordable solution within the Games budget, (but) it is highly unreliable and does not leave any legacy.”
The report estimated the annual operating costs of maintaining the rink to be approximately $40,000 to $110,000. Save The Oval web site manager Jeff White has touted this figure as a selling point. But the estimate was based on the running of similar facilities in cities with varying climates and an evaluation of maintenance costs specific to Halifax has not yet been established.
“We have asked staff to cost it out and come back with capital numbers in terms of long term capital investment and operational costs,” says Kelly whose unfounded calculations of the oval’s operating costs have ranged anywhere from $250,000 to $500,000 in interviews.
The mayor’s possibilities for sponsorship and advertising are equally speculative. According to Kelly, potential investors have not been informed as to the permanency plans for the rink.
“To decide now is to make a business case after the fact to fit what has been done,” says Harvey.
Any costs not covered by sponsorship and advertising would be “added to the general tax rate when the service is introduced,” according to the Jan. 6 staff report—a fact Kelly has made no mention of in interviews.
“I’d still see benefit for our population even if it did raise taxes slightly,” says White who, like Kelly, sees the oval’s benefits to the community as outweighing any costs.
But Harvey points to the oval’s permanence as stepping—or, rather, skating—on the toes of other community projects.
Maintaining the rink would entail overriding of the HRM’s Long Term Arena Strategy. Its January 2010 report stated a deficiency of outdoor skating space in the area to be reconciled by redeploying the oval’s cooling equipment after the games. A subcommittee would determine these “Destination Rinks” based on need.
But Kelly says the subcommittee will not perform its evaluation should the oval be made permanent, meaning a proper assessment of the HRM’s ice needs will not occur.
The Jan. 6 staff report dismisses this loss by stating the smaller rinks could not “accommodate the existing crowds without diminishing the recreational experience.” But the oval is more limited in its scope of activities than regular indoor or outdoor rinks, as it is reserved for recreational skating and speed skating only.
These limitations will extend to the Common as a whole warns Katie Campbell, creator of a counter online petition.
“This is the last piece of open, unmanaged space,” Campbell says, referring to the original 1763 land grant issued by King George III. Now, almost half of the public, undeveloped space remains, a large portion of which is consumed by the skating rink.
Campbell, like Harvey, is not against the idea of a free skating rink but does oppose its location.
“The idea for the North Common is that there is always a temporary use—no permanent structure,” says Campbell.
Harvey echoed her concerns of an overly managed space, referring the baseball league’s loss of seasons—whose diamonds are under the oval. A Jan. 12 regional council decision to boost fees on sports fields and ball diamonds will also mean the league’s necessary relocation will be costly for participants.
But none of these unknowns should represent serious concerns “if this is planned properly,” in the words of White.
As of now, no such plan exists. Kelly’s opinions on the oval’s possibilities are purely speculative because no long-term strategy for maintaining the rink has been drawn up.
Meanwhile, the concerns voiced by Campbell and Harvey have largely been dismissed as “anti-Oval.”
“What I should be characterized as, is asking questions,” says Harvey.
The Jan. 6 report listed many similar questions that need answering before decisions are finalized—yet it seems as if Kelly has already made up his mind and promised an oval to the public.