Skating Around the Important Questions

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.

10 comments

  1. So we shouldn’t keep the oval because: it costs money to run; the original grant for the Commons didn’t envision such things so the area should only have temporary structures and unstructured green space; and we’ll lose some ball diamonds. Seriously, this is a smashing success worth spending money on. I really don’t understand the argument about not putting a rink on the Commons – this is a free, public use, and a very popular one at that. It’s not like we’re cutting down virgin forest or ruining hiking trails – we’re replacing a ball diamond or two with a rink (and besides aren’t backstops permanent structures?) We’re not shrinking the Commons for development. What uses would be acceptable to those who oppose this rink? Grass? This idea that the Commons can not be touched is absurd – it’s no longer a place to graze goats or review troops, depsite what some groups seem to think. We’re turning the Commons into a year-round destination, which I think is a big improvement.

  2. If the oval were to stay in the location it is now it would be a great benefit to the immediate community. The main problem with the oval is that it is an oval! From what I understand this means that it is not usable for out-door hockey games as other outdoor rinks are. To spend so much money on a space that does not include all of our Canadian ice sports is stupid! on the same note I’ve heard that is cost 2 million to construct and it will cost and additional $500,000 to remove. If the additional cash was spent to make the oval a full use outdoor ice surface then that may silence some of the opposed. I think keeping a free outdoor ice surface in the HRM is a good idea! and since the money has been spent on this venue it is the one that makes sense! By only having the oval as a oval it is not a multi-use ice surface! It is a surface that is constrained by its shape and in this country where hockey was born, building an outdoor ice surface that does not accomodate the Canadian born sport hockey is not the best idea. I can see where the opposition from others comes. I am not from the HRM nor do I live there. I resided in Halifax while I went to school there but now reside elsewhere in NS where I grew up. I grew up playing hockey all over our province! and I played many games and attended many competitive tournaments in the HRM. To have an outdoor ice surface that does not accomodate hockey in our country and especially in a municipality where such hockey stars as Sidney Crosby come from is just asking for opposition. Make the oval a permanent outdoor ice surface for ALL to use and enjoy! and then maybe, the people of HRM besides those who don’t see past the novelty of the oval will support and be willing to pay the taxes that will run and maintain the oval!!

  3. There are other questions as well. What can be done to the oval to make it suitable for uses the rest of the year (it takes up about a third of the north Common) and how much will that cost? At the moment the site looks like a garbage dump…what are the chances that HRM would clear away that stuff in the off-season and bring it back in the winter? What about the effect of conessions and the delivery trucks, garbage trucks, etc they require? The actual oval is insignificant compared to the mess that has been generated there. What about commercialization….banners and advrtisements for sponsors? Also, Councillor Blumenthal, in an earlier staff report is quoted as saying that the small community rink in his district at St. Stephen Highland School, which is largely neighbourhood run, attracts 2,000 skaters a week. So, figuring a 12 week season that works out to 24,000 so the idea that we have to have it on the Common so people can get out and skate and enjoy the winter doesn’t make sense. Leaving some ice making capacity in the downtown for another rink and using the other ice making machines at other sites in HRM will not cut down on the number of people getting exercise and having fun. It also is environmentally smarter since it means less driving. What seems to be lost here is that we are talking about something that can be available maybe 90 days…December 15-March 15 (if there are no equipment failures). Subtract from that say 15 days when it can’t be used due to rain or snow covering or warm temperatures or whatever and the cost per day is steep. We need to consider the opportunity cost of that money…what else could be done with it to promote health and recreation? Is this the very best use of that space and money?

  4. As someone who lives near the Commons, I am of the camp that says “Keep the Oval…just not in my yard.” The traffic and confusion it has caused in the area are big. But even bigger downside is the loss of the wide-open, big space we have for public use. I meander through that park daily, seeing what a powerful spot it is for clearing the mind and playing a game of soccer.

    Let’s skate, yes, but not on the North Commons.
    Molly

  5. I am glad to have Beverley raise the question of what the Oval actually looks like. Beverley says a garbage dump – my perception is similar but of an industrial building site. All of the pictures in the press that I have seen “prettify” what’s there. They somehow avoid showing the chain link fences, the steel barriers, the heavy equipment, the extensive parking lot and the assortment of prefabricated buildings that are required. It’s less noticeable in these dark days – but during nine months of the year it would be a horrible eyesore. If I could believe that there was both the money and the will to do the extensive landscaping that would be required to make it park -like I would be less concerned. However, given the policy planning process in terms of the costs and resources required over the long-term I doubt very much that I can look forward to the regreening of that space any time soon. I do support planning for opportunities to skate outdoors but not the takeover of this green space in this way.

  6. It is unfortunate that the oval was only planned as a temporary installation & that the proponents of making it permanent weren’t at the table when the planning was being done. One would only had to have looked at the number of skaters using Chaocolate Lake, and numerous other lakes in & around Halifax, to realize that an outdoor skating venue on the Peninsula would be very popular.

    If it was to be permanent it would have been designed differently, with permanence in mind. Also, there are better locations on & near the Commons that would be better suited for a permanent oval. Wanders Grounds & Garrison Grounds come to mind. Another point is the great waste of heat extracted by the cooling equipment. Now the waste heat is just vented to the atmosphere. A more envionmentally thoughtful design & location would use that waste heat in adjacent buildings, greenhouses or stables, or at least to warm up bleachers for event spectators.

  7. A free skating rink in The Commons is naturally a very appreciated addition by many.

    My question: Why not a free Ferris Wheel? Roller coaster? swimming pool? ice hockey rink? Why not the fire department? Police station?

    My point: The Commons is meant to be unrestricted common land that lends itself to common unstructured recreation. Why not put The Oval on The Q.E.H. property?

    We all love to give things away, particularly politicians looking for votes.

    There is the money required to run it, and there is the fact that it takes up a lot of room for a brief winter activity that takes up Summer space as well.

    Finally, I noticed that it is located in the corner of The Commons surrounded by many people who do not have a history of standing up for their rights.

    If they have a problem with noise, light and parking, we will probably not hear about it from them.

    Superficially, a “Motherhood Issue”; in Truth, just another breach in a trusted committment to the people, as everybody tries to gobble up the people’s public land.

  8. The inhabitants residing around the common are complete and utter pinheads. Who cares about Baseball ? I work and walk through the common on a daily basis, morning and afternoon, I very rarely see any sort of baseball games being played. As a matter of fact, I rarely see anyone using the common what-so-ever except people using it as a shortcut. You see the odd person here and there throwing a ball to a dog or someone sitting on the grass. Maybe, and I mean this loosely, maybe 30 people are occupying this space at any given time. I have NEVER seen more then two diamonds occupied at once. I don’t understand why the people who live around the common feel as though they have say in what happens within it. It is not the 1800 or 1910, people are not using this space as they once did. Cities expand and grow, and god forbid they use this sacred land no one uses to begin with. Considering 70% of the population is now or becoming obese, embrace and welcome something people obviously appreciate and use and want. The people who are anti-common everything need to be shoved in a box with a sock in their mouths. No one cares about the apparent “Cricket Games” that occur on the common, I personally have NEVER seen one. No one also cares about the baseball games. I have never seen a baseball tournament other then casual games occur on this ground.

  9. I too am not against the Oval, or getting out the community to skate. But let’s be clear: this was not planned for permanency. I might even ask whether it was well planned. Its popularity should not be a surprise – citizens have been asking for about a decade for an ice surface in downtown.

    It is not free. We may not be paying at the gate, but we are paying through our taxes towards Canada Games via the city (helped with commercial sponsorships) now, towards City for management and maintenance later.

    Sponsorship: the use of the Common should be free of commercial use (and although we already blew that with the concerts we could end that intrusion now). Local non-profit groups looking to hold fund-raising, community-minded events have been denied use of the space for years – and they work to enhance our community, they do not for private gain. Not to say sponsorship is bad – no it’s GREAT – but not on the Common.

    The space taken up includes two baseball diamonds AND a field hockey pitch (most often used by Ultimate and soccer pick-up games.) As a recreational / pick-up soccer player, there is no space offered up. Even the football, ultimate and baseball played now is likely not free, but based on a users fee…and the Common is supposed to be available free. And what about unstructured activities (back to my pick-up soccer) – this is what green (grass?!) should be about in an urban centre…for that and walking through the space. Continue adding structured facilities (especially if they are only for season use) and there won’t be a blade of grass left…nor any interest in walking through what might soon look like an industrial park.

    Ottawa has the canal, Toronto has Nathan Phillips Square, Vancouver…okay, they only have water and lots of it! Hmmm, what do we have: Pond in Public Gardens (apparently with a history of skating), a few lakes around (like in Dartmouth), and lots of school yards, recreation parks and centres’ with space, the Shubie canal…a new Library coming in the near future. What these natural and structural options?

    HRM is trying to build density in the core, and we have an aging and active population – we need more unstructured green space than ever. A truly great community has great neighbourhoods, green space and ice sheets should be available in every neighbourhood – not a drive away. Let’s think ‘cents-ibly’ and act locally!

    Where was the community, collaborative brain-trust before the Oval was created? Where will the leadership come from to bring all our rich, passionate, pro-community interests together to assist each other achieve our visions of the City collectively and respectfully?

  10. If the cost of the Oval were to be 250,000/year and HRM has around 400,000 people, every one in Halifax would have to chip in an extra 62.5 cents. I am not going to worry a whole lot about an extra 62.5 cents. Particularly considering that the Oval has all ready likely paid for itself in Health benefits.

    I do agree that there should be due diligence, but more due diligence should be applied to projects like the Washmill underpass, the convention center and future projects that are many times more costly then the Oval and have far more potential to increase taxes then the Oval.

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