While council meetings are often mired in not-so-sexy issues like zoning bylaws, road repairs, and water meter replacements, much of what council deals with has a direct impact on the daily lives of Meaford residents. At the July 24 meeting, the last meeting before a bit of a summer break, council heard from representatives of Georgian Shores Minor Hockey who were looking for some relief from the fees paid for rental of ice time at Meaford's arena.
Council was told that registration with the organization has been in decline. Two seasons ago there were 123 local youth registered, last year that number had dropped to 111, and this year they've only received 85 registrants, of which roughly half are Meaford residents. With such low numbers, the organization is only able to put together teams of a dozen players, not the desired 20 or more per team, and their current budget, based on last year's numbers, projects a small profit at the end of the year of just $160. Needless to say, they don't have much wiggle room in their budget, so it made sense for them to visit council to ask if Meaford would be willing to match the low prime-time ice rental rate of $75 per hour that the Thornbury arena is charging the organization.
Currently the prime-time ice rental rate at the arena in Meaford is $100 per hour, while the off prime-time rate is about $67 per hour. Both rates compare favourably to the rates being charged at the Thornbury arena, where their published prime-time rate is roughly $155 per hour and their off-prime rate is $78.54. On paper, Meaford's rates should give an advantage, however Thornbury offered Georgian Shores Minor Hockey a discounted rate of $75 per hour for prime-time ice rental, making Meaford $25 per hour more expensive. As a result, while the organization would prefer to split their ice time rentals evenly between Meaford and Thornbury, last year they booked more ice time in Thornbury than they did in Meaford, and who could blame them? At the same time, arenas are already notorious money-losers for municipalities, and given the already heavy subsidization by the taxpayer, can you blame a municipality for being hesitant to lower rental rates?
Now, I'm no hockey fan; in fact, the last hockey game of any type that I watched was a Russian pro hockey league (akin to North America's NHL) game held in a cold, Soviet-era arena on the fringes of Siberia surrounded by rowdy Russians who, fuelled by piva (Russian for beer), sang and chanted from the first whistle to the final whistle. My Russian colleagues had arranged the outing to the game based solely on the fact that I am Canadian, and they assumed I would be thrilled. Hockey fan or not, I understand the importance of the game to this country, but even more importantly I understand the importance of the game (or any other sport) to our community. We live in an age when we are becoming less and less active, thanks largely to technological advances that have resulted in many of us sitting on our behinds for hours on end rather than moving about, so any time we can provide increased opportunity for athletic endeavours, particularly with our youth, I'm all for it.
Unlike the costs associated with the provision of a soccer field, where the biggest expense to a municipality is likely to be cutting the grass each week, hockey arenas are expensive operations, particularly for smaller communities, and they require significant subsidies, but in my opinion, even though my life wouldn't be altered one bit if there was no arena in town, I think they are worth every penny.
The 2017 budget for our community centre and arena projected revenues of $185,400, compared to expenses of $422,075 - and that's just operating costs. The building is currently in need of significant investment in renovation to the change rooms, and there are hundreds of thousands of dollars in required maintenance and upgrades at the facility in the coming years. In short, running arenas ain't cheap, and a municipality will never recover its costs – it's one of those services that taxpayers have agreed over the decades is worthy of heavy subsidization with their hard-earned tax dollars, and that shouldn't change.
While this council has been extremely cautious with the pennies over the course of their term, they were very receptive to the plight of the Georgian Shores Hockey representatives, and they agreed that Meaford should do what it can to retain the organization at Meaford's facility, and so staff will implement a pilot project that will offer a reduced prime-time rate to the minor hockey organization, as well as the local figure skating club, that matches the $75 per hour being charged in Thornbury. After the pilot project, which will end after the coming hockey season, staff will prepare a report to council, and there will no doubt be some debate about whether the municipality can continue to offer such a low rate – and I would suggest that they should (the discount will amount to hundreds, not thousands of dollars in lost revenue at the arena). It's not like the arena (or any municipal arena) was on the verge of making a profit: there are no profits to be made, and there isn't even a hope of full cost recovery – nor should there be, so really, what's a few (hundred) fewer dollars going to hurt?
Some things are just meant to be subsidized by the masses. If we as a society hadn't decided long ago that we should all pitch in for things like public transportation, community centres, arenas, baseball fields, or public swimming pools, then we very likely wouldn't have them, as to plunk the entire cost onto just those who use the facilities would make them cost-prohibitive, and it would create yet another unnecessary barrier between rich and poor. So instead, we do the right thing, and we all pitch in for things we use and enjoy as well as things we might never use.