Despite impassioned plea, ice in Seaforth won't be reinstalled
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
Despite a campaign and petition to reinstall the ice surface at the Seaforth and District Community Centre, a failed partnership means things will remain status quo in Seaforth.
Huron East Council discussed the issue at its Feb. 16 meeting, beginning with a presentation from Craig Skinner, who said he was representing the youth of Seaforth in asking council to reverse its decision to remove the ice from all municipal arenas earlier this year and keep it in until the end of April.
He cited numerous factors that led to the request, including the mental health and wellbeing of young people throughout the pandemic, who he said feel as though they’re being overlooked. He said that while society has focused on essential workers, healthcare professionals and senior citizens as those most impacted by COVID-19, children have been suffering in silence.
Skinner presented statistics from a recent Toronto Star article stating that calls to Kids Help Phone more than doubled from 2019 to 2020.
He said the children of the town could play hockey safely, with all relevant protocols in place to limit the potential for virus spread now that the provincial lockdown had been modified. He added that when hockey was played again in the fall of 2020, there wasn’t a single case of COVID-19 linked to Seaforth Minor Hockey.
Skinner also said he had done the math, crunching the numbers and, in his opinion, the municipality could actually turn a small profit by reinstalling the ice. With $2,200 in costs to reinstall the ice and approximate costs of $1,000 per day, he said he had interest from enough user groups already to turn a small profit, though there could be an opportunity to attract even more usage once the ice returned.
Several councillors, however, were unsure of Skinner’s math, but said that wasn’t necessarily the issue. Huron East Mayor Bernie MacLellan said municipalities run their community centres knowing they won’t make money, but treat them more like a community service for residents than a vehicle to make money.
MacLellan said that once Skinner expressed interest in speaking to council, Chief Administrative Officer Brad Knight and others began discussing options, which eventually led to a discussion between Knight and West Perth Chief Administrative Officer Jeff Brick, which eventually brought West Perth Council into the conversation.
MacLellan said the councils had come to an informal agreement that, if Seaforth Minor Hockey would commit to at least 20 hours of ice time per week and Mitchell Minor Hockey would do the same, West Perth Council would guarantee payment of half of Huron East’s community centre costs, cutting the municipality’s risk in half. That decision, however, was up to the executive of Mitchell Minor Hockey, which met that night as well to discuss the opportunity.
MacLellan said that while 40 hours of ice time per week would not result in the municipality turning a profit, it would be a good start and perhaps Huron East could sell additional ice time to bring in even more revenue.
The Mitchell Minor Hockey executive, however, turned down the proposed agreement, saying the association would continue to negotiate with West Perth Council in hopes of reinstalling the ice at the West Perth Community Centre in Mitchell.
West Perth Mayor Walter McKenzie and Deputy-Mayor Doug Eidt both attended the Huron East meeting at different times and Eidt said that, while he couldn’t speak for his council, he did not believe reinstalling the ice would be an option in West Perth. Apart from the financial aspect of reinstalling ice at the community centre, Eidt said the insulation at the centre is simply not up to snuff to keep the ice cold enough beyond the end of March, saying anyone trying to skate in that arena in April would be doing so in water.
Eidt said he was disappointed in the decision of his local hockey association, adding that it was a well-thought-out proposal that could have benefitted both municipalities and hockey associations.
Knight also cautioned council about the risk the municipality would be assuming. He said that, if in a few weeks, the provincial government announced further lockdown measures forcing the municipality to remove the ice again after making little to no money, there would be no financial recourse for Huron East.
After receiving the news from the Mitchell Minor Hockey executive, MacLellan said he felt there were too many variables for council to take on the risk of reinstalling the ice. He also said that Mitchell Minor Hockey raised concerns with liability, insurance and the work involved with re-registering children for hockey and felt it would be too much to take on.
Councillor Ray Chartrand, however, wanted council to move ahead with the proposal, despite a lack of involvement from West Perth. He said Skinner’s numbers were well-researched and spoke for themselves and that Huron East didn’t need West Perth for the idea to be feasible.
MacLellan pushed back, however, saying that while Skinner had gauged the interest of various user groups, he didn’t have any guarantees, like the one Huron East would have had from West Perth.
Dave Meriam, the facilities manager at the Seaforth and District Community Centre, said he was unsure of the interest, adding that some groups were more eager for ice time than others.
Deputy-Mayor Bob Fisher was also dubious, saying that hockey sounds like a good idea to plenty of area children now, with plenty of snow on the ground and cold temperatures in the air. However, as March turns to April, and temperatures rise and the sun returns, interest may wane and Huron East will be left with ice in an arena that nobody is using.
He was also concerned with Skinner’s claim that he was representing the youth of the town when he claimed he had interest from just over 100 children wanting to return to organized hockey. There are plenty of children in Seaforth, he said, who don’t play hockey and would rather play indoor sports like ball hockey, volleyball, basketball or others and Skinner’s proposal would do nothing to aid them. He suggested hosting a number of indoor sports in the centre, instead of reinstalling the ice as a means to engage a wider swath of kids.
Councillor Zoellyn Onn agreed to an extent, but said the municipality could reinstall the ice in Seaforth, while opening the Brussels, Morris and Grey Community Centre for indoor activities in the vein of what Fisher was discussing.
Councillor Dianne Diehl agreed, saying the pandemic has been difficult for children – though she didn’t agree they’d been forgotten – so Huron East should try and provide opportunities, but for every child, not just those who play hockey.
Councillor Gloria Wilbee, who sits on the Seaforth Recreation Committee, had a different concern. The Seaforth Generals junior hockey team had been mentioned by Skinner as a potential user group. However, Wilbee said the issue had come up at the committee and because of the travelling nature of the Generals’ schedule, perhaps it wouldn’t be wise to allow the team to play in Seaforth, if the ice were to be reinstalled.
She said she was all for programming for area children, but that the committee didn’t want anyone bringing anything back to the town after travelling outside of the area.
Meriam cautioned council, saying that while the government regulations are clear on how many children can be on the ice at once playing hockey, the rules governing other indoor activities like those mentioned by Fisher were much more strict, so there may not be the widespread usage of the centre that council would expect.
Chartrand, however, stood firm in his support for reinstalling the ice, saying the municipality had nearly $250,000 in funding from the provincial government to offset losses in revenue due to the pandemic. The money had been discussed earlier in the meeting with Treasurer Paula Michiels saying that staff had yet to find a way to spend it.
MacLellan, however, called Chartrand’s idea a gamble, saying it would be bad management for the municipality to go out on a limb simply because there would be government funding to catch them if they fell. Furthermore, he said, the funding has to be used by the end of the year, so there would likely be plenty of opportunities to use the funding over the course of the year, with the pandemic still very active in the province. Several councillors agreed, saying there would likely be plenty of costs related to the pandemic down the road, so council would be foolish to gamble the money away after creating a new expense.
Councillor John Lowe said he was very much on the fence with the issue. He said he was sure user groups from northern Huron County would jump at the chance to get back on the ice, so if Seaforth ice were to return, he would bet users from Brussels, Blyth, Wingham and Howick would start booking time. However, he also said that while the stay-at-home order had been lifted, the pandemic is far from over, so perhaps Huron East doesn’t want user groups from all over the county travelling to Seaforth to use the community centre.
Eidt, who was still in attendance for the meeting, said that wasn’t how he saw it. With ice still in arenas in Stratford, St. Marys and Listowel, he said those arenas are begging people to use their ice, so he didn’t think people in the north might be jumping at the opportunity like Lowe thought they would.
With many proposals being thrown around, Knight suggested that council first vote on whether to reinstall the ice in Seaforth. After that, he said, if council kept the door open, then further options could be discussed.
Council passed a motion saying that, after receiving Skinner’s report and careful consideration, council decided not to reinstall the ice in Seaforth.
Chartrand did lobby to give Skinner one final opportunity to pull together enough user groups to make it feasible to reinstall the ice. MacLellan said that if a reasonable option could be presented in the days following the meeting, he would call an emergency meeting of council so the concept could be reconsidered.