Sault Ste. Marie City Council refused Tuesday night to take a first step toward privatising arena operations at the W.J. McMeeken Centre.
A motion from Ward 3 Councillor Matthew Shoemaker, calling for city staff to prepare a report on the possibility of leasing the arena's 85-foot-by-185-foot ice surface, its four dressing rooms and canteen to a private operator, failed on a split vote.
Councillor Shoemaker went to great lengths trying to argue that he wasn't advocating privatisation because his motion was only to have staff prepare a report, and because he wasn't proposing to actually sell the arena at 616 Goulais Avenue.
"All we're doing here is asking for a staff report. We're not looking to get rid of public assets," Shoemaker said.
"We have budgetary shortfalls in many areas. We're looking into budgetary shortfalls anywhere we can find ways to improve our efficiency or earn new revenue."
"People are raising the privatization bogeyman as a result of this resolution," said Shoemaker. "That is not what this motion is."
But Shoemaker's motion clearly expressed interest in turning the McMeeken's red ink black by privatising arena operations:
Mover: Councillor M. Shoemaker
Seconder: Councillor S. Butland
Whereas the city has explored the option of building a new West End ice rink; and
Whereas any such construction would take several years to fund, build and complete; and
Whereas the McMeeken Centre operates at an annual cost to taxpayers of $150,000; and
Whereas there has been interest expressed in a lease of the McMeeken Centre which could result in it becoming a profit centre for the City of Sault Ste. Marie;
Now therefore be it resolved that staff report to council as soon as practicable on the possibility of putting the McMeeken Centre out to the public for lease of the entire space and advise what benefits or detriments could result from such an arrangement.
"We believe that this motion would be disastrous to all youth organizations requiring prime ice allotments from city-owned facilities," said Mike Landry of the Soo Pee Wee Hockey League.
"We understand that the operations of any city-owned facilities within our city limits is difficult, contentious and a financial burden. Our position is very clear: leasing any of these facilities to a privately owned group will only result in a negative residuum for the young players and constituents of our community," Landry said in a report to councillors.
"There is a clear precedence that leasing to a privately-owned group limits the availability of ice to all other groups where the availability is already limited."
"In the past year, the agreement between a privately owned hockey club and the Rankin Arena has proven to be disastrous for all other hockey organizations within the City of Sault Ste Marie and area."
Mike Creedon of the Sault Major Hockey Association also cites Rankin Arena's experience.
"This exact thing was tried and seems to have failed many people when done at the Rankin Arena for the Batchewana First Nation. Leasing the arena to the deepest pockets will cost the youth and their families tremendously," Creedon said.
"If it is the opinion of council that community facilities need to be reviewed to minimize losses, Sault Major suggests the first step would be to meet with your major user groups and discuss options with them before going out and looking at lease agreements. It would not be beneficial to have their most important asset (ice time) become under the control of a for-profit leasor."
"All of these associations had to follow established protocol in order to get the ice they have, including waiting for ice to become available hour by hour; year after year. Allowing a deep pocket to control this asset of ice time is completely against the protocols that the city/associations have established and followed for years," Creedon said.
"Sault Major had to decrease its league schedule because of the loss of ice at the Rankin; each of our A and B divisions went from 35 games, down to only 30-game schedules. Sault Major has not had enough ice to give nearly the number of practices to teams that they normally have; entire divisions didn't get practice ice for January or February."
"Sault Major would prefer that the major users with the city, work together to find solutions to the profitability/losses of the Mcmeeken Arena; and not have it go to the highest bidder."
Tom Vair, the city's deputy chief administrative office for community development and enterprise services, said it would take about 20 hours of staff time to prepare the report sought by Shoemaker.
"It's not just a report," countered Ward 2 Councillor Susan Myers. "We're continually asking staff to just do a report and something when we already have a good sense of where we want to go."
Myers wanted nothing to do with Shoemaker's idea.
Ward 1 Councillor Steve Butland pointed out that the city could easily turn the McMeeken Centre into a profit centre, just by raising user fees.
"Arenas have always been subsidized in just about every facility in North America, save and except some NHL arenas," Butland said.
The London Free Press
reported this week that London's Budweiser Gardens turned a tidy $377,514 profit last year, compared to an even-better $572,695 in 2015 and a resplendent $972,947 in 2014.
The $42-million sports and entertainment venue is owned by the City of London in a private-public partnership with management company Global Spectrum.
How your councillors voted last night:
Ward 1 Councillor Steve Butland - for
Ward 1 Councillor Paul Christian - declared pecuniary interest
Ward 2 Councillor Susan Myers - against
Ward 2 Councillor Sandra Hollingsworth - absent
Ward 3 Councillor Judy Hupponen - against
Ward 3 Councillor Matthew Shoemaker - for
Ward 4 Councillor Rick Niro - declared pecuniary interest
Ward 4 Councillor Lou Turco - against
Ward 5 Councillor Marchy Bruni - for
Ward 5 Councillor Frank Fata - for
Ward 6 Councillor Ross Romano - declared pecuniary interest
Ward 6 Councillor Joe Krmpotich - against
Mayor Christian Provenzano was out of town, attending to municipal business.