While your son or daughter may not be a hockey player, ringette player, or figure skater — there’s a good chance that at some point someone in your family, circle of friends, or even yourself has enjoyed a visit to a city arena for public skating. A few weeks ago, the City of St. Catharines announced some opportunities for the community to get involved by sharing their thoughts about the future of the arenas in the city. First, an online public survey went out, which closed on March 11, and later this spring, there will be an open house where the city will present their preliminary findings based on the feedback from community members and arena staff.
Currently, the City of St. Catharines owns five arenas; Seymour-Hannah Sports and Entertainment Centre (four ice pads and a mini rink), Garden City Arena Complex (one ice pad, one dry floor), Bill Burgoyne Arena (one ice pad), Merritton Centennial Arena (one ice pad, operated by Merritton Lions Club), and Meridian Centre (one ice pad, operated by SMG Canada).
Eric Lamothe, Acting Manager of Business Planning and Strategic Services for the City of St. Catharines, emphasized that the city always looks for feedback from the community when making plans for future development.
“Anytime we do anything at the city, community feedback and user group feedback is critical. It’s the biggest part of the entire process. With that said, there’s always a number of different ways to garner the community feedback,” said Lamothe.
Some of the city’s arenas have been around longer than others. Facilities like Garden City Arena Complex, which houses Jack Gatecliff Arena and Rex Stimers Arena, as well as Merritton Centennial Arena, both are in need of upgrades.
“That goes back to looking at the needs of those arenas, what kind of costs will be associated with them, what are the major needs? One of the things the strategy will be able to look at is the cost of fixing those buildings and what needs to be done in the short term and what needs to be considered for the long term,” said Lamothe.
In an article by Beth Audet of Niagara This Week from February, Geoff Crane, who has been managing Merritton Centennial Arena for over 40 years, discussed the plethora of needs for the local rink.
“If you neglect things for so long, where do you catch up? Do you fix the pothole or do you wait ‘til you have to fix the whole street?”
Crane described a number of maintenance issues needing attention at Merritton; the ceiling has holes, the rubber flooring hasn’t been replaced since 1985, and the sprinkler system is on its last legs.
In July of 2018, the city announced that Rex Stimers Arena would operate as a dry floor for the year, due to an issue with the refrigeration system that was over 50 years old. Not having that ice pad left little time to navigate reallocation of ice times to fulfill the needs of associations and other ice activities.
“That will be part of the strategy, looking at all different factors, whether it’s a dry floor arena or ice arena. That’s one of the things this strategy will be able to undertake. We should be able to garner an outcome for Rex once the arena strategy is completed,” said Lamothe.
While Rex Stimers Arena not operating as an ice pad was challenging, especially the timing of the decision, Lamothe said that the use of the floor for volleyball has seen a lot of success this year.
“With the volleyball folks in there, we’ve seen a huge uptake. Although it was a negative situation that the arena had to close for ice so abruptly, it’s been kind of a great story with the volleyball folks in there. They’re seeing about 2,000-3,000 people through there a week. So, although it was negative for it to happen so abruptly, in the interim a good story has come out of it.”
Both Brock hockey teams practice and play out of Seymour-Hannah. While both teams are often on the ice almost every day of the week, Brock women’s hockey head coach Margot Page emphasized their practice times are not often competing with that of times that youth hockey teams need.
“One thing that is pretty fortunate is that we don’t go into primetime. We know the arena crunch here in St. Catharines, it’s unfortunate, but we practice anytime between 1:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. for a reason, and I think that helps the city out because we don’t go into the primetime. Should we be wanting ice primetime or first thing in the morning, I think then it would become an issue. The only thing is our home games, we can’t do anything about that [being in prime hours], but knowing they have a consistent tenant in those non prime hours has to be a good feeling, because where else are you going to get that kind of cash?”
Page noted that if push comes to shove, the challenge will be how to fit in youth team needs in the hours they can get to the rink.
“The big picture of it, now that more rinks are potentially shutting down in the future, is where do they go, because there’s only so much prime ice. You can’t tell a bantam kid to come to a 2:00 p.m. practice, and it’s a matter of how that will be manipulated. To me, it’s a matter of your youth hockey being a priority to [adult leagues] or anything like that.”
For the Badgers, they play their home games on rink one at Seymour-Hannah, which has the capacity for 1,500 spectators (seating and standing room).
“I really like Seymour-Hannah, I think it’s a perfect sized venue for men’s and women’s hockey for Brock. I really enjoy it, they treat us very well there, they try to accommodate our different ice changes,” said Page. “The space isn’t perfect for us as we grow, but it’s pretty darn good. From an athlete standpoint, they got used to it. Getting there, it’s not best case scenario, but they’ve gotten used to it.”
For Brock students who want to attend home games, it can be challenging to get to Seymour-Hannah if they’re relying on bus routes.
“It’s not easy to get there, there’s not a bus that goes directly there. It’s a hard thing to be able to get fans in the building, and I think that hurts us.”
Though, while it is difficult for fans to get to Seymour-Hannah, Page said that she’s not sure another venue would be much better — whether transportation wise or venue capacity-wise. The Steel Blade Classic has been housed at the Meridian Centre the past few seasons, but seats over 5,000 people.
“I don’t know how that’s going to help us, there’s so many other things that would be a priority before Brock. The venue for women’s hockey and probably for most of the men’s hockey games is way too big. I love the idea of the facility, but would we have designated dressing rooms for men’s and women’s hockey? Would we have designated offices for men’s and women’s hockey? I think the trek to it is still not the best.”
“Are there other facilities in the region that could potentially be a good fit? I really don’t know what are our other options. On top of that, because we like it there [at Seymour-Hannah], why would you want to go somewhere else unless you’re pushed out?” said Page.
Aside from the community feedback, Lamothe said that people from the city have visited the arenas to determine short and long-term needs for each.
“What we’ve done is toured each of the arenas owned by the city and we’ve been doing needs assessments on them, looking at the larger capital items an arena might require over the next while, both short term and long term needs, five, 10, 15 or 30 years from now. Whether an arena might need new boards or new flooring, looking at those larger capital needs.”
For this season, Lamothe said that the user groups were helpful in figuring out the reallocation of the hours that would have been booked at Rex.
“First and foremost, the utmost credit needs to be given to the user groups, when Rex went down we were faced with a challenge, and they’ve been nothing but accommodating and helpful and respectful throughout the whole process.”
While the reflection on this past year is that things worked out seemingly well, sports like hockey, ringette and figure skating will only continue to grow. Coupled with ice needed for intramurals, public skating and other ice activities, the long term solution likely can’t afford for less ice pads in the city.
“This is why the strategy is so important — how many [ice] pads do we need? The heart of the matter is looking at the short and long term needs of our arena structure.”