Go slow on curling cash

Red Deer city council is right to defer a decision on a request to pour more cash into the Red Deer Curling Centre. There is too much uncertainty surrounding the curling centre’s future to make a hasty decision.

Red Deer city council is right to defer a decision on a request to pour more cash into the Red Deer Curling Centre.

There is too much uncertainty surrounding the curling centre’s future to make a hasty decision.

And there is too much is at stake in the broader community for the city to plunge unwarily into any commitment that will certainly involve long-term investment in the facility, and perhaps long-term management of the centre.

Council and city administration understand the need to create a cohesive capital budget plan that sets out infrastructure priorities and stays the course.

The public — as represented by taxpayers, the curling society and all other non-profit organizations and special interest groups in the community — should expect the city to do no less.

Beyond the tax burden associated with any financial commitment (and we all want to be assured that the city is managing our money to the best advantage), council has an obligation to define and manage the city’s relationship with community organizations.

There is no better time.

The demand for multi-level government support for recreation and arts projects is overwhelming. The list of potential projects in Red Deer runs from a new museum to a 50-metre pool to a performing arts centre to a new library to additional rinks to indoor tennis courts to a field house and beyond.

The Red Deer Curling Centre has been forced to shift gears in recent years as the group that operates it plots its future.

After mapping out a plan to build a new centre on vacated, province-owned Michener land, the group was forced a year ago to retrench. The cost of that project was prohibitive, at $14.4-million, after a bid for a $5.6-million federal grant failed.

So just over a year ago, the group went back to the city to ask that the $1 million the city had already committed to the Michener project go instead toward renovating and expanding the existing downtown facility.

The city money, combined with $1 million the club said it had already set aside for the project, would get the project halfway to its estimated $4 million cost.

Last fall, the city approved another $175,000 for site development work.

Last week, the group returned to council to say costs were escalating, more work may be needed to save or replace the existing 57-year-old structure, fundraising efforts were proving difficult, and an ongoing commitment from the city was necessary. Several options were presented. They all involved the city absorbing a long-term commitment to pay part of a significant mortgage.

And council balked.

As the landscape changes, and while information is being gathered, it would be imprudent to commit to the curling club or any other group.

Lingering questions need to be answered before a commitment can be made:

l What are the city’s capital recreation priorities and where does the curling centre fit on the list?

l Is the city comfortable owning the land upon which the curling centre sits while the curling group owns the facility (the situation now), or should the whole operation be turned over to the city?

l Would a different ownership structure make qualifying for provincial and federal grants more likely?

l Can the aging structure be reasonably rebuilt and saved, or should it be knocked down?

l Are there sponsorship possibilities to help ease the economic burden of a new or dramatically renovated centre?

City staff are conducting two important studies, one to develop a policy framework for handling loans and grants to community groups and one to analyze the status of outstanding loans to such groups. The first study is due at the end of June and the second should be ready at the end of March.

Those studies should provide critical information as council works its way through this process.

But the curling club should not expect an answer provided in isolation.

It would be far more reasonable to expect council to consider the future of the curling centre as it debates its capital spending plans next fall.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.

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