Skating around the important questions

Halifax is waiting to see if Mayor Peter Kelly can keep them skating.

Halifax is waiting to see if Mayor Peter Kelly can keep them skating.
“It’s called vision. Someone has to have that vision for the future. Politicians should quickly see it and understand it. Somebody has to lead,” Kelly says.
Mayor Peter Kelly’s most recent vision involves making the North Common skating Oval a permanent fixture after the upcoming Canada Winter Games.
The media has been awash with support for this vision as it gains momentum through the Save The Oval campaign, whose online petition, at press time, had garnered close to 7,000 signatures.
The popularity of the Oval is undeniable: a Jan. 6 staff report from City Hall reported that 600-800 people are on it at a time on a regular basis. The rink is unique in that it provides a large, free, central space for skating. The public is overwhelmingly in favour of keeping the Oval to fill a long-existing gap in Halifax’s recreational services.
“I see what the public sees. The public is never wrong,” says Kelly.

But some critics say that the public is misinformed, and that Kelly’s vision is a case of the blind leading the blind.
“You’re hearing statements like this from the mayor: ‘The people have spoken. You’ll have an Oval,’” says Bob Harvey, councilor for Lower Sackville. “In my experience with him as a politician, he’s looked into things before he’s spoken. In this case, he’s stepped onto the ice without looking.”
Harvey is one of a small group of citizens who believe the public—and Kelly—have chosen to support keeping the Oval without a complete understanding of what this process would entail.
“It seems to me to be a situation where it’s clinically inappropriate to ask questions,” says Harvey.
Such questions begin with budgetary concerns. According to Harvey, since the Oval was never intended to be permanent, financial discrepancies exist between the original, long-term plans for city skating rinks and the recent report promoting the Oval’s permanency.
The Oval was originally described in a Jun. 28, 2009 City Hall staff report as “an affordable solution within the Games budget, (but) it is highly unreliable and does not leave any legacy.”
The report estimated the annual operating costs of maintaining the rink to be approximately $40,000 to $110,000. Save The Oval website manager Jeff White has touted this figure as a selling point. But the estimate was based on the operation of similar facilities in cities with different climates, and an evaluation of maintenance costs specific to Halifax has not been completed.
After interviews in which he had estimated the cost to range between $250,000 and $500,000, Kelly says that he’s now asked staff to investigate the long-term costs.
The mayor also touts possibilities for sponsorship and advertising, but these are equally speculative. According to Kelly, potential investors have not been informed as to the long-term plans for the rink.
Kelly has also failed to mention in interviews that, according to the Jan. 6 report, any costs not covered by sponsorship and advertising would be “added to the general tax rate when the service is introduced”.
“To decide now is to make a business case after the fact to fit what has been done,” says Harvey.
White remains in favour of the Oval despite the possible tax increase. “I’d still see benefit for our population, even if it did raise taxes slightly.”
But Harvey says making the Oval permanent would be stepping on the toes of other community projects.
Maintaining the rink would entail overriding the HRM’s Long Term Arena Strategy. A January 2010 report suggested that the Oval’s cooling equipment should be repurposed to assist spaces deemed “destination rinks” based on need.
But Kelly says the subcommittee will not perform its evaluation if the Oval is made permanent, meaning a proper assessment of the HRM’s rink needs would not occur.
The Jan. 6 staff report dismisses this loss by stating that smaller rinks could not “accommodate the existing crowds without diminishing the recreational experience.” But the Oval cannot accommodate as wide a variety of activities as normal indoor or outdoor rinks, as it is reserved exclusively for recreational skating and speed skating.
Then there’s the issue of the space itself. Though Kelly trumpets the public desire for a permanent Oval, Katie Campbell is the creator of an online petition against a permanent Oval.
“This is the last piece of open, unmanaged space,” Campbell says, referring to the original 1763 land grant issued by King George III. Now a little less than half of the public undeveloped space remains, a large portion of which is currently consumed by the skating rink.
“The idea for the North Common is that there is always a temporary use—no permanent structure,” says Campbell.
Harvey echoed her concerns of an overly managed space. He cited summer baseball leagues being affected, as their diamonds sit under the Oval. If the Oval is kept, Kelly has promised new diamonds near the Canada Games facility on Lacewood.
But none of these unknowns should represent serious concerns “if this is planned properly,” White says.
As of now, no such plan exists. Kelly’s opinions on the Oval are purely speculative because no long-term strategy for maintaining the rink has been drawn up.
Meanwhile, the concerns voiced by Campbell and Harvey have largely been dismissed as “anti-Oval.”
“What I should be characterized as,” says Harvey, “is asking questions.”

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