Thursday, January 27, 2011

A Permanent Skating Oval - Another Perspective

I would like to make my position clear regarding the possibility of making the Skating Oval a permanent fixture on the Halifax North Common.

I think the Oval has been a fabulous venue this winter, and I have enjoyed skating on it also. It has been an outstanding venue for the Canada Winter Games. No doubt about it. I understand and appreciate the excitement and the interest that many have voiced for having access to a facility of this sort, the benefits of exercise, the joy of skating, the pride in having something like this in Halifax. I see that it has caught the imagination of many people, and that there is a lot of support from a variety of business and business related interests (GoodLife Fitness, Home Builders Association), sports groups (Sports Hall of Fame, 1990 Figure Skating Championships Legacy, Speed Skating Association), petitioners from Save the Oval groups, with great support from Ms. Sloane, the regional councilor for the district.

What I do not appreciate is the concerted effort to change the nature of the original understanding that was in place in establishing the Skating Oval on the Common for the Winter Games; and that agreement was that the Skating Oval would be a temporary installation, and that after the Winter Games it would be removed from the site. It is essentially a bait-and-switch operation, and I feel it is ethically wrong to use the influence of special interest groups to try to move this forward at a time of high excitement, and to represent this as a potentially free access facility, or even one that could support a nominal charge to access the ice surface; or to insinuate that the permanent facility would resemble the current presentation we see now on the Common.

Additionally, I feel it is inappropriate to insist that the Skating Oval can only reside successfully on the North Common. This is patently untrue, and to my knowledge, the offers of funding are not contingent on the Skating Oval remaining on the North Common. There are other options that can be explored to situate the facility in a more appropriate location. One that is more conducive to the advertising sponsorships, vendor support, parking, and infrastructure that comes with a permanent facility. I believe the unwillingness of the interested parties to even discuss other site options is short sighted and will harm the success of their project in the end.

The North Common is the last remaining open, unstructured space left of the original land grant. There are hospitals, schools, roads, a museum, a cemetery, Public Gardens, a small sports venue at the Wander's Grounds, and no end in sight for the using up of this land.

I feel that there is a lack of vision with regard to the understanding of the value of these lands and their potential, and an ongoing abuse in the interpretation of the original purpose for these lands. There is, at this time, an abysmal lack of management planning for this space for future generations of this city. In other noteworthy cities, there is a carefully articulated plan and legal structure laid out for the protection of these types of land, and it is an outstanding feature of these cities. As example I suggest Central Park in New York City, Hyde park in London, The Boston Common and High Park in Toronto. These parks are landmarks, tourist attractions, historic sites and community space that generate interest, tourist traffic, and respect for the cities in which they reside. They also generate revenue in the context of carefully constructed policy and planning guidelines for the land use and protection.

I have come to the conclusion that HRM is now at the place and time where it needs to establish a Conservancy Trust, or some such vehicle, to assume the management and preservation role for the Common Lands for the city. It is possible to explore management of the remaining lands, and to examine reclamation of lands as opportunities present themselves. I say this because there is an unprecedented pressure at this time for City Council to develop these lands for commercial use and that without the protection of a Conservancy Trust in place, we will see a continuation of development of these lands with no end in sight.

In terms of some context from a financial perspective, it is not clear that the general taxpayer community would support tax payer dollars to run a permanent Skating Oval, on the Common or elsewhere. That being said, it would mean that the facility would have to be run as a going concern to raise the money for construction, maintenance and upkeep. This means it would operate as a business - could be for profit,or as a non-profit, but it will not be free. This is not a bad thing, and it is appropriate to entertain offers of corporate sponsorship and special interest contributions, but most certainly not on the North Common site.

I would suggest an open and honest dialogue with the broader Halifax communities to discover the interest in using tax dollars to fund the development of a Skating Oval, to discover if there is widespread citizen support for this on the Common, and to explore the options for alternative sites in the HRM.

I highly recommend that residents of HRM take a minute to drive, walk, bus, by the North Common to take a look at how much space the Skating Oval actually takes and to ask yourself if this is really an appropriate use for these lands.