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Public vs. Private: Here’s how Prince George city arenas operate on a yearly basis

City says it’s losing roughly $1 million per month since COVID-19 began

COVID-19 has forced Prince George arenas to close indefinitely as a result of potential health risks and a lack of revenue.

The city says more than $1 million is being lost per month as the pandemic continues, ultimately deciding to close all four public arenas until further notice with a current projected shortfall of $9 million in 2021.

Originally, Aug. 4 was tentatively scheduled as the day to reopen ice arenas, however, since the July 14 decision to cancel it, the local winter-sports community has taken its frustrations to social media in hopes the city can open them soon for the sake of young athletes.

Some have even gone to other cities that have arenas open for sports camps, leading to the question of why those facilities are open and not ours?

Well, most of those B.C. arenas are likely privately-owned, meaning they’re allowed to be open under the public health recommendations of Dr. Bonnie Henry and implement strategies to keep them running.

Let’s look at how Prince George arenas are funded on an annual basis.

KIN ARENAS

In 2019, it cost Prince George more than $1.5 million to keep the Kins running and only $1.02 million was brought in for revenue, or 67 per cent of cost recovery.

This means the remaining 33 per cent needed for the three-rink facility was offset by taxpayer dollars and further subsidized by the city.

Prince George Minor Hockey Association (PGMHA) claims it's ‘one of, if not the biggest, user group of ice’ for the Kins, saying, in a statement, it paid $585,000 to rent them last year.

That accounts for roughly one-third of the expenses and about half of the revenue.

By comparison, in 2018, only 75 per cent of the cost recovery was met with $1,070,149 in revenue out of a total value of $1,420,156.

ROLLING MIX CONCRETE ARENA

According to the City of Prince George, this arena struggles more than the rest to make ends meet.

In the last two years, subsidies and taxpayer dollars have made up 63 and 72 per cent of the cost recovery as the RMCA is, simply put, an aging piece of infrastructure.

From 2018 to 2019, the 62-year-old arena’s expenses went up 21 per cent to more than $1.095 million, but only 28 per cent of that total was brought in from revenue last year ($306,683).

At a July 2019 city council meeting, staff determined that in the next 10 years, more than $11 million would be needed to keep the Spruce Kings’ castle as up-to-date as possible.

That same evening, City Utilities Manager Kristy Brown said staff would be looking to consider an option of replacing the RMCA altogether, if it meant reducing its costly needs year after year.

“For example, the age of the Rolling Mix Concrete Arena, and with the amount of reinvestment required around $11 million, this could be a candidate to consider replacing with a modern facility instead of investing in renovations.”

No decision on replacing the RMCA has been made since then.

CN CENTRE

  • 2018
    • Revenue = $3,078,415
    • Expenses = $4,286,423
    • Cost Recovery = 72 per cent, 28 per cent needed to offset
  • 2019
    • Revenue = $2,580,160
    • Expenses = $4,056,307
    • Cost Recovery = 64 per cent, 36 per cent needed to offset

ELKSENTRE

  • 2018
    • Revenue = $319,076
    • Expenses = $636,086
    • Cost Recovery = 50 per cent, 50 per cent needed to offset
  • 2019
    • Revenue = $289,168
    • Expenses = $678,744
    • Cost Recovery = 43 per cent, 67 per cent needed to offset

“Even in a ‘regular’ year, the arenas do not come close to making money. They are a service that local governments provide to their communities,” reads a city statement to PrinceGeorgeMatters, adding the arenas are costly right now compared to average years by virtue of increased sanitizing protocols now mandatory during the pandemic.

“While user groups do pay fees to rent amenities such as ice rinks, the revenue from fees is still a long way away from offsetting the very large amount of money lost this year through the cancellation of major events (i.e. concerts and sporting events) at the arenas due to Public Health Orders limiting the size of events to 50 people and recommendations around physical distancing.”

The city adds if arenas are to reopen before a COVID-19 vaccine is produced and Phase Four of B.C.’s restart plan comes into effect, the subsidization to offset added costs, like cleaning and sanitizing, would be significantly higher.

Now, there’s also an option potentially for the city to put some of its arenas up for sale and become privately owned, an idea that sees fit with Cariboo Hockey General Manager Trevor Sprague.

“If there’s financial problems, maybe it’s time to start selling a couple of them off,” he said in an earlier interview with PrinceGeorgeMatters. 

“Hopefully those discussions are being done and maybe a ‘for sale’ sign will come up.”

In the case of a private arena during COVID-19, we reached out to Canlan Ice Sports, a nationwide rink management company that owns five facilities in B.C., including the Scotia Barn in Burnaby.

Executive Vice-President Mike Gellard explained it’s been tough to keep the former ‘8 Rinks’ open, but, regardless, have been able to do so on certain conditions and public health recommendations by Dr. Henry.

“At this point, we’re happy just to break even,” he said on keeping the arena open for events like adult and youth hockey, which Gellard adds is Canlan’s ‘bread and butter.’

“I sympathize with the City of Prince George. A lot of towns and cities are going through the same thing, you know, and most recreation centres would be at the bottom of the list when it comes to reopening places during a pandemic.”

Gellard says it costs his company about $40,000 a month to maintain the Scotia Barn in a ‘normal year’ with more summer events and programs taking place compared to today.

Strict implemented public orders to ‘come in, play hockey and leave’ are what Gellard says have been able to keep Canlan’s arenas open during an unprecedented time, keeping safety as the top priority.

“We’re hoping to get more clarity on the financial impacts of COVID-19 on our arenas by Labour Day,” he said, noting that electricity and labour are the two biggest expenses for private arenas.

“But even then, we’ve gotten more complaints about why ‘8 Rinks’ stayed open in the midst of a pandemic. So the bottom line has always been to keep it simple, and that means no showers, no lingering, closing restaurants and sport stores, that’s it.”

Gellard says, as a private company, Canlan is obligated to keep its businesses going for the sake of shareholders, banks, property taxes and mortgage payments.

Back in Prince George, city council’s next meeting is set for Monday, July 27 where the arena closures are expected to be front and centre when providing an overview of its financial situation.

The city says user groups will also be updated in the ‘next few weeks.’

A social-distanced ‘sit-in’ is also being circulated on social media for Monday at 4 p.m., two hours before the public council meeting, in hopes of showing ‘how many people and user groups are affected by not opening the rinks.’

As of this publication, the Prince George Cougars and WHL are tentatively scheduled to start the 2020-21 season on Oct. 2, while the Spruce Kings and BCHL are tentatively scheduled to start its campaign Dec. 1.