Council reopens Brocklehurst Arena, plans for potential Blazers play at Sandman Centre

Hockey parents and fans rejoice. On Tuesday, city council agreed to reopen the Brocklehurst Arena and paved the way for junior hockey at Sandman Centre, should the Kamloops Blazers take the ice this winter.

As COVID-19 case counts rise in British Columbia and seasons transition to colder days indoors, the City of Kamloops is planning to reopen more of its facilities with safety protocols in place, also including curling sheets at McArthur Island and community halls like Heritage House, as needed.

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“The opportunity to have indoor recreation, I think, is incredibly important,” Coun. Arjun Singh said on Tuesday.

The city’s recreation supervisor, Linda Stride, explained on Tuesday Kamloops Minor Hockey ice times are limited.

A city councillor suggested letters indicate the league has just 40 per cent of its normal ice times available, causing many parents to request additional arenas to open. Council agreed, voting unanimously to reopen the Brocklehurst Arena. The arena will not bring the league up to its former capacity, with Memorial Arena continuing to be used by BC Housing for the city’s vulnerable, amid the pandemic, though cancelled tournaments are anticipated to relieve some pressure.

Coun. Bill Sarai said the city is built on events, sports and recreation, and noted a shortage of ice prior to the pandemic. He said it is important to provide an outlet for residents, especially families with kids.

“We need to sometimes not always look at the dollars and cents,” he said, noting support for reopening the arena.

The decision to open the Brocklehurst Arena comes at a cost of about $175,000 for six months, which the city says will be offset by pandemic budget savings for the remainder of the year, but will hit the city’s operating budget next year. Recreation facilities are funded by a combination of user fees and taxation, meaning those who play hockey, for example, cover about half of the cost and taxpayers pick up the remains.

The city anticipates about a half-million-dollar subsidy in the first three months of next year for the Brocklehurst Arena, Valleyview Arena and McArthur Island Sport and Event Centre arenas, which roughly equates to about a half-percentage tax increase.

The irony of increased spending, when council previously asked staff to keep tax increases low in the coming years, did not escape one city councillor, who pointed it out.

Arena subsidization, in fact, became a hot topic in the latter half of council’s lengthy facilities debate on Tuesday. The elephant in the room was in a room in the building council was debating: Sandman Centre.

Council was asked to allow staff to put in ice at Sandman Centre, once the Western Hockey League’s requirements became known. The league has said junior hockey will begin in December, though that date has already been pushed back once and by all accounts remains tentative due to the pandemic. The city has a contract to provide ice for the Kamloops Blazers.

Meanwhile, Sandman Centre is the most expensive arena for the city to operate, typically relying on food and beverage sales — which go to the city, as per the Blazers-city contract — to offset operating costs. According to the city’s five-year financial plan, Sandman Centre was budgeted to cost the city $1.8 million last year to operate, with $1.2 million in revenues and a net tax requirement of about $685,000.

However, with mass gatherings banned by provincial health officials for the foreseeable future limiting fans in the stands and therefore beer and food sales, some city councillors were concerned about writing a blank cheque. The city’s corporate service director could not say definitively what it will cost to operate Sandman Centre amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with the city’s report to council noting it is “difficult to determine at this point as much of the city’s revenue to offset the operating costs are normally tied to food and beverage sales at games, and at this time, it is unclear how many people will be permitted at WHL games and if there will be concessions open.”

However, it is reasonable to expect the Blazers will not be able to draw big crowds until there is a vaccine, and the city estimates food and beverage sales, professional shows and other special events contribute between $500,000 and $750,000 to Sandman Centre operating costs, meaning tax requirements to subsidize operation of Sandman Centre could potentially double next year.

“This building will need to operate at a significant increase to the subsidy,” corporate services director Kathy Humphrey said.

The murky financial implications prompted Coun. Mike O’Reilly to suggest delaying the decision to reopen Sandman Centre until a request is made by the Kamloops Blazers.

O’Reilly, a self-proclaimed Blazers season ticket holder, said a lot could change in the next couple of months and council was voting on a decision without fully understanding the costs.

He told council he wanted to know: How much more is it going to cost the city to run the arena?

Coun. Denis Walsh called it a “huge” tax subsidy. He said the city’s contract with the Blazers is to provide ice and the city should look at other options.

“They don’t need a big facility. They need an ice surface,” Walsh said.

City of Kamloops director of community and protective services, Byron McCorkell, said Sandman Centre, however, is best equipped with technology to bring WHL games to the masses, should the league move ahead without fans this winter and instead broadcast its games.

Coun. Dale Bass said she had initially intended to vote against reopening Sandman Centre, concerned about the financial impacts. However, she said having the Kamloops Blazers playing would provide residents a sense of normality. She said the city can talk to Tom Gaglardi, co-owner of the Kamloops Blazers, about anticipated loss from food and beverage sales.

“I just see something good to the community,” Bass said.

The motion to delay a decision was defeated in a split vote, with councillors Sadie Hunter, O’Reilly, Kathy Sinclair and Walsh in favour, and Mayor Ken Christian and councillors Dale Bass, Dieter Dudy, Sarai and Arjun Singh opposed.

Council did, however, agree to add verbiage to the motion, clearly detailing the reopening of Sandman Centre would be contingent on staff’s deeming the terms acceptable. It then unanimously agreed to reopen Sandman Centre once the WHL’s requirements became known.

Also to open: Curling sheets at McArthur Island Sport and Event Centre, Heritage House, the Yacht Club, Valleyview Hall and Hal Rogers Centre, as needed by community groups and at the added cost of an extra cleaning staff member. Council voted unanimously to open those facilities.

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