News Local

Future unclear

By Luke Hendry, The Intelligencer

Memorial Arena is closed indefinitely today as the city continues to study its options for the building's future.

Today's city council meeting, meanwhile, will include a written deputation from the Belleville Memorial Arena Preservation Society, or BMAPS.

The open session of council begins at 4 p.m. and BMAPS is asking people to support the deputation by meeting at city hall at 3:30 p.m.

Betty Jane Burkitt said Sunday via e-mail the deputation is to "present options and possible solutions to the future of the Memorial Arena as an ice surface and, in off season, other uses."

She said plans to meet with city officials are underway but the group wouldn't be speaking during the council session. They just want to be visible.

"You have to have a strong presence so you know that we're there and we're serious about it."

Burkitt said Mayor Neil Ellis and city clerk Julie Oram have been "fantastic" in helping the group navigate the deputation process.

Mark Fluhrer, the city's director of recreation, culture and community services, said only the facts will decide the arena's future. Despite all the history, emotion and costs invested in the 81-year-old building, he said, the city won't make a snap decision.

"Good decisions are made with good information," Fluhrer told The Intelligencer via telephone late Saturday night. "We have to really be sure we bring all of that information to our citizens, to our council, and let them look at the facts."

Those facts, not "rumour and innuendo," will result in council's eventual decision, he said.

Fluhrer added there is no "panic" among city staff to reach that point.

The Memorial's refrigeration plant was shut down at 2:30 p.m. Thursday as per an Ontario environment ministry order. A brine leak in the floor caused a quarter of the system to fail.

"We are working hard and with great care to ensure that we make the best for everyone of this unfortunate situation," Fluhrer wrote Saturday in an update to city staff.

The arena closed that afternoon and will be maintained with minimal heat and regular inspections.

"We're going to make it safe and it's just not going to be used as a facility for recreation purposes right now," Fluhrer said in the interview. "It'll be idle until such time as council decides on it."

The only pressing issue is securing ice time elsewhere for those who already had bookings.

Fluhrer praised the workers who have been "nursing this mature facility along for a long time now."

He expressed thanks to all who've been understanding of the need to reschedule.

The director also thanked Prince Edward County staff for allowing the Wellington Arena to be used as an alternate rink. That arena had been scheduled to close this month because its replacement Essroc Centre is completed.

Bobby Crawford, a city native who played for four NHL teams and now owns five arenas in Hartford, Conn., said transforming the Memorial into a true downtown attraction may not be as painful as some think.

Reached Sunday via mobile phone, Crawford -- who's renovated two of his rinks -- said the concept requires some creative thinking.

"We've got a gorgeous building that's well worth the investment and that investment is not that significant," he said from Hartford.

"There's nothing that needs to be done to keep that an ice rink that can't be done incredibly efficiently -if they're willing to look at it."

Crawford said he had a "two-second" look at the Memorial's inner workings a "couple of years ago."

"It was archaic. There were little or no parts that look like they'd been attended to or repaired," he said. "A lot of it looked pretty '73."

He said options include fixing the current floor, building a new one upon it and even using a portable system of chilled mats filled with PVC pipe to keep ice in the building.

"It's not a dig on the people but I really think they've taken the easy way out on a lot of things where they've torn down their historical buildings."

The Memorial's charm lies in its outdated design, he said, suggesting even the old clock be fixed. Such atmosphere draws people, he said.

"Those things are priceless -- those aesthetics.

"They look up and they see the steel beams, the old press boxes -- those are stories that you can't get back. That's what makes skating such a strong part of that culture."

Three Crawfords -- Floyd and sons Bobby and Marc -- are in the Belleville Sports Hall of Fame. Bobby said the hall should move to the Memorial.

If it were his building, said Crawford, he wouldn't stop there. He cited as an example the transformation that created Belleville's Empire Theatre.

"That's what we do in the rink business: give people a reason to come downtown.

If the building were his, he said, he'd build a large sports bar and follow his Hartford model: finding partnerships with other organizations and offering a constant schedule of sports tournaments and shows to lure people downtown during prime hours: weeknights and weekends.

Crawford said he's been observing how Belleville programs its arenas over the last three years.

"You don't rent them out to 10 people who are going to drive in and leave. You look at all your groups that you rent ice to and say, 'OK, this group is best for this facility.'"

The Memorial's ice should be used to the best advantage of downtown, he said, since rink users will spend money at hotels, restaurants and other businesses.

"I don't want to see them turn it into something that won't be successful," Crawford said.

Fellow BMAPS member Burkitt was upbeat Sunday.

"It is our intention to organize a Democracy in Motion Rally early in 2011," she said.

"We have been inspired by the input from the students on all levels wanting to have their voice heard about the fate of the Memorial Arena," said Burkitt.

The city's Fluhrer said the city appreciates fully the amount of public concern for the arena. But council must weigh the building's needs against all others in the city, he said.

"People have to understand that we're doing everything we can to accommodate everyone," Fluhrer said. "This has been a heck of a lot of work for everybody.

"None of us are going to take this lightly.

"We're just going to lay facts down on the table ... Nothing's going to be embellished.

"There are some judgment calls that are going to have to be made."

He declined to estimate the potential cost of keeping it as a rink, saying such repairs could easily mean even more fixes and upgrades would have to be done to comply with various regulations.

In the meantime, he said, the city will work with citizens and provide as much information as possible.

The final decision "depends on what the community wants," he said.

Fluhrer said that prior to Wednesday's leak city staff had intended to examine whether it was worthwhile to keep a fifth surface once the Quinte Sports Centre's two new rinks open.

"If there's business for another arena and suddenly there's money sitting there that's been put together by the community and donated, then that's another story," he said.

Fluhrer said "all options" are being considered.

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