Supporters of the Save the Pioneer Arena movement filled the Castlegar Community Forum to capacity Monday night. The group of about 85 adults and children was there to let city council know that they want the arena to stay open.
The imminent closure of the arena was announced in October 2023 along with plans to build a mixed-use housing and primary care medical clinic development at the site. The project would see the construction of approximately 60 non-market priced rental housing units — 40 units with rents set by CMHC, 34 units with rent geared to income and 14 units with deeper subsidies.
Since the announcement of the memorandum of understanding between the parties that will build, manage and occupy the development, ice users have been lobbying to save the arena through protests, recreation committee appearances and online and paper petitions.
At the council meeting, Amy Byers gave a presentation on behalf of the Castlegar Minor Hockey Association (CMHA). She emphasized the benefits that minor hockey brings to the community including the economic impacts through visiting teams for games and tournaments.
Wthout the second ice surface, she anticipates only being able to host half of the usual nine tournaments a year and the closure of the gentlemen’s hockey league.
Byers estimated that 1282 families, or 4000 visitors, bring in at least $320,000 to the community each year. She based those figures on an estimate that about 50 per cent of those visitors spend two nights in Castlegar.
She also talked about how the closure of the arena would likely result in fewer registrations for CMHA due to the early or late practices needed if there is only one sheet of ice in town. Fewer registrations would mean higher registration fees for remaining players.
“We recognize the need for doctors. We understand the housing shortage. And we are forward thinking and see the value of what sport and recreation brings not only to the health and well-being of our children, youth and adults of this community,” said Byers. “Without two ice surfaces, you will see catastrophic failure on multiple levels.”
Council also heard impassioned pleas from other attendees.
Currently, the closure is scheduled for the end of the ice season and hopes are that construction on the project will begin this year. But those plans are contingent on the city receiving major grants for both the housing and medical components of the project. If those grants are not awarded, there is a potential that the closure date could be pushed back.
If only one of the grant applications is successful, project plans include an alternate design that would allow for the construction of just the component that received funding.
CAO Chris Barlow said he expects the funding announcements to come within the next six months.
Barlow also gave an extensive presentation on the background of the arena and the decision to close it plus the need for housing and physicians.
The arena has been slated for an eventual closure since as far back as 2009 when an architectural assessment said the majority of the building components were beyond their expected lifespan and that the facility as a whole was largely exhausted.
Barlow explained that co-locating physicians with allied health providers such as physical therapists, nurses and mental health supports would allow physicians to attach more patients to their practices, thus decreasing the number of local residents without a family physician.
He said that the city has been consulting with Castlegar physicians since 2017 to determine what they want and what would work best for them.
All of the physicians currently practicing in Castlegar have signed the MOA saying they would relocate to the new facility.
As to the timing of the project, Barlow said there are several reasons that the right time was now.
First, the province has signaled a desire to increase the number of primary care networks and move to that service model as a way to improve health care in the province. In order to achieve that goal, the province has made funding streams available to finance projects.
The second reason is that they now have a team in place that “we believe can deliver the primary care project.” That team includes the signatories of the MOA — the City of Castlegar, the Regional District of Central Kootenay, Castlegar physicians, health care administration provider Prima Health and commercial real estate management company Axis Projects.
Another key component is the documented need for more housing units, particularly rental and non-market units, in the city. The province also has some major funding streams available for housing projects right now.
“You need significant grants to make affordable housing affordable,” said Barlow.
“We have been talking about affordable housing and a mix of housing for a long time and the market hasn’t filled it,” said Barlow. “As a municipality, it is obvious that we are going to have to step into some space and do some things to get affordable housing built in the community.”
Barlow chronicled some of the timeline for decisions surrounding the eventual closure of the Pioneer Arena including a 2010 resolution from council that in the event that the regional district were to terminate its lease on the arena, the city would proceed to demolish it.
The current lease with the RDCK for the arena has now expired.
In 2020, council also passed a resolution related to future construction of a “campus of care” at the site that called for demolition of the arena regardless of whether there was funding available to replace the arena.
Barlow also clarified that the city will retain ownership of the land, they will not be giving it away or selling it — the development will lease the land from the city.
The city has had a clear title on the land since 1948, and contrary to information circulating in the community, it was not donated to the city for the purpose of recreation.
Prior to 1948, the land was held by the Castlegar Cemetery Committee, but was never used as a cemetery.
He also answered some questions about other potential locations put forward by community members.
One of those suggested locations is the city-owned Gerannazo Pits adjacent to Millennium Park. Barlow said those lands are designated as a flood plain by the Province of B.C. and housing can not be built at the site.
Mayor McFaddin also countered statements in Byers presentation, and others circulating in the community, regarding the city cancelling or rejecting other multi-family developments.
She said that during her time on council, they have never turned down or halted a multi-family housing development.
Councilor Sue Heaton-Sherstibitoff encouraged the attendees to take the energy that has been funnelled into saving the Pioneer arena and pivot to work on securing public support for a new sheet of ice at the Castlegar Community Complex through the upcoming community consultation process launched by the RDCK.
Barlow said that if the consultation process shows strong support for another ice sheet, that a referendum could happen as early as late 2024 with a new facility in place by 2026.
That consultation process will begin soon. People can find information and sign up for emails at engage.rdck.ca.
“In the conversation that we are having, what I am hearing is that it is one or the other — it is the Pioneer or it is housing, it is the Pioneer or it is primary care,” said Barlow. “I don’t think we should look at it that way. We can have enhanced recreation, we can have enhanced health care and affordable housing. It can all happen for us, but it is just about timing.”