The city’s announcement earlier this month that it would be building four new recreation centres in the outer suburbs came as welcome relief to Calgarians used to elbowing their way into existing, overtaxed rec centres.
“I am so happy that we will soon be able to build these critically needed facilities,” said Mayor Naheed Nenshi in a February 2 press release. The city is on a tight budget this year. City hall isn’t saying how much it’s willing to pay yet, but the mayor’s office suggests $400 million is a “very conservative estimate.” Without that much money sitting around, the city needed a little luck and some strategic refinancing before approving the new rec centres.
Yet even the mayor admitted that building new facilities is only the top of a long list of priorities for Calgary’s recreation infrastructure. A November 2011 report listing maintenance and upgrade needs in Calgary recreation facilities states we need another $1.675 billion for unfunded projects. Twenty-three of those projects, accounting for $863 million, are “high priority.”
Many of those high-priority facilities are in the city’s inner neighbourhoods; communities like the Beltline, Inglewood or Ramsay. The director of Calgary’s recreation department, Kurt Hanson, says those facilities are 40 to 50 years old. Maintaining them is a challenge, and so is justifying the funding when comparing the demographics of inner Calgary to the suburbs.
Hanson says the old swimming pools and gymnasiums are “somewhat tired, but they serve an exceptionally important need in the inner city and the community. Of course, there’s the other side of that equation, which is trying to fulfil the needs for thousands and thousands of kids and families in the outer edge of the city.”
Hanson says balancing the recreation budget between the old and the new is a challenge. So is getting people to use the sometimes forgotten inner-city centres rather than letting them sit empty while suburban Calgarians go without.
The Inglewood pool is a prime example. The city does what it can to entice people to come. However, a $2 admittance fee can’t fix all its problems.
An Inglewood pool staff member who asked not to be named says the pool is rarely busy and that the problem begins with the hours. The pool opens at 6 a.m., but public swimming is typically only available between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m., and the facility shuts down at 6 p.m. That schedule doesn’t accommodate most working families. She says the fact that there is no hot tub, steam room or exercise equipment also costs the pool business.
Ald. Gian-Carlo Carra, who represents Inglewood and lives several blocks from the pool, says he’s well aware of the problem. He admits that most children in Calgary live in the suburbs, and children are the likeliest users of pools and ice rinks, but he says ignoring the recreation needs of urban neighbourhoods is short-sighted.
“We do have a pool (in Inglewood) and it is challenged. And you know it is not a money-maker for the city, even remotely, and part of that is an economy of scale. But I think the opportunity for redevelopment in a place like Inglewood and places like Ramsay start to justify the opportunity to start looking at planning recreation facilities for the populations that you want to have come.”
A Recreation Amenities Gap Analysis conducted by the city found that the inner neighbourhoods have higher populations of senior citizens and low-income young adults than other areas of the city.
“Here’s the problem with demographics,” says Carra. “They’re backward-looking. We say, ‘what have people been doing?’ And we project forward from past behaviour, rather than asking ourselves what would we like future behaviours to look like, and then creating a system that actually does that.”
Carra consistently advocates for a restructuring of Calgary that creates thoroughly serviced neighbourhoods across the city, and provides most services within walking distance of one’s home. He knows the suburbs need more, but believes if municipal services only follow the population further from the city centre, Calgary will continue to be an auto-centric city with a neglected core.
Hanson agrees. His department works to find cheap ways to address Calgarians’ recreational needs — such as opening school gymnasiums to the public after school hours — because he admits there is never enough funding to offer everything they want in city-run facilities.
The city opted for a different solution in 2004 when it turned over management of its seven outdoor swimming pools to a volunteer-run non-profit organization.
Roger Leach helped form the Calgary Outdoor Swimming Pools Association (COSPA) to manage the outdoor pools when the city said it could no longer afford to do so. COSPA now runs on annual grants and user fees. Leach says the non-profit is able to operate the pools cheaper than the city could, but many inherent problems were simply shifted to a new party.
“To be honest with you, we can only do so much, because the cost of replacing a basin would be two- to three-million dollars. And we have a couple of basins that we cross our fingers every year when we put water into them,” says Leach.
“The (inner-city) pools and fitness centres have served us very, very well over the years. They’ve been cornerstones of community,” says Hanson. “The challenge of meeting life cycle demands of these older facilities... is challenging against trying to build new.”
Hanson is excited about the four new centres, because Calgary’s newest neighbourhoods need the amenities. Still, for efficiency’s sake, his goal is to get people into the centres that already exist. “Doesn’t that make more sense to try and open that up?” he says.