The fate of Fort William Gardens was placed in the hands of the public on Wednesday night.
Though no decision on what, if anything, to do with the aging 63-year-old facility is imminent, city officials staged the first official open house to help make the decision should a $106.1-million event centre ultimately get the go-ahead from city council.
Reaction was mixed from residents who attended the evening session, held in the Gardens’ lobby.
Ron Kresack, president of Northwood Hockey, is worried any decision that leads to the ice being removed from Fort William Gardens would have a major impact in his organization’s ability to find enough ice time for its teams.
Unsure of whether or not the league would be welcomed at the new facility, Kresack wants assurances his players won’t be left out in the cold.
“Nobody’s asked me or told me or said what’s going to happen in the future if (the Gardens is closed),” said Kresack, one of about 70 people who took part in the open house.
“There’s been no discussion.”
Frustration with the process was clearly evident in his response.
“I think it’s a show. They’re here asking questions, but I think a lot of decisions have already been made by the looks of it. They spent a lot of money to do this, if they haven’t.”
Fort William Curling Club president Dave Kawahara was adamant he wants the Gardens to remain open in some shape or form, though not necessarily as a hockey rink.
“We feel the structure is quite sound to make that happen,” he said. “Our interest of course is to continue to operate as a curling club. Certainly if there’s any economic feasibility of renovations and so on of bringing businesses here, offices and so on, we certainly would promote that.”
Demolition is not an option, he added.
“That would have an impact on us,” Kawahara said.
Fellow curler Gordon Wywrock said he came to the open house out of curiosity, though he wondered what the future might hold for the club.
“Everybody played hockey here. We want to see what’s going to happen. It’s interesting what (the consultants’) thoughts are what that’s going to play into the curling club’s future,” Wywrock said.
Asked what he’d like to see done with the building, he said it’s a hard question to answer.
“There are so many options and they all involve money, either they’re losing money or they’re going to make money. You do not want to lose money on anything. You’d like to see something come in here that will help the city by making money. It’s all helping taxpayers ... Specifically, I’d be interested in whatever they had to offer, whatever they’re talking about. There’s lot of good ideas and there’s lots of people here.”
It was made abundantly clear that if the event centre goes ahead, the days of Fort William Gardens hosting concerts and spectator sporting events would come to an end.
“We don’t want this building to compete with an event centre,” said CEI Architecture’s Conrad Boychuk, whose company is also helping the city take the proposed event centre to shovel-ready stage in hopes of attracting provincial and federal funding.
That doesn’t mean it can’t still serve the community and play host to events like the annual south-side Remembrance Day service, graduations or the annual Folklore Festival.
“These are still relevant to the neighbourhood and to the community,” Boychuk said, cautioning people to think long-term, as the event centre is still years from becoming a reality.
“If anybody has an idea that we can start something here next year because there’s an opportunity, it’s not going to happen.”
PriceWaterhouseCooper’s Ron Bidulka, also consulting on the project, said any reconsideration, up to and including demolition of the facility, has to make financial sense for the city.
Their recommendation will take into consideration the greatest use and cost to the taxpayer, he said.
“We’re looking at functionality so it can be used for a whole bunch of different uses, not one or two user groups,” Bidulka said.
“We’re going to balance use, we’re going to balance cost and we’re going to balance the bottom line.”
The public was presented with four potential future use options, but the consultants, who plan to bring their findings to council in March, said they were only put forward as discussion points and no decisions have been made at this time.
More information about the project can be found here.