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Keep the Common skating oval 

The overwhelming public response to the Canada Games skating site is an opportunity for the city.

click to enlarge On the Canada Games oval the day before New Year's Eve.
  • On the Canada Games oval the day before New Year's Eve.
Keep the oval. That message is coming through loud and clear from the 1,000-plus (some days over 2,000) people skating on the Common skating oval.

The original plan was for the oval to be open to the public before and after the Canada Games in February, but then dismantled in March. There are six refrigeration units powering the oval---the city bought three, the Canada Games organization the other three. After the Games, one of the city’s units would be used to replace aging equipment in the Spryfield Arena, and the other two would be used as outside pads---either singularly or together in a location to be determined.

But the tremendous public response to the oval has caught everyone off guard, and we should respond to that response by making the oval a permanent fixture, right where it is.

Sure, it’ll cost money, but a lot less than we thought. Rather than a projected cost of $1.2 million, the city’s three reefers cost just $300,000---$900,000 underbudget----more than enough to buy the other three units and a seventh for Spryfield.

Operating and maintaining the oval is pegged at $110,000 per season, and something like 150,000 person-days will be spent at the oval this winter---less than $1 per visit. Compare that to one-day megaconcert events that brought maybe 10,000 people to the Common, costing the city $100,000 per concert, plus hundreds of thousands of dollars in hidden provincial costs ($600,000 for Paul McCartney) plus the disruption of the Common for weeks at a time---all for the private profit of one promoter who closed down shop owing hundreds of thousands of dollars to local businesses.

And the intangible benefits of the oval are immense: the health benefits alone probably pay for themselves; people are happily, excitedly coming downtown for fun; winter has suddenly lost some the perpetual gloom that hangs over this town; and the Common has been reclaimed at night---it is now a safe destination as hundreds of people become the eyes and ears of shared community.

Yes, there are other costs. We'll lose one ball field; but why should the Common be the exclusive domain of a single sport? And the worry that skating is only a winter sport can be set aside---we think nothing of employing summertime lifeguards for our lakes and beaches, but more to the point, asphalt can be placed under the oval so that when it's too warm to make ice, it can be an in-line skating destination.

There are also environmental costs---those refrigeration units use a lot of power. But a city that is willing to pony up $6 million a year for a convention centre catering to GHG-spewing jet-setting businessmen from afar is in no position to begrudge a relatively puny carbon footprint to its own citizens hoping to have some fun.

The bureaucratic momentum is for the refrigeration units to be divided up, but we need to stress: a smaller outdoor pad is not equivalent to the long-track oval now in place. The long track is appealing in ways that a pad is not: older and inexperienced skaters are finding the less-cluttered long track safer, and it's more family-friendly than a small pad would be; there's a particular joy in the long skate, like that found on the Rideau Canal; and with only four other permanent long-track rinks in Canada, Halifax could become a centre for speed skating. (Full disclosure: I have a family member who is a speed skater.)

The success of the oval is that it is almost completely unprogrammed; besides a few hours set aside for speed skating and schools, it's a come-one, come-all destination. There are no entry fees or group association requirements; no politicians grandstanding. It is truly people power that has made the oval such a wonderful delight.

And it will be people power that saves it. Left to its own devices, the city will probably continue with plans to dismantle the oval in March. The only way that won't happen is if hundreds and hundreds of regular people barrage their city councillors and respectfully insist that they move to keep the oval. Find a full list of councillors and their phone numbers at thecoast.ca/councillors, and make those calls today.

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