Bowles on ice

City refuses to rent out Dartmouth arena, even though paid attendants are present.

Bowles arena
Bowles arena
Bowles Arena is a 40-year-old city-owned rink on a hill in the industrial area behind Dartmouth General Hospital. While aged, the facility is clean and in good shape, with newly painted bleachers and well-maintained ice.

What Bowles Arena isn't, however, is used, at least during weekday hours. While the physical plant runs all day to keep the ice in pristine condition for evening uses, the city refuses to rent the ice out before 4pm.

Still, at least one employee is present on-site every day, starting at 8am. Multiple sources have told The Coast that management direction to staff at the arena is to park off-site or behind the building, enter the building but lock the door behind them, refuse to allow the public to enter the facility until a half-hour before the first 4pm booking and "make it look like no one's there," according to one source.

I visited the arena today. There were no cars at all in the parking lot, nor in the "employee parking" spaces next to the entrance, but I could see interior lights were on. The door was locked, so I called the direct line to the arena office and identified myself as a reporter. The person who answered the phone declined to talk to me.

I'm told that the daytime employees clean up from the night before and do general maintenance, as well as preparing the ice for the evening. On Thursdays the ice surface is re-laid.

There are several groups that used the ice during daytime hours last year that would like to continue to use the ice this year, but can't. These include a patient group at the nearby hospital, a seniors' skate that was held twice a week, a junior high hockey league and a separate seniors' beer league, among others. Additionally, there's uncertainty if the annual SEDMHA tournament can host games at Bowles this year.

City spokesperson Tiffany Chase confirms that there is a rink attendant scheduled to work at Bowles in the daytime, but that the rink is closed. The reason, she says, is that that worker is to cover for rink attendants at the Gray and Lebrun arenas who call in sick or otherwise can't fill their shift. "That way we don't have to pay overtime" to bring in another off-duty attendant who has already filled a full shift. Chase stresses that while at Bowles, the attendant is still working, doing clean up and maintenance.

I ran the overtime argument by people who are familiar with Bowles operations, and they said that since the reduced scheduling at the rink, there has rarely, if ever, been a case of the attendant having to cover another shift elsewhere. Chase does not know how often such a situation has arisen.

Chase additionally says that the hours at Bowles were cut back because "only about two out of eight hours were being reserved. The groups that used the rink last year could be accommodated later in the evening."

I tell her that there are higher charges for evening rentals. "Yes, some groups didn't want to change their times, but we were able to offer them time at Gray Arena," she replied.

In fact, the situation is more complicated than that. Groups are finding Gray inaccessible or difficult to use. But beyond that, does it really make sense to have a rink attendant on duty, with no opportunity for anyone to use the ice?

SEDMHA hockey tournament

SEDMHA uses "17 or 18" arenas in HRM, says SEDMHA chair Wayne MacDonald. With teams coming from across Atlantic Canada and even from Quebec and Ontario, MacDonald claims the tournament has an economic impact of over $20 million. About 20 years ago, SEDMHA paid for the construction of a large room above the ice at Bowles, and uses that space as its headquarters for the duration of the tournament. Additionally, the room serves as storage for the group.

Still, MacDonald doesn't know if SEDMHA will have use of Bowles this year.

"They say Bowles will close in March," he says. "We had a verbal commitment from the city back in the spring that we'd be able to use the arena in April, but we still don't have anything in writing."

At this late date, the possibility that the group won't be able to use the Bowles ice on Thursday and Friday afternoons combines with uncertainty around the use of the headquarters room to cause the organization considerable consternation.

"There seems to be a lot of stupid stuff going on at that rink, ever since there were some changes at city hall a couple of years ago," says MacDonald.

Asked which changes he means, MacDonald demurs. But he's quick to praise the rink attendants at Bowles.

"The people they have working there really care for that place," he says. "It's not a dark and dingy rink. It's a viable facility, with fresh paint, bright, they keep it clean."

City employee shinny

"Why aren't they utilizing that opportunity to get more revenue?" as Redge Deg, a former user of daytime ice at Bowles. "There's someone there already, it wouldn't cost them anything more, but they could make money."

Deg started using the ice at Bowles in 1985, when workers at a nearby city maintenance facility started to play shinny during their lunch break. Deg isn't a city employee himself, but the group evolved into a mostly city employee affair, with people working nearby joined by a large contingent of police and fire department workers.

When Deg's group first started using the ice, there was no charge. That evolved, first with each member paying $25 a season, then $50. Pretty cheap. "It was seen as a perk" both by city management and employees, says Deg. But by a few years ago the city was charging the group the same rates as any other group: $115 an hour. The group wanted to book 83 skates, meaning a potential revenue to the city of $9,545.

But in August, the city council adopted a long-term arena strategy, which called for closing two city-owned rinks in Dartmouth—Bowles, Gray—as well as the Lebrun in Bedford, and opening a new multi-pad arena in Dartmouth similar to the recently opened four-pad arena in Hammonds Plains.

No decisions have been made to implement this strategy, but it's widely understood that the plan replaces the three city-managed arenas with one multi-pad arena with management contracted out. The four-pad arena in Hammonds Plains, the Devonshire arena in the north end and The Oval on the Common are all managed by Nustadia, a Hamilton based recreation management firm.

The city refuses to make public the terms of the Nustadia contracts, including how much the company is paid.

Daytime closing of the Bowles was announced after the long-term arena strategy was adopted. Deg's group was encouraged to book time at the Gray, but that proved problematic on a couple of fronts: first, even though the group had been using the Bowles for 27 years, they had no seniority rights at Gray, and so had last pick of ice time. Second, and more important to Deg, was that many in the group found the commuting time to Gray unworkable over a lunch break. He went from 35 full-time skaters to just 16.

Deg quickly soured on working with the city. He has forwarded me a long email conversation with city managers, where he clearly states his anger at the situation and accuses them of "lying" and "cheating."

He says his group voted unanimously to stop renting from the city, and instead found ice time at Cole Harbour Place. He notes that the CHP ice is slightly less expensive than city ice—$105/hour, including tax, versus $115/hour, not including tax. "They had underutilized ice [at Cole Harbour Place]," he says. "They're business people, they saw an opportunity to make some money on it."

At Cole Harbour Place, the group has regained its full membership of 35 full-time skaters, with up to 60 including the guys who drop by less consistently.

Whatever might eventually happen to Bowles Arena, Deg can't understand why the city doesn't want to rent it out now, when there is fresh ice and employees already present.

"It's obviously not about money," he says, "because $9,000 didn't matter to them."

Akerley Zone Hockey

Another group affected by the Bowles daytime closure is the Akerley Zone hockey program, which is sometimes called Dartmouth Junior Hockey. Michael McLeod, a teacher at Prince Arthur Junior High, has been coordinator of the program for four years. He says it consists of 12 teams from Dartmouth-area junior highs (and as far east as Oyster Pond Academy in Jeddore).

Prices for using Bowles arena have been increasing steadily, says McLeod. When he started with the league, the charge was $85 for the 3-4pm slot. That increased to $115 last year.

When Bowles became unavailable, the city offered the use of Gray. But the only time available was the 4-5pm slot, which costs $165/hour.

The league covers rental costs, pay for refs and trophies with a charge to participating students, which four years ago was $50 per season but is now $100 per season.

McLeod says the student charge doesn't present a barrier. "If someone couldn't pay, our school would pay for them. And it would cost $500 or $600 for them to join the Dartmouth Whalers."

The bigger issue is transportation to Gray. "We could walk to Bowles from Prince Arthur," says McLeod.

McLeod figures his organization would be paying $4,500-$5,500 for use of Bowles, were it open.

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