Update: On November 16, Dalhousie announced it has paused the Event Centre project, citing challenges in Halifax's construction industry including "cost pressures" and a labour shortage. "While we had hoped to break ground on the Event Centre
structure this fall, we have been unable to secure competitive pricing for some project elements. We
will keep a close eye on developments in the marketplace and will move forward as we are able with the
next project elements," write athletics and recreation director Tim Maloney and assistant vice-president of facilities management Peter Coutts.
Since Oct. 19, Dalhousie University’s teaching assistants, part-time academics, markers and demonstrators have been on strike. On Tuesday, Nov. 8, the union representing these approximately 1,500 employees—CUPE 3912—and the university reached a tentative agreement, the details of which are available here. Union members are currently voting on wether or not to ratify the agreement, and the polls close Friday night. If they vote yes, classes could return to normal in time for when students return from fall break on Monday.
CUPE 3912’s demands would cost the university approximately $1.55 million, the union tells The Coast. The teachers went three years without a raise and resorted to striking, resulting in the disruption of the education of thousands of students.
Meanwhile, site preparation is underway for a new on-campus ice sports arena, dubbed the Dalhousie Event Centre. Dal has not publicly announced the budget for the arena. On the campus development webpage, the price is listed as “$ M,” and in the FAQ section of the Event Centre webpage the answer to how much the arena will cost is “we will not have a definite figure until the tendering process is complete.”
But through documents obtained by The Coast, we learned two things: 1. There is a dollar figure, and 2. It’s gone up. In June 2021, Dal’s Board of Governors approved a budget of $21.6 million. Then in June 2022, an amended budget was brought before the board.
Members of the board were told last June that a lot has changed since the budget was first approved—enough for the cost of the arena to jump 69%. The board approved a $14.9 million budget increase with an overwhelming majority, according to a source with knowledge of the proceedings, bringing the total to $36.5 million.
“The cost of that arena would suffice to fund our salary increase for more than 23 years,” Gabor Lukacs of CUPE 3912 tells The Coast over the phone Monday, one day before the tentative agreement was reached. “Apparently there is no cap on the budget, but when we are asking for just a small increase in terms of budgetary aspects, then all of a sudden they claim they don't have the money for it.”
Dalhousie refused to comment on the budget for its Event Centre or speak to any discrepancy between its spending on capital projects and spending on wages for employees.
Lukacs adds that Dal’s willingness to spend an extra $15 million for the arena while refusing to meet the union’s $1.55 million demands shows “hypocrisy and failure of judgment, both moral and fiscal.”
June 2021: Price tag $21.6 million
Dalhousie athletics and recreation executive director Tim Maloney first announced Dal would be building a new arena on-campus on June 22, 2021, the same day the Board of Governors voted in favour of moving the project to the implementation phase and approving the initial $21.6 million budget. The publicly available minutes from this meeting make no mention of the arena decision, as it happened during an in-camera (private) session.
The Coast obtained the agenda and minutes for the in-camera session, along with the supplementary documents and presentation the BOG was given. We’ve attached those materials here.
Dalhousie would not comment publicly on the arena’s budget. In an email to The Coast, a spokesperson for Dal writes, in full: “We don’t have a figure on the event centre to provide you with at this time. Information is available online here: https://www.dal.ca/dept/facilities/campus-development/projects/event-centre.html”
As that public webpage shows, the facility will be built on South Street, adjacent to the LeMarchant Place residence building, and house the school’s ice sports programs, namely its varsity hockey teams; curling, figure skating and ringette clubs; and intramural tournaments. Replacing the Memorial Arena rink that was taken down in 2012, the new Event Centre is slated to feature an NHL-sized rink, a physiotherapy clinic and event spaces with catering capability.
Dalhousie has been renting ice time at the Halifax Forum since the Memorial Arena demolition, so the announcement was met with excitement from athletes who have had to make the 3km trek out to the north end for practice.
That physical distance between campus and the forum was one of the motivations behind the Event Centre project, along with a lack of available ice time and poor access to primetime ice hours, according to the Dalhousie Event Centre webpage. The page also says student participation in ice sports has dropped by 55% since the closure of the Memorial Arena.
When the project was brought to the Board of Governors for approval in June 2021, the board was given specific numbers. According to the BOG meeting documents, since the demolition of Memorial Arena up until COVID-19 hit: Ice hours went from 21 to 10 per week, the number of ice sports teams decreased from 57 to 27, and the number of students participating in “ice-related activities” dropped from 807 to 405 despite growing university enrollment.
The board was also told of what benefits an on-campus ice rink would provide, in a bullet-point list titled “something for everyone” that includes “support our health and wellness objectives,” “further engage our community” and “become a centre for events.”
As for input from students and the community, the document reads: “The general student population appears supportive for an on-campus arena through engagements related to the Fitness Centre in 2013 and the Student Union Building renovation in 2014. Intramural participants, club sport student-athletes, varsity athletes, and a variety of community groups have also indicated support for an arena facility because it would: increase and/or enhance recreation program offerings and participation; minimize travel, improving the safety of students; enhance student experience and campus culture; and elevate Dalhousie to a standard most other universities offer.”
June 2022: Price tag $36.5 million
Between the Dal board’s June 2021 and June 2022 meetings, the arena cost went from $21.6 million to $36.5 million. The name of the project also changed from “Arena” to “Event Centre.” Currently, only the minutes for the February and March BOG meetings are publicly available online. The Coast obtained the agenda item, presentation and supplementary information for the budget increase, which presumably also took place in camera, like the meeting a year earlier. We’ve also attached that meeting package.
The justifications for the “considerably higher” price tag given to the BOG in the document include design changes: More washrooms, more exits, changes to the exterior and moving the locations of the events room and Zamboni room, to name a few. There were also unforeseen “campus infrastructure costs” (electrical modifications and the like).
Another reason cited in the document is an “error in the area take off.” The original budget was calculated for a 57,722-square-foot building, but the actual building design is 11,199 square feet larger: a total of 68,921 square feet. And predictably, the document cites higher costs of, well, everything: Building materials, professional services, equipment and insurance “due to global supply chain problems and increased demand.”
The final reason for the price increase is a change in the type of ice plant—a refrigeration system that cools the concrete under the ice. Originally, the arena was going to use an ammonia-based ice plant, but “based on lessons learned” Dalhousie is switching to a Gen II Plant-R513a ice plant, which will “reduce energy consumption, be more environmentally friendly and improve community safety.” That’s because this new type “does not require toxic chemicals and oils.”
June 2072: Paid off
So what are the benefits provided by a new arena worth? It’s estimated in the BOG documents that the arena will cost $830,000 a year to operate, and will make $1.59 million a year in revenue. So if we crunch the numbers, based on that $760,000 yearly profit alone, the Event Centre will take 48 years to pay off. (The Memorial Arena stood for 30.)
If the new arena brings ice athlete numbers back up to 807, then the arena will cost $45,229 per person—a few thousand dollars more than the annual living wage in Halifax, which is $42,500.
Maybe that’s worth it, maybe it’s not. But compared to money for teachers, “it really shows the kind of double standard when it comes to these types of expenses,” CUPE’s Lukacs says.
According to the most recent construction update, major tenders still need to be awarded before the building of the Event Centre begins in earnest, but it’s estimated to be complete by early 2024.