Thursday, July 19, 2012

A victim of their own success.

A recreational facility that truly is the "jewel of the Cowichan Valley" is running into some financial difficulty. 

I'm talking about the Cowichan Sportsplex, that big outdoor rec facility at the southwest corner of Lakes and Beverly.  You know the place. It has that gorgeous track, field hockey pitches, an outdoor lacrosse box, three baseball diamonds, outdoor exercise equipment, and more. 

Most people have come to take it for granted. It's the site, every year, of events such as the Cancer Society Relay for Life, the Alzheimer's Walk for Memories, the Walk for MS, the "Show 'n Shine" in support of Tour de Rock, and numerous school "track and field days". 

The Sportsplex is also a key reason our community has been able to host big events such as the BC Seniors' Games and NAIG, and is a lynchpin facility in our upcoming bid for the BC Summer Games.

In fact, the Sportsplex has become a core part of the outdoor recreational fabric of the Valley.  My wife and I have often used the track for daily walks, and no matter the time of day, there's always people using the facility, either working out on the outdoor fitness circuit or walking/jogging/running around the track.  On average, about 200 individuals drop by every day to engage in some kind of exercise, and that doesn't include "organized" sports like lacrosse, field hockey, or baseball. 

But the days of "taking it for granted" may soon be ending. 

The Sportsplex has been around for more than 15 years. It sits on North Cowichan land; we actually own the property, but essentially lease it to the Society for a dollar-a-year.  And the facility was built on the vision, foresight, and sweat equity of a dedicated group of volunteers; the Chesterfield Sports Society.  There was huge support from the private sector to get all the amenities built, and operations have thus far been funded largely by user fees, donations, and some annual grants from local governments.

And here's the key point.  That facility is providing incredible value to the community; value that far exceeds the outlay of public dollars involved.  If any local government were to take on the operation and maintenance of a place like this, the costs involved would increase exponentially.  And yet, there's a chance that this may happen.

We had a delegation from the Chesterfield Sports Society at Council yesterday.  They were there, essentially, to tell us that they've outgrown their capacity to maintain and operate their facility within the paradigm under which they've been running things for the past 16 years.  This year, the costs to keep up the grounds, pull the weeds, maintain the rubberized track, and generally keep the place in good repair were about $15-thousand dollars more than the money they were generating for operations through their user-fees and grants from the public and private sector. 

Next year, the shortfall will be more than $40-thousand dollars, and the year after that, it'll go even higher. 

They're covering this year's deficit by dipping into their capital reserve fund - money that's set aside for future expansion, but there's two problems with that. 

First of all, those are finite dollars.  There's only so much money in that reserve, and when it's gone, it's gone. 

Secondly, the reason the Society has been so successful in building all of the various amenities has been their very astute use of donations for capital projects.  The Society's Board has a policy which generally says they won't spend a nickel out of that capital reserve unless they can find "matching" grant dollars from Foundations or senior levels of government.  In other words, so far they've managed to leverage pretty much every locally-donated dollar for the capital fund into two dollars by waiting for the opportune time to apply for matching money from other areas.  So even using $15-thousand dollars from their capital fund to cover their operating shortfall this year is, historically speaking, actually a $30-thousand dollar "hit" on that capital reserve. 

So the Society Board has come to the conclusion that the operation, as it's presently constituted, is no longer sustainable in the long term.  If they keep having to dip into that reserve fund to pay for operations, the fund will be empty within a few years.  To head that off, they're making the rounds of local governments, informing everyone of their dilemma and essentially asking for an increase in local taxpayer funding.

And in North Cowichan's case, they do have a "hammer" of sorts.  A bullet point in a handout we received from them last night reads:
  • Our reserves are running out and we must secure (additional operating) funding by December 31 of this year, or we will have no choice but to relinquish the site to the Municipality. 
Did you catch that, especially the context of what I wrote above?  Remember, I wrote that we own this property, and lease it to the Society?  Essentially, the Society is saying that the present funding model will only work till the end of this year, and if they don't get more money into their operating budget through increased funding from local taxpayers, they would have no choice but to simply hand the problem over to us.  Presumably for us to operate.

As I said to Society Board chair Don McClintock yesterday, "You've become a victim of your own success.  Frankly, part of me resents being put up against a wall like this."  Because essentially, the choice before us is to increase their operational grant now so they can continue operating the facility, or deny their grant application to save money in the short-term, and run the risk of ending up with a much bigger bill in the long term when we are forced to take over and operate the entire facility ourselves.

I tried to explore some other options in our discussion, including the notion of reducing the hours of operation.  That wouldn't help much, though.  Weeds still grow, grass still needs cutting, and buildings still need to maintained even if no one is using the place.  I also suggested that perhaps they might wish to charge "admission" to the casual drop-in users - maybe set up a turnstile at the entrance, with a two-dollar admission charge.  But I was told that part of the "dollar-a-year" lease of the land involves a guarantee - insisted on by North Cowichan - of a certain amount of "free" public access to the facilities.  And then there's the practicality of charging the admission.  Unless we want to put up a razor-wire fence around the place, it would be very hard to police the "admission charge."  With multiple parking lots and entrance points, that would get pretty cumbersome.  Not to mention that there would no doubt be folks who would simply choose to get their exercise by "walking around their block" rather than around the track if it was going to start costing them money. 

And to those who would suggest just "shutting the place down", that's neither politically plausible, nor would it be the responsible thing to do from a community health and recreation standpoint.  Again, this facility has become such a integral part of recreation in our Valley that it would be unthinkable to close the doors. 

I did suggest, quite strongly, that the Society should be knocking very loudly on the door at the Regional District; after all, the folks who use the place are drawn from a much wider catchment area than just North Cowichan.  And to be fair, the CVRD has been kicking in $100-thousand dollars a year for the past few years in "one-time" grants-in-aid.  But every year, the Regional District Board has an extended discussion about whether to provide that funding, which is actually supposed to be a "one-off".  So at least part of the answer has to be a regional, stable funding model with contributions from throughout the Valley. 

But at the end of the day, the facility is in North Cowichan.  We own the land, and if this isn't resolved in a way that establishes a long-term, sustainable funding model for the present operational structure, we could very well end up with a much more expensive operational problem on our hands down the line. 

I do appreciate the Society's dilemma, though.  The closing line in their handout sums up the situation with great alacrity:
  • With immense respect for the challenge this brings to you, we need additional financial support from North Cowichan and our other major partners - this is the only way that we can continue.

I'd appreciate whatever wisdom my readers may want to offer on this.  Pop me an email, or leave a comment in the box below.


Yesterday was the last Council meeting till August 15th; we're now entering our annual summer hiatus.  That means no regular blog posts for a month or so, although I'm ruminating on something that I've been meaning to write for a while; not directly related to anything Council is doing - more of a "structural" question.  No guarantees, but maybe check back a week from now to see if I got it written.

In the meantime, enjoy your summer!!!

And feel free to share this post.

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