The Rec Deficit

Edmonton is short on fields, courts and ice rinks. The addition of Lewis Farms is but a drop in the bucket
2019EdmontonSoccerDome
Grand opening of the Edmonton Soccer Dome, 2019

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Last week, as Edmonton City Council debated what should go in and what should come out of Edmonton’s four-year budget, it spent a good deal of time on the issue of the Lewis Farms Community Recreation Centre and Library.

A motion on the floor called for funding to Lewis Farms to be slashed from the previously approved $311 million to $186 million.

The motion was defeated 8-5, but council learned that — even with full funding — the centre could not be built as originally planned. Because of inflation, a competitive pool and diving platform could no longer fit into the budget. The aquatic facility would need to be scaled back.

“If we can’t build a 15-minute community for one of our most densely-populated neighbourhoods, if we can’t execute on that, then everyone here should have something to worry about,” said Coun. Sarah Hamilton, who represents west-end Ward sipiwiyiniwak and supported keeping the funding for Lewis Farms. “We must maintain our commitment to building a city, not building neighbourhood by neighbourhood, where we do not care about what happens everywhere else. This is not what great cities are made of.”

Finding a parking spot on Saturday at Saville is about as hard as finding one at West Edmonton Mall during the Christmas rush.

The City has already built mega-rec centres — with ice rinks, pools and more — in Terwillegar and Mill Woods. The South Soccer Centre was recently expanded, with courts added that can host boarded indoor soccer, ball hockey or lacrosse.

And the issue of Lewis Farms is a complex one; it’s on the far western edge of the city, beyond Anthony Henday Drive, but it’s among growing neighbourhoods that are actually more dense than a lot of inner-city communities. And they have a deficit in terms of facilities. As Mayor Amarjeet Sohi noted, there was similar debate when council decided to go ahead with the Meadows Community Recreation Centre in the far southeast of the city.

“Five years later, when that facility was opened, it was packed,” said the mayor.

But we’ve also heard councillors talk about the need to change our strategy when it comes to parks and recreation; that the money should be spread throughout the city to allow neighbourhoods to decide what they need and what facilities are needed. Is it better to spend on giant rec centres, or to make sure community leagues have decent basketball courts, a well-maintained soccer field or a spray park that… works?

Coun. Michael Janz warned that the city is looking at about $900 million in needed maintenance and repair fees to existing rec facilities. He warned that, if Edmonton doesn’t address this maintenance deficit, we could be looking at more decisions like that the one made earlier this year to close Scona Pool, which was done because the costs to fix it were prohibitive.

“We need to learn from Scona Pool. We need to learn from the closure,” Janz told council.

The fact is, people who don’t live near a rec centre or well-maintaned fields often have to spend a lot of time in their vehicles.

There are no easy answers. The truth is, we are well short of rec facilities, whether you live in the West End or in a downtown condo.

As a sports parent and sometimes volunteer coach, I can speak to how much I have to drive. For soccer, my daughter’s facility is a 23 kilometre drive from my home. My son’s “local” baseball training facility and home park are 10 kilometres from our front door. My daughter plays or practices an average of four times a week, while my son, during the spring, summer and autumn, will play or practice five times a week, not counting the out-of-town road trips.

So, just to get them to to their practices and games, our “local” teams require about 300 kilometres of commuting, per week. That’s like adding a trip to Calgary to our mileage, every week.

Because there is a lack of game-ready, tournament-ready facilities in the core of the city, having kids and living close to downtown will just add to the pressure to have a car. For example, if your child plays baseball at a competitive level, he or she will likely play “home” games at either Callingwood (by the West Edmonton Mall), Rundle Park (Victoria Trail, east end) or in Mill Woods.

During the half day of Lewis Farms debate, council was warned that ice rinks are fully booked. Administration told council that in prime-time, the average sheet of ice in Edmonton is only available for public skating one hour per week.

As a basketball coach, I know how the Saville Centre is jammed on Saturdays, with games back to back to back. Finding a parking spot on Saturday at Saville is about as hard as finding one at West Edmonton Mall during the Christmas rush. We would sometimes play games at a school gym in Beaumont. That’s right, two Edmonton teams, facing off in Beaumont, 25 kilometres south of downtown. Or, we’d use school gyms in St. Albert. But, COVID has restricted the use of school gyms, as administrators have become a lot more vigilant (understandably so) about who uses the facilities.

Well-maintained rec facilities, gyms, soccer fields and baseball diamonds mean a lot to a city, and not just for house leagues. We often talk about big events, like the economic impact of hosting a Grey Cup, or the failed bid for the 2026 FIFA World Cup. But, do we often think of the number of tournaments and provincial championships hosted by our sports organizations?

Edmonton Scottish United Soccer Club provided some registration numbers from its Caledonia Cup soccer tournaments, from 2017 to present. In that time period, 233 out-of-town teams, representing 3,495 kids and their families, travelled to Edmonton for the tournament. That means hotel stays, restaurant visits and shopping. And that’s just one regular tournament on the calendar.

As a baseball parent, I often spend a lot of time in Okotoks, south of Calgary. That community has taken great care at creating a number of diamonds that, frankly, put anything we have in Edmonton to shame. So, going there for tournaments or provincial championships is almost second nature. Our provincials have been held there two of the past three years. That means we are spending money in hotels in the area, and eating at Big Sky BBQ.

The Edmonton Soccer Dome, located on the grounds of the Edmonton Scottish Society in south Edmonton, is booked solid. There are games and training sessions every night, and because demand is so high, teams often don’t get full fields for their practice sessions. The fields are divided into halves or even thirds, to ensure demand is met.

Lewis Farms will meet a need, but the truth is, it’s a drop in the bucket.

We need the big facilities, but we also need small-scale fixes. It’s hard to attract families to come downtown when they know they’re facing long commutes out of the core to get their kids to practices and games. We need more facilities in established communities. Ice time, court time, field time — they’re all hard to find. And, as we grapple with inflation and some hard budget realities, these are items that will be difficult to address.

But, hey, in the meantime, the barbecue in Okotoks is pretty good.

(Steven Sandor is editor of Urban Affairs and Edify, and he’s a past volunteer coach at Edmonton Scottish, South Jasper Place Minor Baseball Association and Northwest Basketball).