The Thebacha Chamber of Commerce in Fort Smith is requesting that town council actively start pursuing plans to build a new arena in the wake of the May 13 fire that damaged the current facility.
The town has been engaging with ice user groups about what to do for the coming 2013-2014 ice season and formed the Ice Surface Strategy Committee to chart a course on decisions for alternate ice surfaces this winter.
But the Chamber wants them to look further into the future.
Repairs to the arena – including fixing the glue-laminated truss beams and re-shingling the entire roof – have been roughly estimated to cost over $1.6 million.
Council still has not heard from the insurance company how much money will be available to cover the damages.
“While we applaud the establishing of the ice users committee to manage activities for user groups, we are very concerned about the lack of discussion on the future of the arena itself. As one resident said, you cannot have one discussion in isolation of the other,” Chamber president Janie Hobart told council members last Tuesday at the Community Services Standing Committee meeting.
Many residents and business owners have expressed their feelings to the Chamber that repairing the aging arena is a waste of money. The funds from insurance should go towards a “much-needed, new facility,” Hobart continued.
The arena, over 45 years old, has numerous downfalls, which Hobart listed, including many building code issues, poor and non energy-efficient lighting, cramped and below-par dressing rooms and washroom facilities, a leaking roof, limited space when it comes to public gatherings and storage, and unsafe bleachers.
Simply put, the current arena does not meet users’ needs and limits the potential of off-season events and Fort Smith sports tourism opportunities, Hobart said.
“To use the insurance funding to patch up the arena will mean we just end up with a 1976 arena with a few improvements and a new coat of paint,” she said.
Meanwhile, the Town of Fort Smith Community Services Master Plan already includes plans for the construction of a new arena once the pool debenture is wrapped up in 2015.
Hobart said the Chamber wants to see the process for that plan started now.
“Due to the length of the process, we believe it’s imperative to start the planning now so we are ready to move forward with the new arena immediately following the retirement of the pool debenture,” she stated. “While the fire has had dire effects on our community, there is a silver lining that the funds from the insurance can potentially expedite the process of a new facility by providing a good financial foundation for the construction.”
The long-term benefits would be substantial, she said.
Councillor Don Webb responded to Hobart’s presentation, reminding her they have to look at the wider picture.
“The arena is just one part of the puzzle. The library is just as old. The animal shelter is getting up there. The firehall is 25 years old, too,” he said, though noting he didn’t disagree with her.
“But this aging facility has been damaged, which moves it up the list,” Hobart answered.
Councillor Bob McArthur mentioned council has been thinking for the long term as is shown in their discussions about a new ice plant.
“When we talked about a new ice plant, we agreed it would be one that you can disassemble and reassemble at the new facility,” he said.
Committee chair Kevin Smith said council will hopefully have more information from the insurance company within the coming weeks and then they will be able to begin a public engagement process.
Hobart said she hopes the town will follow a process similar to the one used when planning the Recreation and Community Centre, where there was “extensive” community input.
In conclusion, Hobart called for planning to begin this winter and that “only absolute repairs be completed until this discussion has occurred. As one councillor noted, this is a political debate and we ask that the residents be included.”