Ball hockey returns to the A.J. LaRue Arena in Haliburton. /FILE

Smith says ‘maybe there won’t always be an arena’ in Dysart

By Mike Baker

A recent discussion on increasing ice fees at A.J. LaRue arena in Haliburton caused one councillor to question the feasibility of the facility moving forward.

Ward 4 Coun. John Smith expressed concerns over the approximate $500,000 deficit the arena operates on annually after Andrea Mueller, Dysart’s events and recreation coordinator, suggested the municipality pass on a three per cent increase in winter ice rates to the arena’s user groups for the 2021/22 season, in an attempt to recoup some of the additional costs the township has incurred in recent years.

This is the first proposed increase to winter ice rates since 2018.

Mueller mentioned she had been in discussions with organizations such as the Highland Storm, who, she said, would be able to stomach a three per cent increase, but couldn’t manage much more than that.

She felt it was important, too, that Dysart keep its arena fees in line with neighbouring municipalities and facilities. She noted Minden Hills were considering implementing a three per cent increase in ice fees at the recently redeveloped S.G. Nesbitt Memorial Arena.

“We’re hoping to keep costs relatively the same between Haliburton and Minden. We don’t want our [arena] priced too much higher than Minden’s. We may lose some user groups if fees aren’t somewhere along the same lines,” Mueller said. “We realize we have to have an increase, but we’re trying to make it so that it’s manageable for user groups, then once we get through COVID-19, perhaps we can look at a higher increase a year or two from now.”
Council voted to implement a three per cent increase for the upcoming season, but held off on making any further commitments beyond 2021/22.

That point was of particular importance to Smith, who didn’t want Dysart to commit to a fixed number regarding ice rental rates too far into the future.

In fact, his preference, it appeared, was for council to not commit, one way or the other, to operating A.J. LaRue arena too far into the future.

“It’s been noted that Highland Storm registration is down. The reality is the arena costs a lot of money, and there’s very few people in our community who make use of it… Maybe there won’t always be an arena [in Dysart],” Smith said. “We’re spending a ton of money already – more than $500,000 is the net cost [annually]. Maybe it’s the only facility in town that costs that much money, and when we look at it on a per user basis, most of our community is never inside the hockey arena on the ice surface.”

He added, “It’s council’s responsibility to look at where dollars are allocated and whether we’re putting them in the right place.”

Ward 5 Coun. Walt McKechnie launched a staunch and passionate defense of the arena.

“To me, that statement [to close the arena] is just the kiss of death to a community,” McKechnie said. “We’re coming through tough times in the pandemic, now some of you are thinking about closing the arena. To me, that’s outrageous. I would 100 per cent not be in favour of that.”

McKechnie believes the lower-than-usual registration for the Highland Storm is down to families having to cut costs during the pandemic, and not wanting to risk exposing their children to the virus by having them play against kids from outside of their bubble.

Regarding the costs of the arena, McKechnie, as a retired professional hockey player, said he would be willing to “get creative” to come up with ways to raise funds to ensure the arena’s doors remain open.

“If it takes people like me to get out and help market, and get families out playing hockey again, so be it. Hockey is a great game. Haliburton has a great history with hockey here,” McKechnie said. “It breaks my heart to think some of you would even think about closing the arena. Not many communities don’t have losses in their arenas, it’s part of the service that brings people here.”

Mayor Andrea Roberts quickly redirected talks, noting the future of A.J. LaRue arena wasn’t, at present, up for discussion.