Clock ticking on Wabush recreation centre as towns debate who pays

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Clock ticking on Wabush recreation centre as towns debate who pays

A year ago spirits were high in Labrador West and talks of amalgamation between the neighbouring mining towns of Wabush and Labrador City were poised to shake up the municipal landscape.

There were joint council meetings, plans for an amalgamation feasibility study, and pictures of the then-mayors with their arms around each other in a very visible show of unity and co-operation.

But a lot has changed over these last 12 months.

New faces, personalties at the top

That neighbourly bliss, at least at the political level, has all but disappeared. The word amalgamation is not spoken in the same warm tones. And some of the tensions about the provision of public services — especially recreation — that has existed for years appears to have returned.

The most notable change? The faces and personalities at the top.

In Wabush, a veteran municipal leader who opposes amalgamation but is a champion for the regionalization of services, has returned to the mayor's chair.

Ron Barron is a straight-talking former union leader and miner who never shies away from a debate or a chance to advocate for his town and its residents.

"Everyone knows my personal thoughts on it. I'm against it," Barron says when asked about the prospect of amalgamation.

His counterpart in Labrador City is a 30-something political newcomer who ascended to the mayor's chair after garnering the most votes in last September's municipal general election.

'We don't want them to crawl over'

Wayne Button is a doctor of chiropractic medicine who's still feeling his way through the maze of municipal politics, but like Barron, is an outspoken champion for his town.

He's not opposed to amalgamation, but doesn't want it to happen just because Wabush has fallen on hard financial times.

"We want them to come together and shake our hand. We don't want them to crawl over," Button says.

At the centre of the debate is the 50-year-old Mike Adam Recreation Complex in Wabush.

The question? Who is going to pick up the roughly $900,000 price tag to operate it this year, and into the future?

Barron pushing for regionalization

Wabush is struggling to pay the bills, its coffers pinched by the loss of big grant money from the company that used to operate its now shuttered iron ore mine. Emergency funding from the provincial government to help the town cope with the shortfall has also run dry.

So here's the scenario: Wabush says it can only scratch together $400,000 to operate the complex, less than half of what's required, so it's gone with hat in hand for help.

Labrador City came through with a $300,000 operating grant last year, but like the leadership, the level of generosity has also changed this year.

Button says he is prepared to help out once again, but not to the same extent, and with conditions.

"If you're going to go in and you're going to buy a Home Hardware, you've got to let me back there to take a look around," is how he puts it.

"I'm not just going to buy the Home Hardware. I've got to see, are you making money? Are you not making money? What's your manager like? So that's why we're trying to extend this olive branch to see what happens."

So how much is Labrador City willing to put on the table? Button won't say, but Barron will: $115,000 is the offer, a little more than one-third of what Labrador City contributed last year.

To avoid outright closure of the centre, Wabush is canvassing big industry for help. Barron says the Iron Ore Company of Canada is on board, and so is Tacora Resources, the company hoping to restart the mine in Wabush.

But until these entities provide written confirmation of their support, Wabush is unable to finalize its 2018 operating budget, and the status of the recreation complex remains in limbo.

Wabush footing the bill for recreation: Barron

"Our council is doing everything it can to make sure that centre stays open for the benefit of everybody," Barron says.

That might keep the centre open this year, but what's the long-term solution?

Barron wants to turn the complex into a regional facility, with both towns paying a proportionate share to operate it.

"There are things in our town suffering because we've been footing the bill for recreation," Barron says.

"When 80-plus per cent of your users are from Lab City, and we're footing the whole bill, well, we're not willing to do that anymore because we're not in a position to do that anymore. And it has to change."

The leadership in Labrador City, which is the larger of the two towns, is more focused on building a new recreation complex. That's something Barron just can't understand.

"I still don't understand why with a swimming pool in the area ... that we're going to turn around and build another swimming pool. We can't afford to keep the one we got going. So why do we need two?" Barron asks.Button says the complex is old and it's time for a recreation renewal.

But wouldn't merging the two towns help bridge the gap and end the bickering? Button is non-committal. He wants the people to decide.

"If we have a discussion and we feel the temperature of the room, and we feel the temperature of the people and we feel that we're going to go all this way and the vote is going to be 95 per cent no, then we probably won't go that far. But right now we're just really in discussion mode," says Button