Council postpones Chittle Sports Academy request to re-expand into Essex Arena hallway

After a hearty debate that stretched around an hour-and-a-half at the June 17 regular meeting – some of which got a little tense – Essex Council decided to postpone Chittle Sports Academy’s request to expand its lease at the Essex Centre Sports Complex. This will give administration time to work with user-groups and the Academy.

Pat Chittle has been operating Chittle Sports Academy – a sports training school – since 2006, and leasing space from the Town for the operation since 2012. Originally, 1,860 square-feet of space on the first floor below the stands in the Libro Rink was allocated, then in 2018, Chittle Sports Academy formally requested a reduction in leased space for the off-ice training, wanting two dedicated rooms for a total square footage of 340-square feet.

In 2021, this lease agreement was extended for an additional three-years, which is expiring in August 2024.

Chittle Sports Academy would like to expand to the hallway again, with a further request to utilize additional storage rooms and wanted a start date of June 1.

Administration for the Town determined the request could not be fully accommodated in its entirety, however, a custodial room and another storage room, which does have height restrictions, were found.

The rate for rent was set in 2012, and then adjusted for inflation. The lease rate is $4.20 per square-foot, up from $3.67 currently. This will generate $10,222 in revenues, which will offset the operational budget at the arena, Town staff noted. If the two-year extension is activated, that would mean over $20,000 more.

Plus, the Academy rents ice, as well.

Chittle believes the expansion is good for the town and community.

That space, he said, will be first-class, with exceptional programs.

The idea is to form a strategic partnership with Defined Fitness, which Chittle said will compliment services.

As it relates to any shared space concerns, Chittle noted he has cooperated with all user-groups without any issues in the past, and will continue to accommodate the requirements of shared spaces.

As a former player and coach for the 73’s,he intends to work with the local hockey team regarding access as previously done.

The new sections in the agreement ensure that Chittle Sports Academy is responsible to ensure a block wall is built with door access to provide safety to the 73’s room, and that the 73’s can utilize this area as a throughway for moving their equipment on game days.

In addition, Chittle Sports Academy cannot operate outside of the regular facility hours due to the lack of washroom access. There is desire, however, to convert an unutilized custodial room to a washroom to allow for expanded access and eliminate the need to enter the public areas of the facility.

Chittle Sports Academy is also willing to pay the cost to add a bathroom in the unused custodial room. A certified contractor with WSIB coverage and insurance must also be utilized, all at their own expense.

Chittle Sports Academy must also provide access to staff and/or user-groups, as authorized by the Director of Community Services, to storage rooms or the hallway for throughway access.

Councillor Kim Verbeek, as an advocate for youth, noted this service is unique, helping to build skills, confidence, and knowledge. She said she has seen a number of young people take his program when ready to quit and then keep with playing hockey.

She also spoke of how this program rents ice at non-peak hours, giving the Town revenue where it would not have otherwise.

The money Chittle spends on ice fees and rent goes back into Town coffers to help pay for operating expenses at the facilities.

“That is a win for our taxpayers,” she said.

Verbeek did hear a concern about the set up in a hallway and meeting fire codes. She confirmed with Town staff that there were no concerns with that.

Verbeek asked about the ice rental fee provided to Chittle Sports Academy.

Director of Community Services, Jake Morassut, explained the Chittle Sports Academy typically rents non-prime time ice. The Town is looking to build its facility utilization, and bring in individuals to use ice during off-peak times.

The only competitor he could think of for that ice time was the high school, but noted there has never been an issue to get everyone the ice time they need.

Councillor Katie McGuire-Blais agrees the Chittle Sports Academy is a good fit for Essex, however, does not think adding in Defined Fitness is, especially at just over $4 per square foot for rental space.

She had an issue with bringing in another gym at a reduced rate. Gym space in Essex, she believes, goes for $16 per square foot.

She does not think that is fair.

Chittle said his rate is where it is at because it is not a premium space, with it being located in a hallway.

McGuire-Blais asked about how many clients the Academy serves and costs for programs. Chittle noted that varies, depending on need. Some sign up for a single session, others for camps.

She also asked where there are two memberships, one for Defined Fitness and one for his Academy. Chittle explained, like with other partners, they come in to complement the Academy.

In answering McGuire-Blais’s question about access to other parts of the area during hours it would not be open to the public, Morassut said the Academy members are limited to their leased space at that point. Needing access to washrooms, that is why the proponent is looking to install their own.

She also asked about who would be responsible to take down the wall and out the washroom when the leaser no longer wants to rent the space. Morassut noted the leaser has to restore the facility to its original form.

Councillor Joe Garon noted he does not have issues with the business or the Town trying to bring in additional revenue. He did have concerns with the space and rate, and what the impact would be if business would become full-time.

Hours of operation will vary, Chittle noted, in responding to Garon’s question. Hours of operation will be flexible.

Deputy Mayor Rob Shepley also struggled with allowing the gym to come in, as the space is being leased to the Academy. He said it does feel like two businesses sharing the same space.

Kris Wojnarowki, Vice Presidents of the Essex 73's, spoke about the possible lease expansion. He said the disappointing part is that the hockey club was not approached about this beforehand. The hockey club does need more space.

He added on game nights, the team needs access through the hallway, likely around a four-foot gap.

Wojnarowki said the 73’s wanted assurance they could get through the hallway on game nights and noted there was also a desire to negotiate an extra bit of space in the hallway to put in lockers for some of its items.

Chittle believes he understands the area the 73’s is looking at and would love to cooperate with that, however, that is an important piece for the Academy and would limit their class sizes.

Councillor Joe Garon asked if the Town would still get the same amount of money for the lease, whether that portion is leased by the 73’s or the Academy. Morassut noted that was, in theory, the case.

Morassut was asked why Defined Fitness was working out of the Shaheen Community Room. It asked to operate out of the hallway as of June 1. Administration relayed it could not without Council authorization. It then asked about the Shaheen Community Room, and was told it could use for a short-term transition period, until the lease was brought to Council.

If the agreement does not go through, they could not operate out of the facility.

The Town leases facilities for revenue. Morassut noted in 2023, leases accounted for $248,216 out of the Operating Budget. If the Town eliminated leases, taxes would have to be raised 1.43%.

He also noted the Town has never issued an RFP for leased space when there was an active lease-holder. He said there is no discount on leased space. That is only applicable to community room and ice rentals. Ice time rental discounts are only available during non-prime times.

Joe Malandruccolo, Director of Legislative Services, also clarified that a subcontractor would need to be approved, and the tenant is responsible for anything the subcontractor does under law.

He added the Town is not allowed to provide rent below fair market value. Administration ensures that, or there could be an issue under the Municipal Act.

McGuire-Blais was not sure why Council would pass this with 2012 lease information. The Town should do its own research and see what other municipalities are doing. She believes that “half price” should be offered to other user-groups in non-peak season. She asked why the Town is giving special treatment to one business and user-group.

Mayor Sherry Bondy relayed Administration believes it is not special treatment.

“I understand that is what the Clerk said. I am giving you my opinion, and Ms. Verbeek was allowed to give her opinion. So, I would appreciate it if you would let me speak my opinion,” McGuire-Blais said.

Bondy noted the conversation was border-lining on the Code of Conduct at that point.

CAO Doug Sweet cautioned using the language the Town is giving a discount. That is not the case, it may be McGuire-Blais’s opinion, but he cautioned care be taken with that.

She spoke of an email sent noting the Town provides a half-price rate to this proponent.

Sweet noted that was for the off-peak ice rental, not for the leased space.

McGuire-Blais asked why that was not offered to everyone. Sweet noted other user-groups receive a similar discount for off-peak hours.

Morassut noted there are a number or rates approved by Council. The rates differ, depending on the time.

At the previous meeting, Council approved an ice rental rate increase for 2024-2025 season by1.5%. This bumped minor sports prime time from $182.31 to $185.04. The average of municipal neighbours is $207.92.The chart provided notes the school and weekday day ice time rent was bumped to $93.03.Minor sports and adult non-prime time is $185.04, while adult prime time is $201.52.As per the agreement, the Academy pays half of the non-prime rates.

This was an agreement that previous Councils approved and has been kept in the current proposed lease agreement.

The rationale was to have more ice time utilized. McGuire-Blais believes this lease is giving the business a leg-up, and needs to be looked at. She believes now is a good time to put it to RFP.

Director of Corporate Services, Kate Giurissevich, noted an RFP can be issued. There is no guarantee of bids, and that could lead to the space being unused or a loss.

There may be other groups interested in leasing the property, however, the space they want is different. That makes it difficult to post an RFP.

Verbeek said Council has been trying to make an effort to welcome new business and help existing ones sustain. Chittle Sports Academy has been with the Town through thick and thin, she said, noting she has seen many kids go through the program ready to quit because they could not keep up with others. Instead, they got the knowledge and confidence to play and stayed in the local leagues, which benefits the user-groups.

Councillor Rodeny Hammond had concerns with the short-lease time at one-year with option for extension, when the business has been operational for 14-years.

Mayor Sherry Bondy suggested the file be tabled to allow Town staff to work with the Academy and the 73’s before approval.

Sylene Argent, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Essex Free Press