How a Facebook post caused council to feel heat over rink closure

·3 min read

What started with a Facebook post based on an unofficial council decision turned into community-wide outrage when Blacks Harbour councillors and the deputy mayor decided to close the village's only hockey rink a month early.

Council made the "unofficial decision" at a working meeting on Jan. 18, according to Deputy Mayor Dave Mahar, but before council could formally vote on it at an upcoming meeting, the Village of Blacks Harbour made a Facebook post announcing Patrick Connors Recreation Complex would close less than a day later, sparking concern among the community.

"I see the families, the relationships that are made there, like it's just so much more than, you know, a puck and a stick." said Shelli Hatt, who volunteers as many as eleven hours a week.

She grew up in Blacks Harbour and can remember the arena being a community hub, a place to host to dances, games and the curling club.

Mayor Terry James, who has been the head of council for 17 years, said she found out about the decision to close the rink on Jan. 22 because she had missed the working group session to meet with the region's mayors and Dr. Jennifer Russell, the province's chief medical officer of health, to discuss the pandemic.

James learned about council's unofficial decision on Facebook.

Then, the calls came.

"Friday I was on the phone at least four hours. Saturday, four to six hours, a couple hours between Sunday and Monday since, spent a great deal of time talking with very irate user groups who had no notice this was coming," she said.

Council was supposed to meet on Jan. 20 to vote on the early rink closure, but that meeting was called off due to the region entering the red phase of COVID recovery. The Facebook post was made the next day and news rapidly travelled in the community of almost 900 people.

Adam Hatt, cousin to Shelli Hatt, said when he heard about the decision, he was disappointed.

"To me, it's recreation," he said. "Without recreation, everything suffers. It's well-being, mental health, anything."

Mahar said the decision to shutter the rink early was made due to financial reasons. The rink wasn't financially stable.

But James, who wanted the rink to stay in until the end of February as scheduled, was able to get Mahar and council to reverse the decision of an early closure. The rink will now stay in until the end of February.

Town CAO David Gray said the village loses about $140,000 per year on the rink.

In the village's 2021 budget, Gray said the rink is budgeted to close at the end of February and not open again for the 2021 fall season, but January 2022 is still up in the air. Even then, the town still loses $80,000 for 2021 because of the rink.

He said the only way the rink, which needs about $240,000 to operate, could stay open is if it received a significant financial contribution from an external source.

James said she's hoping that a regional recreation cost-sharing strategy being developed by the Southwest New Brunswick Service Commission could help save the rink.

"It's terrible that it came about this way, but I'm always looking to make lemonade out of lemons," she said.

"And now the conversation door has been opened, and people's eyes are open, that it's hard for one small municipality to support a regional facility."

The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. L'initiative de journalisme local est financée par le gouvernement du Canada.

Caitlin Dutt, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Telegraph-Journal