How a regional recreation dream became Campbellton's financial albatross

The Memorial Regional Civic Centre in Campbellton held its first two major events to great fanfare in October 1991. The city was abuzz when thousands took in a trade show at the brand new, state-of-the-art facility, and, a week later, when the Canadian men's Olympic hockey team played to a 2-2 draw with the United States.

Legendary radio broadcaster Peter Maher, a Campbellton native and the former voice of the Calgary Flames, was on hand for the tee-up game to the 1992 Albertville Olympics.

According to the Tribune newspaper, Maher didn't know of another community the size of Campbellton with a centre like this.

"It's just an awesome structure and it jumps right at you when you're walking downtown," he told the city's weekly paper. "I can't believe my little hometown has a stadium like this."

More than half the city's population could find a spot in the 3,500-seat arena. The main ice surface is accompanied by a second Olympic-size ice surface, a 25-metre pool, squash and racquetball courts, a fitness centre plus a large lounge and convention centre. The massive building sits on the waterfront, overlooking the Restigouche River and the Van Horne Bridge to Quebec.

The building was busy in its heyday. Hockey players were firing pucks on both ice surfaces, the gym was busy and the arena would be packed on Friday nights to cheer on the local junior team.

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But those days have past. The arena is quieter now.

Ice time is easy come by, and the building sat closed and empty for two months last summer. Now, what was once the regional hub for sports in Restigouche County is an expensive weight around Campbellton's neck.

It's a source of friction between Campbellton and its neighbours, chiefly Atholville, which stopped paying to maintain the building. A debate persists over whether it should be a regionally subsidized centre and, if not, whether non-city residents should pony up.

The situation came to a head last year when the city introduced user fees for non-residents and hockey parents, caught in the middle of the spat, were squeezed for cash.

Marcel LeBlanc, president of the Restigouche North Minor Hockey Association, said if the other communities don't work with Campbellton, the Civic Centre will likely have to close at some point.

"If the other communities don't try to help, that means everybody's going to lose out and we're not going to have that [centre] to go to," LeBlanc said.

Campbellton is now seeking a regional policy for cost-sharing.

"It's in our name, the Regional Memorial Civic Center," said Campbellton Mayor Stephanie Anglehart-Paulin. "I just believe that recreational should be in all of our best interest in order to maintain the facilities we have."

Broken deal

In 2014, the Village of Atholville broke a roughly 20-year agreement with Campbellton that said it and the Village of Tide Head would chip in to cover some of the operating costs.

The city takes on all capital costs. In the early 2000s, the villages agreed to pay on a per capita basis — $86.63 a head from Atholville and $31.19 from Tide Head.

Atholville's tax base nosedived in 2014 after the property assessments for the pulp mill, the mall and in its industrial park decreased. It cost the village, which was facing increased expenditures, significant revenue.

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Mayor Michel Soucy said the municipal tax rate increased nearly 12 cents so the village could keep services intact.

"So something had to go, and so unfortunately it was the Civic Centre," Soucy said in March, five years later.

The mayor maintained in each of the following years that the municipality, which expanded through amalgamation in 2015, cannot afford to contribute to the facility. Soucy told the Tribune in 2014: "There is no contract as such. It was a friendly agreement made at the time."

Since Atholville's departure from the agreement, Tide Head questioned the value for its dollar but hasn't stop contributing.

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Asked what responsibility Atholville has to the Civic Centre today, Soucy said the village offers plenty of regional services, including a ball park and outdoor swimming pool.

"We do our fair share providing to the region a sports facility to make sure they have a place to play," he said.

Meanwhile, Atholville is after provincial funding for a new rink of its own. The village wants to redo the Hector Pitre Arena in St. Arthur, a new quarter of Atholville, after fire gutted the facility in 2014.

Campbellton and Dalhousie took umbrage with the funding request in a letter to the premier, saying there isn't a need for a new arena when they're struggling to keep theirs open.

A financial anchor

The Civic Centre doesn't make money. The city said last year it costs $1.85 million to operate the facility — about 12 per cent of Campbellton's entire operating budget — but it only makes $550,000 in revenue.

"You don't have to wonder why we have potholes," said Anglehart-Paulin.  

City councillors decided to close the facility for two months last summer to save costs, but the mayor said they aren't planning to close it again this year.

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To help with the costs, the city implemented the oft-considered option of user fees for non-city residents.

The $200 leisure cards to use the facilities — even the walking track — were unpopular and created a rift that saw the minor hockey association essentially abandon its traditional headquarters and spread to other arenas in the region for the season.

Both Anglehart-Paulin and LeBlanc said minor hockey is set to return to the Civic Centre next year, divvying up the schedule between Campbellton and Dalhousie.

The city also received small contributions — "It's the principle," Anglehart-Paulin said — from Quebec communities, including Listuguj First Nation, after sending out a call for support.

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But something's got to give. User fees aren't going anywhere but aren't enough to cover the shortfall, and the city's population — now at 6,800 — is shrinking and aging, which is bad news for the Civic Centre and overall city revenue.

Anglehart-Paulin said residents already face a heavy municipal tax burden, the second highest rate in the province at $1.77 per $100 of assessed value. The Civic Centre, she said, accounts for 22 cents of every $1.77.

"It's time that the region, the ones sitting at the table, get the presentation and make a decision if we want to do a regional recreation policy," she said, noting that regional recreation planning and cost-sharing is a mandate of the regional service commission.

Soucy said echoed the sentiment, saying Atholville is willing to go to the table to discuss the future of regional recreation.

But no meetings have been set and there's no resolution is in sight.