Community centre’s crisis of confidence in Chelsea, Quebec

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by Nikki Mantell on September 8, 2010

No doubt the stress levels of Chelsea, Quebec councillors, all newbies but for one, are through the roof following the latest round of Meredith Centre backlash, but their decision to take pause, cancel the Sept. 2 meeting and study a citizens-proposed plan to keep the arena in the project is a good one.

The tide has turned on this already hugely divisive project. Word on the street, our online poll, and a mail-out poll Coun. Edmond Hetu sent to his ward’s households show that an arena-less gathering place no longer has the support of the majority of residents.

A 35,000-square-foot community centre with rentable conference rooms and double gymnasium for almost $10 million no longer makes sense to sensible people. It is doomed to be a white elephant drain on taxpayers without the ice-time rental revenue an arena would bring in.

(A casual conversation with the owner of the Wakefield Mill revealed his conference rooms bring in a mere $8,000 per year. His wife, a former La Peche councillor, added that community groups balked at paying even just $150 per night to rent the big meeting room in the Masham sportsplex.)

Despite the loosely-defined referendum question, many residents believed the “culture and sports centre” they voted for included an arena. It is not just “yes” voters who feel grossly disappointed, if not betrayed; frustrated members of the Chelsea Foundation, including board members and original founding members, are lining up at the Chelsea council door. Former mayor and fundraising chair Judy Grant publicly stated the whole project should be abandoned.

Had council gone ahead with the Sept. 2 meeting, it would have been like sending the chickens out to slaughter. Frustrated foundation members would demand the arena’s reinstatement, the “no” voters would call for resignations if the whole project were not axed, and the group of citizens providing an alternative plan for an affordable arena would be met with “sorry, we can’t comment because it may jeopardize the Request For Proposals tendering process.” Everything after that would be drowned out in the screams of outrage.

The Low Down was slipped a copy of the new arena proposal put forward by Warren Major and his group of fellow citizens, most of whom have experienced business backgrounds. On first glance, it’s very reasonable, researched, clearly-defined document that gives concrete examples of other arenas recently built elsewhere in Quebec for $2 to $3 million less than Chelsea’s projected arena budget.

Those arenas probably do not meet the very “green,” very attractive requirements the Foundation planned for Meredith, which critics have described as a “Cadillac” community centre since the beginning.

Chelseaites, despite the good fortune of living in Quebec’s second-ranked wealthiest municipality in Quebec, don’t drive Cadillacs, they drive Subarus: reliable, decently fuel-efficient, well-built cars that get them to and from work, the ski hill or hockey practice safely.

The never-ending Meredith Centre debate has reached a crisis point. Council was wise to take the time to study the more affordable arena plan, and if they have any gauge of the temperature of their constituents, they will move mountains to keep the arena in the plan.

If they decide to go ahead without it, the reaction will make the last two years of accusations, acrimony and fighting look like a Sunday stroll down Easy Street.