The city has closed the North Peace Arena until 2021, frustrating sports user groups expecting it to reopen next month, and addressed those concerns last week.
After first blaming staff shortages for the delayed reopening, new CAO Milo MacDonald said Oct. 22 that while people have been hired to address the shortage, the city concluded some of the new staff could not be properly trained to meet the technical requirements in time to reopen Nov. 2.
"It's a high-risk environment. The ammonia plants, if operated incorrectly, they are very dangerous," said MacDonald, Fernie's deadly leak in 2018. "The rules have changed substantially, WorksafeBC and Technical Safety BC have made some really important changes in terms of operating these plants safely, and it's difficult to orient brand new staff and meet those technical requirements to do this."
"To be truthful, we agonized over the decision. What it came down to was an assessment," he added.
"We realized we have great staff not fully trained, (and with) the backdrop of technical requirements, we weren’t confident we could fully guarantee that we could be able to do it safely."
The city recreation and leisure services director Karin Carlson elaborated on the same point.
"We have hired people but under the Technical Safety BC regulations. For us to operate our facilities and ammonia plant, staff have to have certain qualifications to do that, and it does take a certain amount of time for them to be trained and meet those qualifications," said Carlson.
MacDonald said the city hopes to reopen the arena as early in the new year as possible. But he said it's difficult to fully predict when that will happen.
He said that while the city can only follow public health directives from the province, "there are some unknowns there, but we are confident we'll be able to meet the technical requirements to be able to open."
The arena's reopening was heavily anticipated by many user groups, including the Fort St. John Minor Hockey Association, the Fort St. John Figure Skating Club, and the Fort St. John Huskies.
Some of these groups had plans to use the extra ice to offer programs they would normally offer that they haven't yet been able to, such as the CanSkate figure skating program, or to give hockey teams more ice time per week.
Recreation Manager Vanessa Cumming said the city is going through the process of reallocating the ice time for the next two months.
Compared to a typical year, Cumming said September and October of this year saw about 400 hours less in bookings for the two ice surfaces at the Pomeroy Sport Centre.
One reason for that is the the centre is only open from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. She said the popular weekday hours between 4 to 10 p.m. are fully booked, and while there are other ice times available, most of those times don't work for user groups.
"We are looking at opening up some of that early morning time that is missing, those early times before school that user groups use between 6 and 8 a.m., and over a two month period, that would have opened up about 300 hours of extra ice time for those groups," Cumming said. "Hopefully that helps offset things, but there is some reallocation to do."
Currently, only 70% of the ice time at the Pomeroy Sport Centre that would normally be available is being offerred.
"We understand that the user group's numbers are going to be down due to limitations on our facilities. We want to make sure all those user groups can continue to be succesfful, we don't want any of those groups to disappear from the community," Carlson said.
Carlson said the city is working on creative solutions to help some of these user groups, mentioning the Figure Skating Club possibly using the speed skating oval as an option to "maximize the space we do have."
Email sports reporter Dillon Giancola at firstname.lastname@example.org.