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Halifax Mayor Peter Kelly, left, and Barry Barnet, Nova Scotia's minister for health promotion, announce that the city and province has scrapped their bid to host the 2014 Commonwealth Games, in Halifax on Thursday, March 8, 2007. The two levels of government said that the bid budget, with inflation factored in, was close to $1.7 billion. (ANDREW VAUGHAN/Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)
Halifax Mayor Peter Kelly, left, and Barry Barnet, Nova Scotia's minister for health promotion, announce that the city and province has scrapped their bid to host the 2014 Commonwealth Games, in Halifax on Thursday, March 8, 2007. The two levels of government said that the bid budget, with inflation factored in, was close to $1.7 billion. (ANDREW VAUGHAN/Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Letter from N.S.

Halifax mayor on thin ice in outdoor rink controversy Add to ...

With the first hiss of skate-blade on ice, all the controversy may be forgotten.

Peter Kelly is undoubtedly hoping so.

The Halifax Mayor took it on the chin last month for a closed-door debate about corporate sponsorship of an outdoor skating oval, secrecy that came to be seen as emblematic of a growing lack of transparency at city hall. And then, when the debate moved into the open, critics warned that the city was giving too sweet a deal to advertisers, which they feared would overwhelm the spot.

The oval was to open today, finally allowing the public a chance to see if the controversy was justified.

A 400-metre skating oval built temporarily on Halifax’s North Common was an unexpected fringe benefit of the city hosting the Canada Winter Games last winter. Hordes of Haligonians flocked to the track for public skating when it was not being used for competition.

Calls were soon raised to make the oval -- which was built to last only the one winter -- a permanent feature on the Common.

With a petition gathering thousands of signatures and a poll showing massive public backing, support rose at city hall. But difficult questions emerged. Environment-minded voices criticized chiselling away even more of a green space that had once stretched across much of downtown Halifax. Others questioned whether the venue would retain its popularity once the novelty had worn off -- and without the use-it-now pressure of a temporary facility. And the fiscally prudent debated the wisdom of taking on operating costs then pegged at $250,000 annually.

In an interview last winter, Mr. Kelly said that the oval’s popularity had been established but acknowledged the importance of the Common to Haligonians. He suggested “discreet” advertising would be appropriate to help cover costs.

“You don’t really want to make it a full advertising piece,” he told the Globe and Mail. “I think there’s a degree of moderation that needs to be kept in. You don’t want to inundate the venue and affect the aesthetics.”

Council agreed in March to spend close to $6-million over two years building a permanent oval site and sought corporations willing to help defray operating costs that have climbed to an estimated $400,000 annually.

This month, Emera, the parent company of Nova Scotia Power, went public with its plan to pony up about $33,000 annually for 15 years to get naming rights for the oval. And Molson Coors pledged $40,000 annually over a decade to put its name on a plaza by the ice.

That offered new ammunition to critics, some of whom said it was inappropriate to have a beer company sponsor a family venue dedicated to fitness. Others -- including Halifax Councillor Jerry Blumenthal, who told the local Chronicle-Herald that the city sold itself cheap -- noted that the two companies will get a lot of exposure for less than one-fifth of the annual operating cost.

The public’s reaction to the completed oval will help determine if these controversies fade away or gain new strength. A few thousand satisfied skaters could mute a lot of this criticism into background chatter.

But in what may be a small lump of pre-Christmas coal for Mr. Kelly, the weather has been unforgivingly warm. There are serious doubts the oval actually will open today.

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