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Various images, inside and out, of the rinks in The Sports Village, 2600 Rutherford Rd. in Vaughan, Ontario on Jan. 19, 2011. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Various images, inside and out, of the rinks in The Sports Village, 2600 Rutherford Rd. in Vaughan, Ontario on Jan. 19, 2011. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Toronto eyes partnering with private firms to build public rinks Add to ...

Between a shelved waterfront arena and ice-allocation red tape, Toronto's hockey-rink junkies can't seem to catch a break. And one city councillor thinks the only way to overcome the city's rink-related inadequacies without plunging further into debt is to explore public-private partnerships.

"We have no choice: If we want new ice rinks and new infrastructure, we're going to have to find the partners to build it," said Giorgio Mammoliti, the new chair of Toronto's community development and recreation committee.

"These are things that the business community is looking for. And it can work."

The closest the city has come to building a new downtown arena in decades is now on hold; Daniel Herljevic, the project manager for what was to be an $88-million, four-storey stacked arena, admits he's "in the dark" as to the city's plans. Councillor Paula Fletcher, in whose ward the rink would have been located, called staff's advice last week to ditch it a "knife through the heart."

Years of putting off pricey capital projects has given Toronto a reputation for aging, inadequate infrastructure. But its recreational facilities are particularly far behind those of other Ontario municipalities: There are fewer of them per capita, and they're older.

Mr. Mammoliti's proposal, which is coming before committee on Friday, is to establish a task force to look into forms of private-sector financing for public rinks.

That wouldn't be an audacious proposal elsewhere: Public-private partnerships are common out west, and the man running Vaughan's Sports Village argues that's the only way to make this work. But in Toronto, the suggestion of privatizing public facilities is virtually guaranteed to elicit outrage. One of the most basic objections is that having private companies run these rinks would mean outside, often non-unionized staff. Others argue that, simply put, a public entity should be in charge of delivering a public service.

But the brave new Ford administration, Mr. Mammoliti said, just might have the appetite to try it.

"This election was different," he said. "The electorate wants us to venture out and not spend as much money."

It worked for Vaughan: A dozen years ago, the city embarked on its first public-private rink-building venture. It took 14-hour negotiation sessions, and the deal almost fell through several times, said Councillor Marilyn Iafrate. But it paid off.

"That project was phenomenal, and really helped meet the needs of the community at a time when we had a huge shortage," she said. "Fast-growing communities like Vaughan, you just can't keep up. … We're talking four arenas that would never have happened if you waited for a community centre to get built."

And Bryan Santarossa, the arena's director of finance and operations, said this is also the best deal for private companies: It guarantees them business and usually comes with free land, deferred property taxes, or both.

There's certainly appetite for it: John Knifton, director of partnership solutions for Canlan Sports, said he'd be "absolutely" interested in partnering with the city on rinks. But even he is leery of trying to make a business case for a state-of-the-art, $88-million waterside arena.

Ms. Fletcher has said she hopes staff will take another look at financing options; otherwise, $34-million of earmarked federal funds will go towards a different sports-related waterfront project.

She's open to private financing - seeking out sponsors to buy naming rights for individual ice pads, for example - but balks at the suggestion of "turning the keys over to someone else," especially a for-profit company.

"Then it no longer can meet all of the goals that the city would have," she said. "I wouldn't want to turn anything profitable over to somebody else, because we need that revenue stream in the city."

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