St. Thomas adds gem to 'rust belt'

ERIC BENDER -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 12:09 PM ET

ST. THOMAS -- Keeping up with the Joneses, municipally speaking, St. Thomas-Elgin has finally completed a $12-million twin-pad, multi-purpose community centre.

While surrounding communities have opened new arenas, St. Thomas struggled politically which way to go, knowing for years that a new facility to replace or augment Memorial Arena was needed.

Would Memorial be twinned? Would it be torn down and replaced by a twin pad? Would it remain and be supplemented by a centre in another part of the city? Would that new facility be on recreation grounds at the Doug Tarry fastball complex in the southeast or on more expensive downtown land?

"That's all behind us. We just want to go forward now," said Dianne Morgan, the city's manager of culture and recreation.

And now the red brick St. Thomas-Elgin Community Centre stands ready to serve on Third Street off Wellington Street.

Memorial remains in service, but the leaky, creaky 35-year-old Northside rink has been decommissioned, leaving the city with three ice pads, a net gain of one that addresses an identified need for an additional 121 hours of ice time a week. Memorial, now with half a century of service behind it, has seating for 1,500 -- new chair seating, incidentally. The figure skating club will remain at Memorial.

Morgan is proud construction was complete enough and on deadline for a ribbon cutting Sept. 16.

"We had people on the ice and registration going on," she said. Detail work on the structure is still to be finished.

A "grand opening" is set for Oct. 20 in which the public will be invited to an open house and an evening of entertainment in the 2,400-seat main full bowl arena. There will be demonstrations in all areas of the complex by various other facility users, such as the junior B St. Thomas Stars, ringette, girls' hockey and a ballet school that will use upstairs space.

Basketball, soccer and volleyball users will show off the multipurpose room. The main arena has a running track around the upper level of the bowl, which will hold a few more hundred standees for games and events.

Among other entertainers, Canadian Idol competitor Aaron Walpole will do a one-hour set, Morgan said.

Tickets were being reserved at $10 each, but the city then decided it should be a free night. All seats are gone.

The Stars have moved from Memorial into a plush dressing room they've equipped and built for themselves and will play their first game in the new building tomorrow night against the Leamington Flyers. Walpole will sing the national anthem.

St. Thomas minor hockey, ringette, girls' hockey and men's recreational teams will be the other main users. The Elgin-Middlesex Chiefs, the elite minor hockey association, has booked some of its ice time at the centre.

Both ice pads are regulation NHL size. The secondary pad will have end-zone seating for about 300.

The multipurpose gym, with spectator bleacher seating for 200, is designed to accommodate basketball, volleyball, soccer and party functions.

And, as the primary recreation centre, the city's recreation administrative staff is moving from city hall to the new complex.

Morgan said the building is a $9.2-million structure, but the cost of servicing the building with roads, sewer and water lines pushed the total price to $12 million. A fundraising campaign has a goal of $3 million toward the cost. The city obtained the 7.8 acres of land for the centre from Bob McCaig and his brother of D and B Developments for a $1.45-million tax receipt.

The persuasive argument for building the complex downtown was it would stimulate activity in the central part of the city, particularly in what is known as the 15-acre "brown field" or part of St. Thomas's rust belt.


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