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UNB offers to extend life of Sir Max Aitken after City dumps them for the YMCA

On Thursday, vice-president academic George MacLean announced again that UNB would offer an extension on the Sir Max Aitken pool’s lifespan—a response to Wednesday’s announcement from the City of their intentions to partner with the YMCA for a new aquatic centre.

The city’s announcement comes just a week after they terminated negotiations with the university in pursuit of other partners. Although it seems like a quick turnaround, Deputy Mayor Kate Rogers said that she had people reaching out to her almost immediately after the news was publicized that the city was seeking new partners.

“We’re looking for people to sort of step forward and self-identify as potential partners, I’ve had a few emails, today already,” said Rogers in an interview with the Bruns on Jan. 24. “We’re certainly expecting a lot of partners on the field house side to step up and we’re also looking for aquatic partners.”

The new deal with the YMCA includes the construction of not only a new competitive pool, but a field house and multi-purpose centre as well—new recreation space that Rogers said is greatly needed by the community.  

“The field house has been out there [as a priority] for a very long time, you know there are a lot of rec groups that just need a place to a place to play,” said Rogers, who added that a new pool has never been on the city’s priority list.

“Since I’ve been on council since 2012, we’ve been trying to figure out space for those groups, and it’s pointing in the direction that we may need to build a field house. Combining the field house with a pool makes a lot of sense because of the income that can be generated from a field house to go towards the operating expenses of a pool, which are astronomical—rarely cost-recovery.”

In an interview on Jan. 24, MacLean shared the university’s vision for a potential collaboration, one that would feature shared branding and offer a real example of university and city cooperation. The partnership would have also provided a significant grant in lieu of taxes to the city, one that MacLean estimated would exceed the approximate $300,000 the city receives from the Lady Beaverbrook Gym. 

“If you want to do it next to a field house, well, the Richard J. Currie Center is a field house,” said MacLean.

However, Rogers said there was city land available for such a potential project, and while they weren’t ruling out UNB as a partner, Rogers said, “the university’s very keen on the pool being on campus, which I understand [but] there would be complexities there.”

The university’s offer to the city was an 80-20 split on the costs of a new aquatic centre, which the university rationalized from the data that shows approximately 80 per cent of pool usage is by community members.

The city came back with a 60/40 offer, which Rogers said was based on their expectation that the university’s usage would go up if there were a brand-new aquatic centre on-campus, and while the university wanted to continue negotiating to find a spot somewhere in between, the city terminated negotiations entirely when UNB refused the 60/40 deal.

“We felt we were in a negotiating phase and their view was this wasn’t moving quickly enough or they weren’t going to get to where they needed to be. I can only conclude from that that their position was not going to move from 60/40,” said MacLean.

During the negotiation phase, the university said an extension on the SMA pool’s lifespan could be a possibility in an effort to avoid the displacement of user groups, and while this didn’t seem like it would be a reality after last week’s announcement, the university has once again extended their offer to the city.

“Over the last many months, we met with pool user groups to outline a vision for a new pool we hoped would be built on campus in partnership with the city. While we are disappointed that did not come to life, we appreciate the significant impact a pool closure will have on the people and groups who rely on it,” said UNB in a news release issued earlier today.

“With that in mind, earlier today we reached out to the city with an offer to keep the pool open for another year while it seeks a new solution for the community’s aquatic needs.”

At Thursday’s announcement, MacLean said the university’s offer was reflective of its view on the importance of a strong university-city working relationship.

“One of the things that went through our thinking when we came to the decision that we wanted to offer to the city to keep the pool open for one year was based on our feeling that we need to maintain a close partnership with the city and we think that contributes to that,” said MacLean.

“I think probably for many people in the city it came as a bit of a surprise that there was a partnership. I’m not entirely sure what the considerations were that led them in a different direction, but I really don’t think that this is going to have a lasting and negative effect on our relationship.”

The university is asking the city to cover 60 per cent of the costs involved in keeping the pool open, as they are unable to cover the high maintenance bills on their own and revealed in their statement that only 16 per cent of the pool’s users are from the university.

“We will cover 20 per cent of net operational costs plus some staff costs to keep the pool open for a year. When combined, our contribution of some $190,000 amounts to about 40 per cent of total estimated net operational costs,” said the university in its statement.

“Should the city agree, its contribution would be about 60 per cent – about $300,000 after deducting the grant in lieu of property taxes of almost $100,000.”

Keeping the pool open is something the #MakeWaves committee, a combination of pool user groups that emerged out of the now-dissolved CRAFT, will be happy to see.

Jennifer Andrews, UNB English professor and member of #MakeWaves, spent a large part of her sabbatical last spring advocating for a new pool and for the SMA pool to stay open until that new pool could be constructed.

“I think our main concern now, and I’ll be really transparent about it, is trying to figure out a way to keep the SMA pool open as long as possible,” said Andrews in an interview with the Brunswickan after last week’s announcement from the city. “I don’t know if that’s possible, I don’t know if that’s realistic…with the knowledge that the pool is 50 years old. 

Andrews said the committee’s desire to keep the pool open is out of concern for the displacement of the pool’s user groups, who depend upon the aquatic facility and its ability to accommodate competitive swimming use.

“It’s particularly challenging for me because my daughter is a competitive synchronized swimmer, she is the atlantic champion for solo, and she’s 11 so she’s on the cusp of having a potentially really wonderful competitive career, and a group of friends that are lifelong friends, a sport that will keep her healthy, [and] a community of people who really care about the kids,” said Andrews.

“If the pool closes, there is going to be a whole community that is going to be affected, and it’s not going to exist in a year or two, it will be devastated, it will disappear. For those kids who are in the sport right now, and even for users—retired people who go there to swim every day, their health and wellness is going to be at risk.”

While the city has yet to respond to Thursday’s offer by the university, Rogers said last week that she feels “horribly” the city doesn’t have a solution to the displacement of the community’s competitive clubs.

“There are great benefits to competitive sport…one for economic development purposes, there’s the loss of not having competitive meets and all that,” said Rogers. “But it’s also just for what it does to a generation of Frederictonians.”

“Someone from one of the clubs pointed out to me and I found it very interesting that, you know when you look at these clubs, about 50 per cent of FAST, the competitive swim team, is female,” said Rogers, who addressed the crowd two weeks ago at Fredericton’s second annual Women’s March.

“You have synchronized swim club that’s the other competitive team—all female—so we’re looking at female athletes that are being displaced and that concerns me greatly [but] unless the Sir Max Aitken pool can be kept open there’s not much we can do.”

It’s unclear if the city will accept the university’s offer of cost-sharing the extension of the SMA pool—although the city has their own capital budget, they’re currently in the process of refurbishing their own crumbling infrastructure, including the Fredericton playhouse and Officer’s Square.  

If the city does agree to keep the pool open, there will be a process involved for making that happen. According to MacLean, the university would need to make an amendment to their arrangement with the new kinesiology building’s funders, which includes the demolition of the LBR gym.

The university would also need to receive permission from the city, which currently has an order to demolish the building on file. If the university could get permission to prolong the SMA’s demolition by one-year, the rest of the building would still come down as scheduled.

Photo credits: Justin Collett.

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