© Frank Gale photo
Mike Alexander, badminton coach and regional coordinator for the Bay St. George Aboriginal Sport and Recreational Circle Newfoundland and Labrador, is seen in front of the West Coast Training Centre.
UPDATE: The provincial government has agreed to keep the West Coast Training Centre open for three more months. Click here for a video of Stephenville Mayor Tom O'Brien at a rally to save the facility. And click here for a video of Mike Alexander also speaking at the rally.
Nobody was expecting this sort of visit.
Two representatives from the province’s Department of Tourism, Recreation and Culture entered the West Coast Training Centre on March 26 to inform staff the facility would be permanently closing in a little more than 48 hours.
The sudden closure was one of the losses in the 2013 provincial budget that was announced earlier in the day.
“I went there last night to teach a class and there was a notice on the door,” said Wayne Simon, an instructor with Stephenville Taekwondo Club, the morning after the announcement was made.
His group has been using the fitness facility for 38 years. Mr. Simon said he was shocked they weren’t given proper notice so they could find another space to use.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” he said. “We have the ‘Kick for Cancer’ event on April 13 and our provincial championships are scheduled for April 27. They’re both booked at the West Coast Training Centre. I hope we can find another spot around town. We don’t want to dampen the spirits of the youth.”
The centre is operated by the province and has two full-time and one part-time employees. It is also home to such groups and programs as junior and senior badminton, judo, karate, Special Olympics, Zumba, basketball, volleyball, squash, walking and weight lifting.
Mike Alexander is a longtime badminton coach and uses the centre in his role as regional co-ordinator for Aboriginal Sport and Recreation Circle – Newfoundland and Labrador.
That group runs several programs, including an Active Start for young children, at the facility.
“I have 27 preschoolers coming into this program two mornings a week to learn fundamental skills such as running, jumping, throwing, catching, balance and agility,” said Mr. Alexander.
“I have a cheque sitting on my desk for $1,000 from Western Health to facilitate the program and I’ve got a $2,000 commitment from the Aboriginal Sport and Recreation Circle to buy equipment to run the program. None of that is going to happen because there is no other house for that program to take place.”
The aboriginal sports group also sponsors a summer youth program that incorporates basketball, badminton and swimming, which Mr. Alexander said won’t have a home after the centre closes.
He added the facility is more than a gym, it’s a meeting place that provides physical and mental well-being for residents – and acts as an attraction for come-from-away doctors and professionals, as well as their families.
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Stephenville Mayor Tom O’Brien said the town had no prior knowledge of the decision to close the facility.
“There wasn’t any consultation with the town, we had no indication whatsoever that the West Coast Training Centre was on the chopping block,” said the mayor.
“The first indication of their intent was Monday night (March 25) before the budget, the (Tourism, Recreation and Culture) minister (Terry French) gave me a courtesy call to let me know the decision was made and that it was going to be announced in the budget on Tuesday.”
He said the town is now in talks with the province for possible consideration to delay the decision to close the facility by one year.
“That would give us as a region and the user-groups of the building time to come up with a plan on how the facility could continue to operate under a regional authority,” he said.
“If we’re not successful in putting a regional authority in place, it would also give us time to put requests for proposals out to private enterprises to take the building over and operate it.”
When contacted by the Georgian, Minister French said it wasn’t’ an easy decision to close the Stephenville facility.
“I’m a sports guy myself, lately a recreation guy, so this is not something that me or government enjoys doing, but it’s a reality that we’re faced with,” he said. “With the financial situation the province is in right now, it’s an unfortunate thing that we’ve had to do.”
Minister French said the government is operating what was once a provincial training centre but has become a municipal training centre over the past 12 to 15 years. He noted it costs the province approximately $200,000 annually for employee wages and building maintenance.
“It’s not a bad facility. It might need a little bit of work, but it’s used as a municipal and regional centre and I hope it stays like that,” said the minister. “There’s nobody planning on coming out with a ball and hammer and beat the place down. So I’m certainly encouraging a municipality, a group, a regional group, sports group, private individuals, whoever the case may be – please come forward, we’re looking to divest of it.”
When asked about Mayor O’Brien’s proposal to keep the facility open for another year, Minister French said that wasn’t likely to happen.
“A year is excessive from my perspective, because we wouldn’t have the funding to do that. However, if there was something we could do, negotiate and work on, I’d be more than willing to do it,” he said.
“The point here is that we’re not getting out of the business of assisting municipalities or areas to provide infrastructure. However, the government cannot foot the bill for everything, government can’t be everything to everybody.”