OTTAWA In Medicine Hat, they've yet to put a shovel in the ground, but they can see it happening: a $90-million, 6,136-seat arena rising on the corner of Maple Avenue and 2nd Street for their beloved Western Hockey League Tigers.
With a key assist from the federal government, no less.
As many in this southeastern Alberta city of 60,000 had hoped, the budget included money for upgrading athletic facilities across the land a $500-million Recreation Infrastructure Canada fund.
Some of that money is expected to flow into Medicine Hat, where the local arena has stood for 40 years with its cramped concourse and limited seating capacity, one of hundreds of aging arenas in Canada.
"This is good news," acknowledged Medicine Hat Alderman Graham Kelly, who sits on the proposed events centre committee. "A problem we had four, five months ago was that the Alberta economy was so hot, the construction costs were out of sight. Now with the economy cooling, and with the federal infrastructure money, this could be the perfect time."
The recreation infrastructure fund has to be near and dear to the heart of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who is both a sports fan and a doting hockey dad. His son plays peewee hockey with Ottawa's St.-Laurent Senators, who play in an aging, decades-old rink located in Ottawa's east end, next to a new, sprawling city-owned recreation complex.
St.-Laurent Senators officials say there has been talk at city hall about installing a second ice pad, but for now, young Ben Harper and his teammates make do with the "ancient" rink.
But precisely which cities get money has yet to be announced. What is known is that the program will be a matching initiative with funds delivered through regional development agencies.
In Bridgewater, N.S., the locals want to replace the glass at their arena. Cost involved: $80,000. In Brossard, Que., there's an application to refurbish the Michel Normandin Arena for $4-million. In Teslin, Yukon, they want to fix the road to their arena at a cost of $100,000.
Then there are the big centres, such as Montreal, where a spokesperson for Mayor Gérald Tremblay said the city has $1.2-billion in "shovel-ready" infrastructure projects, roughly $270-million of which would be earmarked for sports, recreational and cultural facilities and another $500-million for parks.
"We have the projects identified, we have a list of priorities, and we are ready to go," said Renée Sauriol, who added all the projects await only the official go-ahead and could easily be launched in the 2009-10 fiscal year.
Mr. Tremblay has already met with federal officials to discuss Montreal's wish list and will now seek "the maximum available" amount from Ottawa and the provincial government in Quebec City, Mr. Sauriol said.
The federal money can be used to fund up to half the cost of any project.
"Details are sketchy," said Randy Kinnee, chair of the Canadian Recreational Facilities Council. "As far as I know, they're still working on it. We should know more in the next four weeks."
What Mr. Kinnee knows for certain is that the government's commitment to all sports (hockey, soccer, baseball, basketball, swimming) is an important step but not enough to correct what a 2005 national arena consensus showed: that 73 per cent of the country's arenas were built more than 25 years ago.
"It will provide a Band-Aid solution to our ailing sports infrastructure," he said. "It's a good start, but we could use more."
Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson noted there have been 1,093 proposals put forward by cities and communities across Canada looking for infrastructure improvements. As he sees it, the government has addressed "an issue that's a major concern.
"Five-hundred million is a huge hit," he said. "But it's only half for the arena requests across the country. We're going to continue to work with government agencies and sponsors to do more."
In Medicine Hat, there's still much to do before construction crews move in and begin digging a foundation for the new arena. The project also calls for financial assistance from the provincial government, and that may prove more difficult to secure. All totalled, the city is looking for somewhere between $19-million and $29-million in government funding before going forward.
"A big advantage in this particular case is the [federal] government is saying the $500-million is for rinks and recreation projects," Mr. Kelly said. "We'll have to see what the province does but we're encouraged."
The budget also includes $25-million to the National Trails Coalition for "a national initiative to create, upgrade and sustain snowmobile and all-terrain-vehicle trails throughout the country over the coming year."
The budget does not offer any further federal funds for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, but it does increase Canada's funding for the Special Olympics to $1.5-million.
With reports from Sean Gordon and Bill Curry