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Hi Friends of Ramsden:
I want to bring you up-to-date on the Ramsden rinks, which are scheduled to open next weekend. I have had a number of conversations about the operation of the rinks including a meeting with city staff and want to both pass on what I have learned, and to ask you for some urgent help. Here is some background before I get to issues before us. The rink opens this Saturday, December 6th.
Right up front, let me emphasize one thing. Almost everyone on city staff that I have had contact with have been cooperative and would like to make the rink experience a good one. Almost all are good people. But to make the rinks work, we have to identify the problems.
The 2007-2008 season deserves a mixed review. You will recall that we nearly lost the rink last year due to city budget problems and some folks were prepared to sacrifice the rinks. A corporation stepped in at the last minute with a contribution to save the rinks and imminent disaster was averted. While this seemed like a good thing at the time, the city fathers may shelve the rinks again at some future date and think that some corporation will step in and save the day. The provision of private sector help, while appreciated, was not a helpful precedent.
It is not good public policy for a city to back away from paying for essential public services and relying on charity, sponsorship or privatization to pay for the services. When a city fails to pay for recreational opportunities for families, especially youth, we end up paying for it in other ways. Declines in the livability of cities lead to decreased property values, alienated youth, increased costs in the criminal justice system and on, and on. Ramsden is a jewel in the centre of the city and we have to protect it. We have to make the closure of our rinks a non-option for the city.
While we survived closure for the season last year, critical time was cut off our schedule. On Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day, the rinks were closed. And perhaps on Family Day. Historically, these holidays have been some of the most popular days for use of the rinks. Kids trying out new skates on Christmas Day, adults working off big meals, great games on key holidays in the Canadian winter. These were unforgivable cuts, in this writer’s opinion.
Maintenance of the rinks in particular deserves mixed reviews. Brian Green in the Parks Department, responsible for ice and facility maintenance, tried to do the best he could with available resources. The ice surface was better last year when the rink opened (I didn’t go through the ice to the concrete as I and others did in 2006-2007 when we nearly ruined our skates). However, there were not enough floods last year so that by February, we did not have enough ice thickness to survive a rising February sun. You may recall that on several days in February we played hockey around orange pylons in the middle of the rink. We had less than a half inch of ice in spots whereas, in previous winters, we had at least a half foot of ice by this time. Clearly, the ice was not receiving adequate floodings and proper maintenance.
I hasten to point out that while the ice has to be thick enough to survive warm spells and hard use, if it is too thick, the compressors will not keep the ice hard on the surface. A proper balance has to be maintained. On many weekends and/or holidays, the Parks maintenance crew failed to show up either late at night or first thing in the morning, before opening, as they should have. So, morning participants played hockey in snow and on unflooded ice before resurfacing took place at midday.
At other times, the Olympia (like a Zamboni) broke down and we played hockey in snow. When we took the initiative to scrape the ice ourselves, the Recreation department staff initially would not give out the scrapers and shovels. When we pushed on this, the shovels were handed out but, mysteriously, Parks staff removed the large scrapers and only one was returned under protest. Then we only had one shovel made available to us, making the job of throwing snow over the boards very difficult.
Toward the end of the year, I was in the process of organizing community pressure to keep the rinks open during March break or at least open while the cold weather remained. At that point, Brian Green promised me and others, as I am certain he had been told by superiors, that Ramsden would stay open. Acting on this commitment, we did not organize letters, emails or phone calls to City Hall. Twenty-four hours before the rinks closed, prematurely according to the promise, staff got emails from some folks higher up telling them that Ramsden (and other rinks) would be closed the very next day, a complete surprise to everyone including staff. This effectively cut off time for us to organize. And the season ended during weather perfectly compatible with having an extended season.
We can do better and I believe there are people in the City’s Recreation and Parks Departments that would like to do so. As someone who has a little experience in persuading governments to do things that they would not do on their own initiative, I know that what is often missing is the public pressure that creates the needed political will. Let’s make sure we make the time to create that pressure. More on this below. First, here is what I have learned about Ramsden for this winter.
The current 2008-2009 year
A potentially lengthened season
The Ramsden rinks are among the 14 city ice pads that have been selected to remain open an extra two weeks in March if cold weather holds. This won’t take us into the March Break because the school holiday falls later in March in 2009 when the weather almost certainly would not be cold enough to hold the ice. But we have a city promise that the rinks won’t close at the end of February when the air is still cold and crisp, the ice fast, and the shinny players on a Canadian winter high. I believe the City Hall Committee recommendation for the extended season has yet to be approved by Council. But that is almost a done deal.
Partial openings on Christmas, Boxing Day, New Year’s Day and Family Day
The Boxing Day and New Year’s Day morning games of shinny were favorites at Ramsden until they were cut last year. While we appreciate the fact that the Ramsden rinks are scheduled to be open for part of these days, from noon on, we have to press them to open at 9am, the same as on every other weekend or Christmas Week day.
There are two reasons for doing so. The first should be obvious. If the morning skates are cut out on these days, the players and skaters who would otherwise participate in the morning will have to join the afternoon sessions creating crowding that spoils the time for everyone. The rinks simply cannot handle that many participants crowded into the afternoon time slots.
The second reason that we should press to have the rinks open the full day on these holidays is strategic. The City has already shaved 3 to 4 full weeks from the historic opening times of rinks. We have lost the last two weeks of November and, this year, the first week in December. If we allow the City to keep shaving days and half days off the schedules without protesting loudly, the cuts will continue.
Can the city afford the staffing costs needed to open on these holiday mornings? Yes. The city has budgeted for two additional weeks at the end of the season in March. But the rink will close as soon as a warm spell shuts down the operation. There is no way that cold weather will hold for the full first two weeks of March. Due to warming weather, we could end up with the rinks open zero days out of the 14 extra days promised. But given past temperatures and the rising sun, and the limitations of the compressors at Ramsden, there is no way that the rink will be open for all of those 14 days. Therefore, the City will save on labour costs for every day out of the 14 budgeted for when the rinks close before the end of the 14-day extension.
The savings at the end of the season could easily cover the modest costs involved in opening the rinks three hours earlier on the holidays in question. What costs might be involved? Three to four hours extra staffing time, one Recreation department rink guard to open up and one Parks department staff to clean and scrape. Even if paid at double time, the costs would not come close to the savings that will be made when the rinks, without a shred of doubt, will be closed before the scheduled final days in March. Better to spend to open on these holiday mornings in December and January when the weather will permit proper ice conditions. Better that we fight to protect these holiday times when we know ice can be maintained and the rinks used fully.
An Olympia or Zamboni on site and adequate cleanings and floods
At the present time, my sources tell me that the City plans to have an Olympia machine (a cheaper version of a Zamboni) on the premises. Only days earlier, other sources told me that the Olympia was threatened. If the City has to bring a machine in each time maintenance has to take place, ice conditions will be seriously compromised. Last year we experienced real problems. On several occasions, the ice was not cleaned and flooded in the late evening after two or three hours of heavy hockey activities. Then for a variety or reasons, the rink was not cleaned and flooded the next morning either, until about noon when parks staff arrived to run the Olympia. Hockey players are fully aware that in a real hockey game, the ice is cleaned and resurfaced every 20 minutes! In the scenario described above, the ice would not have been cleaned after 4-6 hours of skating! This is not only unpleasant, it can actually lead to injuries. When players lose the puck in their skates due to ugly ice conditions and they look down to recover the puck, collisions occur.
This problem points to an ongoing problem. It is very common for bureaucrats and politicians who are making the decisions about the hockey and skating rinks to be individuals who have never laced on skates or picked up a hockey stick. These individuals have no first hand experience with regard to the importance of ice maintenance. We have to press for more frequent cleaning and a sufficient number of floods to ensure that we will not be skating on concrete when the weather warms in the last two weeks of February.
It is bad enough when the ice is not cleaned in a timely fashion. But insult is added to injury when Recreation department rink guards, a) refuse to release large scrapers and shovels to hockey players who are willing to clean the ice by hand, b) claim they do not have keys to the room with the equipment, c) or inform skaters that the Parks Department has removed the scrapers for whatever reason. By the way, the ice cannot be cleaned without the wide scrapers. It would take forever. I have searched far and wide for such scrapers. I intended to donate a couple for Ramsden so that Parks staff could not spirit them away. However, these large scrapers do not seem to be available on the market. Apparently the city had them made in their metal works shop but has stopped the practice. If that is the only source, and the manufacturing stopped, then a political decision can be made to restart the practice of building scrapers for our rinks.
We have had a struggle every year for at least 20 years over the shovels and scrapers. Legal liability has been the excuse raised many times in the past. But that has always been a dodge. The real reason is that skaters/players have pushed snow to the sides of the rinks and into the corners and then failed to throw it through the chain link fencing or out at the end gate. Then, when the scheduled scrape and flood is about to take place, city staff have the ugly job of removing the snow by hand because the Olympia cannot handle it. This is a legitimate concern that Ramsden skaters have to recognize and then ensure that the puck is not dropped again until all of the snow is removed.
I have been told that, as I write, there are two large scrapers at Ramsden. And I have asked for 3 or 4 shovels. I have asked that this equipment not be raided. Please read the memo from the city about the shovels that I will post in the change room. When cleaning, make sure all action with the puck stops so that no one is hit with the puck (this will also encourage everyone to help with the shoveling) and that all snow is removed. We have been promised access to this equipment, but if the city has a few bad experiences, the shovels may be kept locked up.
My sources tell me that some of the problems last year stemmed from the fact that we did not have full-time Parks staff at Ramsden due to a hiring freeze. I am also told that we will have a full-time staffer on duty this year. That person should be scheduled to work, not at his or her convenience, but for the benefit of the skaters. For example, the ice should be cleared around 8 p.m. weeknights to ensure that the rink is playable for the remainder of the night.
Six things you can do to help protect Ramsden for you and your family
(see contacts in the attachments)
Send an email to your City of Toronto councillor and to Mayor David Miller. Better still, send a letter. Letters carry more weight. Or phone. The Ramsden rink is in Councillor Kyle Rae’s ward.
In your own words, send a message that will
1. thank the City for the promise of two extra weeks at the end of the existing season;
2. ask the Mayor, who is himself a shinny player, and your councillor to open Ramsden on Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Year’s Day and Family Day at 9 a.m., not noon. Mention that there are ample precedents for changing the holiday rink schedule and the new year schedule at the last minute. (I have a record of those precedents.) Mention that Friends of Ramsden says that this need not be any additional expense;
3. ask them to assure you that the full-time staff, Olympia and shovels/scrapers will be provided and protected at Ramsden;
4. ask that a consultation be held with Friends of Ramsden and other users of the Ramsden rinks in January, on a Tuesday night (Jan. 6,13 or 20 to ensure greater participation) and to help prevent further significant decisions on the rinks without community consultation;
5. give us your comments on this report, your ideas and corrections, and above all, a copy of any communication you send to City Hall or to Parks/ Recreation officials;
6. forward this message to other skaters/players/families who may have an interest in protecting Ramsden this year and in the future. Send us email addresses for other interested parties. We need to build our email list.
My apologies for the length of this report. There are many issues to report. The coordinates for key people are attached. Thanks to my wife/volunteer Helen Kenney for inputting this report and email addresses.
Best wishes for a great skating season.
Garfield (Gar) Mahood, O.C.
Friends of Ramsden
196 MacPherson Avenue
Toronto, Ontario M5R 1W8
(416) 964-6279 cell (416) 451-4285
Mayor David Miller
2nd Floor, 100 Queen St. West
Phone: 416-397-CITY (2489)
Email: [email protected]
Councillor Kyle Rae
100 Queen Street West, Suite A5
Toronto, ON M5H 2N2
Email: [email protected]
Director of Parks
Email: [email protected]
Director of Recreation
Email: [email protected]