Russ Ford's Blog

Shouldn't Our Children Have the Right to Play

Ian loves to play basketball. If he didn't have to go to  school or his part time job, he would likely spend most of his life on the court. He may not be the greatest player, but like many teenagers he has dreams,  which is why I am not using his real name. It is wonderful to have adream and I won't dash his on my blog.

While Ian  wants to play  more he cannot, even if there were no school or work. Ian comes from a poor family and his earnings goquickly into such basic things as food and rent. Most of the opportunities to play are located in City of Toronto Parks and Rec facilities and it costs money to play in those public facilities. That is money Ian and his friends (and their families) do not have. 

Last week a report from the Parks and Rec department said  for $30 million Ian could get to play. In fact, not just him but every single person could have free access to Parks and Rec facilities.  Imagine we could have complete  public access to public facilities.

Now $30 million sounds like a lot. It equals the cost of 100 metres of the proposed Scarborough subway or it is about 1/8 of the city's current operating  surplus.  Still not convinced?  Well,  let's take a look at how the City has previously spent money on recreation..

Let's start with BMO field, the home of arguably the worst professional sports team ever, Toronto FC which are owned and operated by one of the wealthiest sports organizations on the planet, Maple Leafs Sports and Recreation (MLSE).

The  federal government chipped in $27 million, $8 million came from the province and the city ponied up $9.8 million to build  what is now known as BMO field.   MLSE put $18million into the pot but also got the right to sell the naming rights which  it sold to the Bank of Montreal.  MLSE has not disclosed what the bank paid for the  naming rights,  but the Toronto Star which seems to get a lot right put the figure at $27 million.

So $45 million of public money went into  a stadium that is now the sole use of an MLSE  team. MLSE  walks away with a $9 million profit and the  stadium.  That is quite a deal but not for the citizens of Toronto.

Now you would think with the Pam Am games coming ,  that BMO field would be a perfect location for the soccer competition. Well if you thought that you would be wrong.

Soccer is being played in Hamilton in a newly renovated football stadium.   After the Pan Ams are over  this new stadium will become the home of another professional team, the Hamilton Tiger Cats. Soccer was put in Hamilton to justify the $53 million public investment  in this facility.

But the waste does not stop there.  The owners of the Tiger Cats do not want a track in their new stadium.  It would put the fans too far away from the field of play. Simple solution, invest an additional $80 million at York university to accommodate the track. After allit is only public money.

This week the federal government announced it was going to put another $70 million into a legacy fund to ensure these facilities remain open after the two week Pam Am games are a distant memory.

Those who support the games point to the legacy it will bring to the city. We will have new 
athletic facilities  which will be in service for years.  This same promise was made to the citizens of Montreal as a rationale for hosting the Olympics.  To the best of my knowledge none of those facilities remained open for any significant period of time after the games.  They just cost too much to maintain

The legacy fund  might  give us a different fate.  Yes we may be able to keep our facilities open.
But the bigger question is, open for who?  If we cannot allow Ian and his friends to use public facilities now, why do we think he will be able to access the world class Pan Am facilities?  If we cannot or more precisely won`t provide free gym space to the city`s youth why do we think it will be done  in the future?

Ian  and his friends will be shut out and these new state of the art facilities will become the enclave of elite athletes.
The one thing that proponents of the Pan Ams and I agree on, is the value of sport to our community. Participation in sport is critical to the physical and social development of our children.  It is one of those  glue things that  facilitate  the development of community.
So let me suggest that spending $30 million so everyone can access already built  public facilities is in fact not that high a cost to pay.  It is a very small amount to pay to help address the needs of many of our citizens.
Let me also suggest that spending $30 million on free access is considerably more appropriate than underwriting the costs to run professional sports franchises.  Yes, I know we love our Maple Leafs but MLSE is not a charity.  It is an extremely successful business operation.  

I have often said politics is really about choices and there are usually no better examples than  how politicians choose to spend our money.   The proposal for free access will go before Council as part of its budget process.  No one thinks it has a chance of passing.  Council just does not care enough about the “Ian's of the world” and the Ian's of the world  do not challenge council.
When the Pan Ams are on, I will be glued to my TV set watching athletic competitions that I would otherwise never watch. That is the lure of international sports competitions.  We want to know how we as a country stack up to others.
Ian and his friends will likely never wear the Maple Leaf.  Elite athletes usually do not come from the other side of the tracks.  The cost of coaching and equipment is just too much for the average person to bear.
But Ian's dreams will be long dashed before he gets into such discussions.  He will never become an Olympian because he just cannot afford to play.
And that is simply wrong. What are your thoughts?

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