Tofino’s manager of community sustainability defended his department’s efforts last week after concerns were raised about a perceived dearth of recreational opportunities at the community hall.
The concerns had been raised by Coun. Cathy Thicke during Tofino’s Jan. 11 council meeting and Aaron Rodgers presented a report in response to those concerns at Jan. 17’s Committee of the Whole, beginning with his consistent pitch to build a new indoor recreation facility.
“I just wanted to reconfirm what we all know, there is a significant recreation need in Tofino. We know we’ve been talking about this for well over 10 years. We know we’ve defined this need and we know it grows each and every year and we know how important it is to the health and mental well-being of our community,” Rodgers said.
He added that there is “lots” of programming on the way “especially within the tot age group,” pointing to a new recreation guide distributed last week.
“It was a little late due to some of the restrictions and regulations around COVID, but it’s going well. We’ve had quite a few programs already booked solid and are running waitlists as well,” he said.
He noted the guide includes programs like games nights and study nights as well as the return of zoomba, which had been on hiatus throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
He said the district currently has two full time recreation programmers as well as a part time programmer and that the offerings are largely driven by the availability of instructors.
“We source out instructors within our community to provide courses or programs based on their skills or certificates. We’re out in the community a lot trying to uncover people who might have a hidden talent or making sure that people who already know what they want to do are supported,” he said.
He added though that 2021 saw about 35 per cent of the department’s programming run by a district staffer on top of their regular work load.
“That 35 per cent doesn’t include spring and summer camps, which account for a huge amount of our staff’s time,” he said. “While we are primarily instructor driven and our job is to network and work with our partners, we also do a fair amount of our own source programming and we expect that will continue and potentially increase a little bit.”
He suggested the decrease in programs in late-2021 was partly due to a lack of staffing from mid-November to the end of the year due to a 15-year employee retiring and a replacement not being brought on board until early January.
“Staffing was a real serious issue for us in those last six weeks,” he said.
He added COVID-19 restrictions also limited what could be offered.
“The rules for omicron and this latest wave required us to go back and reassess what we were doing and how we’re doing it to ensure we’re doing it safely and within the regulations. That definitely impacted how programming was offered,” he said.
He said the department is now fully staffed and the community hall is “pretty much booked up for the next three months,” but added there is room for new programming on Fridays and Saturdays.
“We’ve significantly increased the amount of programming activities from last season to this season,” he said, suggesting 36 programs are being offered at the community hall compared to 25 in 2021.“I think it’s going to be a great year. We’ve got a lots of new programs happening and a new team with some new ideas.”
Coun. Al Anderson asked if there are times when programs don’t have enough participants signing up especially during the holidays when many residents take vacations.
Recreation programmer Hillary O’Reilly confirmed that participation does see seasonal dips.
“That’s why a lot of our instructors do choose to take their vacations around that time because they know a huge piece of the kiddos, adults and families that they coach have already made that choice to leave,” she said. “We try to line it up knowing that they try to take their breaks when there’s low attendance rates.”
Rodgers added that the community struggles to gain access to Wickaninnish Community School gym during holidays and the summer months, adding that the community hall cannot fill the gap in sports activities when the school gym is closed.
“Just because the school can’t do it, doesn’t mean that our space is automatically available and, frankly, the activities that happen in the school are very sports based and the community hall is a poor substitute for that,” he said.
“This is a concern, we understand the concern and one of the items that we would like to spend time with the school discussing and as our relationship with the school matures is to get access into the school during the summertime and Christmas and spring breaks because we do know that’s definitely a need that we’re not meeting in recreation.”
He noted the hall is also used for provincial court hearings, COVID-19 vaccination clinics and also serves as the community’s evacuation centre in emergencies.
“What we have is a hall and not necessarily just a purely recreational facility. This building is a civic building, so important civic activities such as court is something that I think as a community or as a society is important for us to deal with so that is one of the trade-offs that we’ve decided to make,” he said. “Obviously the vaccination clinics will be a once-off for as long as the pandemic is with us and hopefully not for that much longer.”
Coun. Britt Chalmers thanked Rodgers for the report and said it was important to acknowledge how hard the district’s recreation team has worked to navigate through the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I feel like this department got put a little bit on the spot having to defend things without a lot of backstory, but I think it is to be commended how much work has gone into doing as much as possible and continue recreation despite COVID and lack of staffing and all the struggles,” she said. “It has been tough and you get all of the negative and sometimes we just need to remember how much staff is all trying and working and it’s good that all that effort goes out there.”
Coun. Anderson agreed.
“When we take criticism throughout the district for maybe responding too heavily to COVID, as an employer myself, I think it’s underestimated sometimes how much responsibility the district bears and employers in general bear for the safety of their staff and of the people they engage with,” he said.
Chalmers asked Coun. Thicke if she could share the correspondence she had received about the lack of recreational opportunities that led her to express concern.
“I didn’t receive any emails from anybody with complaints and I have to admit I was a little caught off guard at the last meeting because I wasn’t aware that it was a problem,” Chalmers said.
Thicke said she would look into sending the concerns she had received along to council and thanked Rodgers for the report and agreed a new recreation facility is needed.
“I think that the questions and the letters that have come forward to council have come from a very good place. I think this community highly prizes that small facility and it just goes to show from your presentation what a coveted place it is,” she said.“It’s really hard because we only have one indoor facility to use…We have collaboration with the school, but we don’t have any other place that we can program so that makes it really difficult.”
Thicke is council’s liason on the Tofino Recreation Commission and suggested commission members as well as the general public are wanting to see greater access and utilization of the hall.
“Because of a dearth of programming over Christmas holidays, they’re feeling a bit on edge about it,” she said “It’s pretty difficult in the middle of a pandemic to facilitate people gathering together, but that’s what people really, really, desperately want…It shows that, as our population grows, we desperately need a new facility for indoor use and it really is vitally important that people have an outlet for their own mental health and their physical well being. I don’t see this as a luxury, I see this as a very, very important part of our life here.”