Some say the Richmond Oval takes more than it gives to residents

The upcoming election has reignited controversy over the Olympic Oval's multi-million surplus in reserves while other centres lack funding.

Photo by Bob Matheson via Glotman Simpson Consulting Engineers.
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Reported by Gabrielle Plonka

A Richmond mayoral candidate is calling for more information about the finances of the Olympic Oval Corporation, reigniting a decade-long controversy over the oval’s claims of being independently profitable despite benefiting from millions of taxpayer dollars.

The oval corporation, chaired by the city of Richmond’s administrative officer, George Duncan, claimed a surplus of $1.2 million in 2017, which meant that one-third of taxpayer contributions were placed in oval reserves – and unavailable for use by the city’s other cash-strapped community centres.

City officials have always said that the oval provides a valuable amenity to Richmond residents and so deserves taxpayer support.

But mayoral candidate Donald Flintoff believes that if the oval claims to be a profitable corporation, even though it’s functioning as a city community centre, then there should be some separation from public funding and city officials.

“If I were to win [the mayoral election] on Saturday, there would be a lot of questions asked,” said Flintoff.

Flintoff believes that the oval corporation is too heavily staffed by city officials who cannot possibly hold more than one major position singlehandedly.

The cost may be too high

Ken McLennan, a Richmond resident and anti-oval advocate, believes the oval’s annual reports of “stellar financial performance” are misleading, and the centre itself a drain on taxpayer resources. McLennan believes that the oval’s benefits to the community don’t outweigh the centre’s annual costs.

“Perhaps, the oval is the model for success compared to the . . . underutilized Olympic legacy venues littering the world,” McLennan wrote in an email.

“It is still a major burden on city taxpayers.”

As of December 2017, the oval reported an accumulated surplus of $16.1 million, the same approximate amount as city contributions in the last five years at $3 million in contributions annually. The oval corporation’s 2016 annual report states that all oval surpluses must be invested back into the oval or placed in financial reserves.

Meanwhile, other centres lack capital

There is also question of whether the high contributions of taxpayer money to the oval are to blame for the lack of resources at other Richmond community centres.

In a Sept. 28 letter to the Richmond News, concerned citizen Bruce Neil described worn-out turf fields, cold shower water, dirty change rooms and lack of staffing at Hugh Boyd, Minoru and Richmond Ice Centre. Neil blamed the oval’s generous funding for the discrepancies.

At Thompson Community Centre, where Flintoff serves on the board, Flintoff echoed complaints of no hot water for the showers, as well as no air conditioning during last summer’s heat wave.

“People are complaining,” said Flintoff. “I would assume that if the oval is taking up a lot of money, then somebody isn’t getting a lot of money.”

Some say oval contributions are fair

According to Kin Lo, senior associate dean at UBC’s Sauder School of Business, the oval’s high surpluses barely exceed goals for a balanced budget. Lo added that though it’s unusual for a community centre’s board of directors to hold paid positions, the size of the oval’s operations require it to be run like a Crown corporation.

“We wouldn’t expect volunteers to run BC Hydro,” said Lo.

For the same reason, Lo dismissed concerns that city-owned corporations should not employ city staff.

“If the government owns the oval, then the city of Richmond should be part of the management.”

Richmond’s director of corporate communications, Ted Townsend, said in an email that the oval receives fair annual contributions “just like every other civic facility in Richmond.”

In Townsend’s provided breakdown, the oval receives less in city funding for its size than other community centres at $8.79 per square foot. According to Townsend, the Thompson, West Richmond, City Centre, Hamilton and Sea Island Community Centres all exceed $20 per square foot in city funding.

“Public funding . . . ensures these facilities are available, accessible and affordable for all residents,” Townsend said.

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