Exhibition Association revisits field-house idea

APRIL CUNNINGHAM Telegraph-Journal 

Paul Gilbride is the president of the Saint John Exhibition Association.

Photo: Cindy Wilson/Telegraph-Journal

SAINT JOHN – The Saint John Exhibition Association is looking for the city’s input as it aims to take another look at a proposal for a field house on the east side.

The Saint John Track Club has taken a “keen interest” in the idea – first proposed as a $21-million project four years ago – and the exhibition association wants to revise an original business plan to include an indoor running track in a less-expensive facility, said president Paul Gilbride.

“We still think it’s a good idea, something that’s needed and would be good for the community, but the original plan for a proposed facility goes back four years,” Gilbride said.

“We just don’t want to abandon the project. We think we should take another look at it and we’d be looking at the business case for it. We want to see if that’s still viable and if the support from user groups is still there.”

At Common Council on Monday, the politicians agreed to hear a presentation from the exhibition association and the track club to review the possibility of a field house on the exhibition grounds, located on McAllister Drive.

The organizations also want “in-kind” support from city staff to support the business plan process.

“All we want is some help,” Coun. Gerry Lowe, who is a director on the association board, told council before they unanimously voted to hear from the groups.

Council recently endorsed PlaySJ, a new recreation plan, which calls for more centralized facilities and quality over quantity.

Bill MacMackin, who is president of the track club, said he thinks this project fits with the city’s vision for improved recreation.

“I do believe there’s an opportunity here. It’s tough times for projects like this, and the economy isn’t great, but I still feel there’s some nuggets of things worth looking at,” he said.

A revised design, including an indoor track along with the turf field, would broaden the user base of the facility, he said. As it stands, the only track in the city, at the University of New Brunswick Saint John stadium, is outside, but the track community competes year-round.

There are about 270 members of the competitive track club, including youth, and at least 1,000 local road runners who would likely use the track, he said.

The club hasn’t determined if it would be involved financially.

“We’d want to look at the soccer community and all the sport communities and see how we could all contribute to make a project like this work,” MacMackin said.

The exhibition association has been trying to gain traction on the field house proposal for years, but could never garner financial commitments from all three levels of government.

The original plan was to have the city and the exhibition pay for one-third, with each of the two remaining thirds covered by the provincial and federal governments.

Meanwhile, a field house proposal in Rothesay was shelved last spring in favour of renovating and re-purposing the Rothesay arena and building a new one nearby.

Gilbride said it’s unclear how the updated funding model would work and it’s also unknown what the newly envisioned facility would cost.

He said the business plan review would likely not require too many changes. Officials want to reconfirm user groups are still interested and find out how construction costs may have changed. A track element and a revised, and hopefully cheaper, structure would also be assessed.

The exhibition needs new facilities on its own regardless, he said. But the organization wanted to involve the community.

“Most reasonably sized communities have facilities of this nature and it would help our groups stay on equal playing field with everyone else,” Gilbride said, adding it’s also possible there is not enough interest or finances to proceed.

“This is four years later. Maybe there’s some light at the end of the tunnel, maybe there’s not.”