A work in progress

Second floor corridor. The main arena is at left. VOICE PHOTO

Impressions from a personal tour of the Community Centre construction site


The symbolic clouds hanging over East Fonthill’s financing were matched last Friday by their real-life cousins, casting a grey pall above the Pelham Community Centre construction site west of Rice Road. It was an unseasonably cool day, and I half-expected a similarly frosty reception from Darren Ottaway, the Town of Pelham’s Chief Administrative Officer, who was to be my tour guide.

A couple of weeks ago Ottaway and I crossed paths on Pelham Street, blocked-off and deserted as setup for Summerfest started. An invitation for coffee was countered with an offer to tour the Community Centre, to see how its construction was progressing. Why not, I said. If I go missing, I told my wife later, point the cadaver dogs toward any freshly poured concrete south of Highway 20. A joke, of course, mostly.

In the event, Ottaway was a cordial host. The only threat to my wellbeing was a set of scaffold stairs. Without the regulation hard hat, I’d have been out cold after clumsily hitting a horizontal crossbar at the top. Ottaway graciously retrieved the hat, which had gone skittering across the open second-story concrete, and drily noted, “That’s why we wear them.”

Before that, though, we sought permission to come aboard from Construction Manager Doug Fehrenbach, a veteran with Ball Construction, the company overseeing the build. As we walked toward him, Fehrenhach ended what looked like a three-way discussion with the worker next to him and someone on the other end of his cellphone. Fehrenbach greeted us, then pointed at the concrete layer separating the first and second floors of the main arena, complaining that it wasn’t quite right, that, “these guys” never get it right, but in the end it would be fine, just like it was fine at the Gretzky Sports Centre, in Brantford, where Fehrenbach was also in charge. Another call came in. We were waved loose to wander on our own.

There’s no doubt about it. $36 million and change buys a lot of space, and a lot of concrete and steel to wrap it in.

Ottaway kept up a steady commentary, stopping frequently to point out where this or that facility would be housed—separate change rooms for males, females, and referee staff; a kitchen; a large room for events, with retractable seating; something called the “green room,” like its television counterpart a sort of marshalling space where, he said, a bride might make final preparations for her wedding ceremony.

There are two NHL-size arenas, one with stadium-style seating, the other without. There are two gyms, and portions of their exterior walls will be glass, the view now the back of Food Basics, later the coming Wellspring cancer centre.

Walking paths around the building and through to the parking lots are intended to create a pedestrian-friendly experience, Ottaway said. An outside area with a small stage could accommodate live music—but it’s not, he specified, aimed at uprooting the summer Bandshell series from its current home in Peace Park.

A cool breeze carried construction odors though the complex—that new-building smell, plus a touch of diesel. There were fewer workers on site than I expected, maybe 30 altogether. They represented a range of trades, their work trucks parked in roughly organized patterns, mostly around the mobile offices and equipment storage units on the eastern side of the site.

A Metro Ironspot Smooth Utility Brick. VOICE PHOTO

There was constant machine noise—a generator or air compressor—some hammering, motor-whirs as lifts moved up and down, the random pops of welding, all set to classic rock coming from a portable radio next to workers who seemed to be on break. No matter what you may think of the wisdom of a given project, walking around something this large as it’s created—even if just for an hour—provokes wonder at the sheer accomplishment of it all.

Ottaway said that construction was “weeks ahead,” that 75% of the tendered value was out, and that the final tender, Number Three, representing the last 25% of work (interior items such as drywall and paint) would be awarded in September. The exterior is to be finished by Christmas. He said that the project was on budget, and expected to be “significantly complete” by next June.

“We want to be fully operational on the ice side” by next August, he said, for the start of the 2018 hockey season.

Doug Fehrenbach, the Construction Manager, had said that samples of the much-discussed brick had arrived, and so we went looking for them, finally finding a couple of pallets out back. At one point a few months ago, when news broke of a 9,000 sq. ft. design change, conjectures were made about cost savings coming through the substitution of Canadian brick for the originally specified American brick to be used on portions of the exterior facade. The good news, said Ottaway, as we surveyed the pallets and pulled out a couple of bricks for a better look, was that the cost was the same in the end. Whether by horse-trading or witchcraft, the handsome bricks from Nebraska would be ours after all, and it was clear why Ottaway and the architects before him found them so appealing. The clay comes from a quarry containing an unusually high level of iron, he said, holding up a Metro Ironspot Smooth Utility Brick for its ten seconds of fame in front of the camera. It was unusually smooth, with a faint shine. It was pretty attractive, all right.

“It looks better the older it gets,” he said, describing a patina that develops with age.

“Do you want a monolithic brick wall,” he asked, “Or something that reflects the character of the community.” If it were up to builders alone, he said, arenas would be blunt square buildings with zero style. It’s the grace of architecture that creates something outstanding, that level of excellence sought by Town Council.

This notion of excellence came up a few times, and it reminded me of the minor furore last year over the choice of a Spanish sculptor to create a budgeted $200,000 piece of public art, an installation to sit near the corner of Highway 20 and Rice Road, part of a symbolic “gateway” to Pelham. Did it bother Ottaway that the artist wasn’t local, or even Canadian?

No, it’s irrelevant, he replied. What matters was that the best of the best was chosen—there were Canadian entrants, too, he said, but it was the Spanish artist who made the final cut.

Whether Pelham needs world-class sculpture at its front door, or uniquely handsome bricks aging gracefully on its Community Centre are open questions. For the time being the sculpture is on hold, said Ottaway, but still planned.

The cool breeze shadows us back to the office trailer, where we’ve parked our cars. Ottaway suggests that allegations made recently about the Town’s East Fonthill development practices were politically motivated, the product of a push to skew Regional politics in a conservative direction. I point out that at least two of the alleged cabal members claim to be card-carrying Liberals. Politics and bedfellows. We shrug, and say our goodbyes.

On the drive out I pull over to take a wide shot of the building from Wellspring Way. The finished structure will almost certainly look as elegant as promised. As for the coming development in general, not for the first time I muse that a couple of thousand new homes, and couple of dozen new businesses, should be good for the Voice. After all, those businesses will need to advertise, and those new residents will be as eager to read the news as the rest of us.

Hanging up my publisher’s hat, on the other hand, and replacing it with a ball cap that’s old and familiar, my civilian attitude is wary. There’s no free lunch. The most basic political questions—who pays for which part of this meal, and how—remain unsatisfactorily answered for many. Whether it comes via the Region’s Audit Committee, or an independent third-party audit as called for by Pelham’s Regional Councillor Brian Baty, doesn’t the public deserve world-class transparency along with its world-class Community Centre?

No matter how it shakes out, though, those bricks were worth holding out for.

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