Technical Corner

Effectively Playing the Recreational Grant Game in 2022 - and Beyond

January 2022

“Maybe history wouldn't have to repeat itself if we listened once in awhile.” - Wynne McLaughlin

In the early 1970s when Ontario’s existing recreation infrastructure crumbled and the reality of the benefits of recreation began to emerge, the Ontario Lottery Corporation (OLC) launched its first lottery game, WINTARIO in 1975. Lottery game proceeds were 100% dedicated through the Ministry of Culture and Recreation to promote physical fitness, sports, cultural and recreational activities. Lottery profits for the first year of OLC operations was $43 million (est. 222 million in 2021) that ignited a recreational infrastructure construction boom that resulted in both an exciting time in recreation provision.  However, in some cases unintentional long-term unfunded liabilities as community leaders chased government funds in the best interest of their communities without any real operational, maintenance and life cycle plans.  Anticipation that government funding for recreation would never end. In 1984, OLC profits paid to the province topped $1 billion dollars. And in 1989, the Ontario government made lottery profits available for the operation of hospitals. Today, recreation receives little direct lottery profits but there is a growing inventory of grants that allow recreation project submissions under the application process.

The early Wintario grant funding program was unintentionally flawed as communities had creativity latitude to fund their portion of the construction costs through in-kind contributions. The applicant often overstated “in-kind” donations to make the funding formula work. In-kind donations were non-monetary contributions. For example, a local trucking company might commit to “donate” equipment to prepare land for construction – these costs were often overinflated and added to a grant application. As an example, if the actual costs for the donation was $1,000.00, a $5,000 grant line by the applicant resulted in $5,000.00 (50%) or at times $7,500.00 (75%) return of this amount of hard dollars towards the construction costs. Yes, questionable business practices but who really cared, they were not tax dollars but a giving back to those who actually bought the OLG ticket. Plus, the social, economic and health care reduction benefits outweighed any perceived moral corruption in the process. Besides, the province had a team of recreation consultants that helped creatively navigate applicants through these weeds.

"If the user is not paying it means everyone (all taxpayers) are." - Allan Pellow, CAO (retired), Township of Chapleau

Most new construction started operations with flawed user fee systems. The new buildings were viewed as gifts from the province with few community leaders realizing the future associated costs as the infrastructure aged. Community leaders of the time were unknowingly writing unfunded liability cheques for generations of taxpayers to come. The grant system resulted in communities building recreation facilities that could not afford them. In some areas, state-of-the-art facilities were constructed in close proximity of each other with insufficient populations to support either operation, or upkeep of the twin infrastructure while other communities over built the infrastructure just because of the provincial funding support. In short, there were no real operational, business, life cycle or asset plans in place but there was a taxpayer safety net installed as the cost of recreation operations formed part of the communities overall budgeting process.

Provincial government did see a problem and reacted by building in a requirement that communities applying for funding required a “recreation master plan” to be in place. Although the intent was good, the reality is that it sparked a cottage industry of consultants that hired themselves out to assist communities in meeting this requirement. Often the costs of these plans were overinflated as the province provided grants to off-set the hiring of these individuals. Most every community has a “recreation master plan” in their archives that was never followed by the next generation of community leaders. A common conversation amongst recreation professionals was that many of these plans looked exactly the same as some consultants merely removed one community’s name and replaced it with another. This was long before the current computerization “search and replace” tab option and at times not all of the original community names were removed when sold to the next master plan investor.

This brings me to this rant, as here we go again, as it seems that new funding opportunities to stimulate the COVID economy arrives weekly. Grant programs offered by a variety of agencies as opportunities to assist communities to move forward while others are designed to focus on pre-COVID priorities such as reducing environmental impact and improving energy efficiencies. These funds are a politician’s dream come true as they once again see opportunity to blindly move their communities forward.

The ORFA Board of Director’s and staff recently participated in a grant presentation overview that was highly informative and may benefit members as they deal with aging ice sheet refrigeration plants. The presented funding has layers to assist in both retrofits and new construction – both are good news but only if well thought out. Beyond the vision of receiving a huge cardboard cheque for media announcements, community leaders will need to look into the future and ask all the right questions, so they do not hobble future local leaders once again. Consider the following points:

  • If the recreation department does not have a detailed asset and life cycle plan, how is an investment in a refrigeration plant upgrade justified? Updating a refrigeration plant that was originally installed in the 70s or 80s is like putting new tires on a K-Car, it’s still a K-Car.
  • Has the community considered all other social priorities such as accessibility.  Is there a detailed long-term plan for the infrastructure that reflects the communities needs?
  • And last, is there a plan to properly staff and train those responsible for the day-to-day operations that reflects the asset and lifer cycle plans of the operation?

The last bullet is the industry Wintario legacy as most facilities constructed using this funding program had no real operational plan in place to properly maintain the investment. The ORFA’s growth as a provider of professional development was driven by this need. We have responded based on membership demand for support. We now have a solid program in assisting owners of recreation operations to ensure that they are being operationally diligent in their decision making. As the ORFA begins to celebrate our 75th anniversary as an Association, here is hoping that those celebrating the 100th anniversary in 2047 can look back positively on today’s community leader’s decisions.

Comments and/or Questions may be directed to Terry Piche, CRFP, CIT and Technical Director, Ontario Recreation Facilities Association

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