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Lack of gym availability forcing Ottawa youth sports groups to turn kids away

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By Ethan Diamandas

As the pandemic eases up in Ontario and local sports return to normal, lack of gymnasium availability remains an issue for Ottawa youth sports groups – and frustration is mounting. 

“Facilities have always been [the biggest obstacle], even before COVID,” said Derek Firth, president of the Ottawa Shooting Stars basketball program. “And COVID has made access to facilities even more of a challenge for us and for all basketball clubs in the area.”

In a pre-COVID year, Firth said the Shooting Stars would have about 800 kids enrolled in their programs, which range from house league to elite levels. But with scarce gym space available only a handful of elite programs can operate, forcing Firth to turn kids away and lower enrollment to about 250 players. 

“Quite simply, we need access to community use of schools,” said Firth, whose organization spearheaded a petition that now has over 5,000 signatures seeking to save the season for 8,000 Eastern Ontario players. “It’s something we’ve been lobbying for several months now, and we feel we don’t have a voice.”

Right now, the community-use policy at Ottawa’s public and Catholic schools remains the biggest obstacle to fully-functioning indoor sports programs in the city. Community-use permits were suspended when COVID-19 reached Canada in March 2020 and have not been renewed since then.

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB), for example, revoked 120 community-use permits from local organizations when the pandemic began, putting youth sports groups that rely on those facilities in a difficult position.

With the use of school gyms off the table, programs like the Shooting Stars must now book limited public gymnasium space, or use private school gyms, which charge roughly eight times the price of a public gym, Firth said. 

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The situation isn’t likely to change for at least a few months, according to the OCDSB.

“At this point in time, we feel like it will be likely after the December break before we can even contemplate the resumption of permit issuance,” said Karyn Ostafichuk, manager of planning at the OCDSB, in an Oct. 12 board meeting posted to YouTube

In that same meeting, Ostafichuk said she understands the role schools play in providing community-use space. She added it’s difficult to determine which groups get priority for facility usage, and that the board is trying its best to explain the situation to former permit-holders. 

Kerry MacLean, founder and president of Maverick Volleyball in Ottawa, said his organization’s introductory program – which serves kids aged eight to 15 – is heavily affected by the lack of gym space. 

“We are overbooked for our ‘Learn to Play’ program,” MacLean said. “We have nowhere near enough gyms to run it and parents have signed up in droves – almost record numbers – and we’re unfortunately asking them to be patient until the schools open.”

When his teams actually find available gym time, MacLean said it’s oftentimes exclusively on weekends, which puts added strain on players and their families. 

“In our typical program, athletes would train twice on weeknights and once on Sunday,” he said. “Now they’re training twice in a week, one on a Saturday and one on Sunday, so every weekend is now shot for families.”

The pandemic didn’t cause these availability issues, it simply exposed a longstanding and unsustainable dependence on school facilities to run athletic programs, MacLean said.

The City of Ottawa is trying to address these issues, but its solution will not be immediate, and has not gone without criticism.

On. Sept. 27, the City approved its Parks and Recreation Facilities Master Plan, which pledges to build – among many other new recreational facilities – seven more gymnasiums by 2031. 

An increase from 30 to 37 facilities would give Ottawa one gym per 33,100 residents – the third best ratio among Canadian cities, behind Halifax and Toronto, respectively. 

While the city pledges to add seven more gyms compared to only two new arenas, the facility-to-resident ratios indicate Ottawa’s existing structure already prioritizes other sports, such as hockey. 

Per the ‘Master Plan,’ Ottawa will have 55 arenas by 2031 – one facility per 22,300 residents – and 318 outdoor ice rinks – one rink for every 3,900 residents. 

Firth said adding seven new gymnasiums won’t be enough, especially since he expects only a fraction of gym time to be dedicated to basketball at any new public facility. 

“Basketball is now the number one participation sport for youth in Ontario,” Firth said. “And it’s going to continue to trend that way, all the data is showing.

“We need more facilities. We are sorely lacking in that department, and we’re not going to be able to create the demand for the number of kids and teams that want to play basketball in our city for years to come.”

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