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Aging downtown arena falls short on accessibility, says advocate

Accessibility ‘will forever be at the forefront’ in whatever arena project the city ends up proceeding with, Ward 12 Coun. Joscelyne Landry-Altmann said

Navigating the Sudbury Community Arena can be a lot of work for those with accessibility challenges.

After walking into the building’s Minto Street entrance closest to its accessible parking spots, accessibility advocate Nadine Law found herself facing two sets of stairs and no ramps.

Law, a regional client services co-ordinator for Spinal Cord Injury Ontario, was touring the facility with Sudbury.com to determine how accessible the building, which opened in 1951, actually is. 

Using a walker due to a spinal injury, stairs were out of the question for Law, so this reporter went inside to open a locked door where a switchback wheelchair ramp allowed her access.

“An ideal facility would be a venue where anyone can enter the same door and exit the same door,” Law reflected later in the tour. “It’s all about being inclusive.”

Through the facility’s main floor, Law pointed out various positives and negatives as it relates to accessibility.

A family washroom includes a handrail next to the toilet, a large stall and a sink low enough to accommodate people in wheelchairs. There are sporadic handrails in the facility and wheelchair-accessible sitting areas at the corners of one end of the rink against the glass, along with companion seating.

The ramp at the main entrance, meanwhile, is much too steep for wheelchairs, Law said — a point Sudbury Wolves fan Jake Thomas also shared with Sudbury.com by phone.

“The only way to go down that is in a wheelie, and you really have to be able to functionally do a wheelie,” he said, adding the slope is steep enough that simply rolling down would likely result in a wheelchair flipping forward.

Thomas uses a wheelchair, and said the accessible parking spots at the north end of the building are also inadequate because they’re far from the main south-side entrance.

The exterior door closest to the accessible parking spots is the one Law was unable to use due to it opening to two sets of stairs. The switchback wheelchair ramp is located midway down the Minto Street (east side) of the building, though Thomas noted that some wheelchair users might not have room to turn around its sharp corners. 

“It’s not accessible at all,” Thomas said of the building, adding the appearance of snow can quickly immobilize wheelchairs on their journey to the doors. 

“Once we’re into winter, it is what it is,” he said. 

Reflecting on her tour of the arena, Law said the city appears to have been working toward making the aging building more accessible.

“I actually thought there would be more barriers,” she said, clarifying that while some strides have been made, the building is still far from meeting modern standards.

This concern isn’t lost on municipal administrators, city Corporate Services general manager Kevin Fowke told Sudbury.com.

“The obvious issue is we have an arena built in 1951, so well before any consideration was given to accessibility,” he said. “It just wasn’t built with that in mind.”

There have been numerous renovations at the arena over the years in which Fowke said, “You could kind of call it shoehorn ... things like ramps and guardrails and accessibility features like washrooms.”

Although a 2025 deadline looms for facilities to adhere to Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act requirements, Fowke said facilities such as the Sudbury Community Arena will be grandfathered in. 

“If you’re not making renovations, the legislation acknowledges it would be cost-prohibitive to go retrofitting every building in Ontario by 2025,” he said.

Although grandfathered in, any renovations will need to comply with the act’s guidelines, and any proposed renovations that don’t would not get a permit.

“For all the right reasons, in making sure people can get into a Wolves game or any event and feel comfortable and safe,” Fowke said.

Accessibility at the Sudbury Community Arena is part of the ongoing debate regarding the city proceeding with a new or renewed facility. 

“Absolutely, No. 1, it needs to be in compliance with (Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act), but we’ve always exceeded that,” Ward 12 Coun. Joscelyne Landry-Altmann told Sudbury.com. “I can assure you going forward, whatever form it takes and wherever it ends up, accessibility is and will forever be at the forefront.”

Landry-Altmann has been a member of the city’s accessibility panel since 2008, and said they’ve made numerous strides toward accessibility since that time.

The Ridgecrest Accessible Playground is one such effort, and the proposed Junction East Cultural Hub is slated to include an additional $4.4-million investment toward enhanced accessibility options, including an inclined walkway.

A universal washroom (see Page 332 of the city’s draft 2023 budget) has also been proposed for construction at Tom Davies Square featuring various accessible components.

On Nov. 29, the city adopted a 2022-27 Multi-Year Accessibility Plan, which promotes a “strong emphasis on the ability for every citizen to have the means to move freely about the community independently without barriers.” 

The future of the Sudbury Community Arena remains up in the air after its replacement facility at the Kingsway Entertainment District was cancelled by city council after its budget more than doubled to $215 million. 

Dario Zulich, a local developer and owner of sports teams that play at the arena, has pledged to push hard for a new arena/events centre in the city’s downtown core.

As for the existing arena’s shortcomings, Fowke said there’s always city staff on hand during events to help people with mobility concerns navigate the facility.

“We realize the building is not all it needs to be from an accessibility point of view,” he said, adding there are staff expressly there to make sure people are taken care of.

“That is definitely a part of the service, so I would suggest don’t feel shy to reach out if there’s a request for assistance.”

Tyler Clarke covers city hall and political affairs for Sudbury.com.