FRANK LEONARD: Rec opportunities abound in Saanich

Greater Victoria's largest municipality has come a long way since 1986

When I first ran for Saanich council in 1986, two of my campaign promises were about recreation: one was to build a pool on the west side of Saanich; and the other was to purchase the ‘Racquet Club’ in order to secure a sheet of ice on the east side of Saanich.

It seemed to me that having a single pool at Gordon Head Recreation Centre at Lambrick Park was inadequate for such a large municipality. The Racquet Club was threatened at the time and, if closed, would have meant the municipality would only have one sheet of ice at Pearkes Recreation Centre. Now, the facility is owned by the University of Victoria and continues to this day. As for the pool on the west side, Saanich Commonwealth Place serves that purpose today.

Saanich promoted parks and recreation in the 1980s, but might have been a bit too frugal. As our community grew in population, we significantly expanded opportunities for citizens to be active. Where there was a single sheet of ice at Pearkes, the site is now home to two sheets of ice, a library, a new fitness studio, the Blythe Pearkes fieldhouse for activities and exhibitions and Saanich Neighbourhood Place.

Gordon Head Recreation Centre now has an expanded pool, fitness studio, teen space and activity rooms and provides space to Recreation Integration Victoria in Lambrick House. What was a bare bones centre at Cedar Hill Recreation Centre with a tennis bubble now has squash courts, a fitness studio and a beautiful new Arts Centre, hosting the Community Arts Council of Greater Victoria.

The ‘smart money’ was that the pool for the 1994 Commonwealth Games would be built at UVic or in the City of Victoria. But working with then mayor Murray Coell, Saanich council found a way to combine community needs with competitive pools, and Saanich Commonwealth Place is now an incredible success story. It not only features the pools, it contains a library, teen centre, fitness studio and activity spaces.

Parks in Saanich have also changed dramatically. Some didn’t even exist in 1986 or were just bare land, such as Beckwith and Brydon parks. Saanich didn’t even own Lochside Park in Cordova Bay, even though it had playing fields in use. Now the land is owned by Saanich and includes some excellent baseball and soccer fields. One that I enjoy visiting is Layritz Park, just because of how dramatic the change has been.

Layritz was a bare-bones park with a couple of ball diamonds in 1986 when the Saanich director of recreation took me on a site visit.  He walked up to a mound behind the playing fields and said he dreamed that one day it could all be developed for recreation. Today, we have fulfilled that dream, with soccer and baseball fields aplenty.

Trails were simply footpaths through existing parks back then. Now, our trail system connects the entire municipality, with more than 100 kilometres of trails connected by the Centennial Trail network and the Galloping Goose and Lochside trails.

Mount Douglas Park was potentially a crew-cut park – land protected at the top, development along the slopes – but today the entire area has been acquired. More recently, Panama Flats and Haro Woods have been acquired and protected. Senior centres have been added, libraries upgraded and playgrounds are well beyond what were simple swing sets.

Such achievements require significant commitment, resources and money. Saanich councils over the years have endorsed policies that provide a framework for these expansions. Our staff have embraced this as part of our culture and are keen to ensure all citizens have opportunities to lead active lives.

However, none of this is possible without the support of our taxpayers. Parks and recreation is now our third largest budget expense behind police and fire.

A Parks, Recreation and Culture Master Plan was adopted in March and is consistent with our policy of Saanich being a healthy and active community. We hope this continues to be supported, not only by citizens using our parks, trails and recreation facilities, but through council approving expenditures required to meet this need.

Frank Leonard has been mayor of Saanich since 1996.

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