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The 519 proposes LGBT sports and recreation centre

The 519 plans to build the centre over 9.3 hectares of land in Toronto's new West Don Lands community

The 519 Church Street Community Centre has announced it’s seeking city council approval to build an officially designated LGBT sports and recreation centre. Credit: ThinkStock

Lately, the topic of gay people in sports has been synonymous with Russia and the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. More specifically, talks have revolved around concern for the treatment of queer Olympic athletes in a country that recently passed a law banning propaganda of “nontraditional sexual relations.” 

Yet amidst the global uproar, a Toronto organization has put forward a proposal to bring queer people and sport together under one roof, right here in Toronto.

The 519 Church Street Community Centre has announced that it is seeking city council approval to build an officially designated LGBT sports and recreation centre.

“It’s a hugely positive win for the city of Toronto,” says Maura Lawless, The 519's executive director.

The facility would primarily serve the city’s LGBT sports leagues. Lawless says there are currently 40 leagues in the city, with more than 6,000 members spread among them.

On Dec 4, The 519’s request for authority to start formal discussions with the province will go before the city’s community development and recreation committee. Moving forward, it will be necessary that The 519, the city, the provincial Ministry of Infrastructure and Waterfront Toronto all be on board to bring this project to life.

The 519 certainly seems to be politically well-positioned.

According to Lawless, Glen Murray, the provincial minister of infrastructure who represents Toronto Centre (the riding within which The 519 is located), expressed support for the project during informal talks.

The 519 also has the support of the local councillor, Ward 27’s Kristyn Wong-Tam, who sits on both The 519’s board of directors and the city’s community development and recreation committee. Fellow committee member Councillor Paula Fletcher has also expressed support, and so, too, has Ward 28 Councillor Pam McConnell, who represents the area the proposed centre will be built in.

The 519 plans to build the centre over 9.3 hectares of land on the Wheel and Foundry complex site at Eastern Avenue and St Lawrence Street, located in the new West Don Lands community. The facility is expected to be 135,000 to 162,000 square metres in size. Once built, the city will own the centre, and The 519, which is an agency of the city, will operate it. 

The land is part of the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games’ development area, so construction wouldn’t start until after the games end in mid-August 2015. Matthew Cutler, director of strategic partnership initiatives at The 519, says he anticipates the facility should be open by late 2017 or early 2018.

This allows for about two years of community consultation, which Cutler says The 519 eagerly anticipates. “I don’t want anyone to think this is a done deal.”

The 519 has gone so far as to have Deloitte conduct a business feasibility plan. “The numbers do show that this is a model that could work effectively,” Lawless says.

That number is an estimated $100 million. It’s a figure that would likely scare councillors wary of budget-cut talks were it not for the funding model The 519 proposes.

The 519 is committed to acquiring two-thirds of the capital funding needed for this project, with the understanding that the three levels of government will come up with the last third. Of The 519’s committed funding, it will raise half and a private donor will provide the other half.

“I don’t think the City of Toronto should turn that away,” Wong-Tam says. She adds that there’s “a really good chance that the City of Toronto will be able to reallocate resources elsewhere” because of how much The 519 is able to commit.

As far as operating and maintenance costs are concerned, Lawless expects that the city will pay the administrative costs and that The 519 will raise the rest. User fees are unknown as this point, but Lawless suspects some amount will have to be paid. Still, she asserts that The 519 is “committed to ensuring accessibility and affordability for this project.”

For her part, Wong-Tam wants to see services offered free. She says that in the long run it will likely be costly for the city to share expenses associated with the facility but that “it’s still much cheaper than building a facility on our own.” She also says the project falls in line with the city’s need for more recreational facilities.

And there’s legitimate demand for a designated LGBT sports and recreation centre.

“Most of the larger leagues have wait lists,” says Cutler, who explains that’s because none of them have dedicated space, which means there can be only so many games and teams.

Cutler claims that most of these leagues are dominated by gay men in their 20s and 30s. He envisions a centre that will provide more sports opportunities for women, youth and people 50 and over. “It allows us to create more flexible programming.”

But The 519 won’t be able to please everyone, as there are no plans for an ice surface, pool or outdoor turf. Cutler says that to include those spaces would mean building the facility nowhere near the downtown core. The 519 could possibly offer training and administrative space for the leagues that can’t play in the centre, and there’s the potential for partnerships with nearby facilities to gain access to needed resources.

The centre could very well be an integral part of this new neighbourhood. Lawless says everyone would be welcome to use it. “You can't build inclusion through exclusion,” she adds.

Inclusion is key to the project. In fact, The 519 hopes to work with universities and colleges to explore creating inclusion through sports. There have already been talks with George Brown College about the possibility of placement opportunities for fitness and health-promotion students attending the nearby campus.

If Cutler has it his way, no one will feel excluded. He’s looking into having design plans incorporate the spectator experience and creating sports literacy programs and programs for those traumatized by sports. For people who don’t want to join a league, there will be drop-in games. In addition to playing space, The 519 also wants to provide leagues with space to hold board meetings and carry out administrative duties.

And while Cutler points out that physical activity does the body and mind good, he’s also interested in what it could do for the spirit of a community often caught up in the stresses of activism. “I think the space will provide our community with the opportunity to recharge and refresh,” he says.

Opportunity knocks.

“I suspect that on Dec 4 we should have a tone of celebration,” Wong-Tam predicts.