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Downtown lawn bowling club's lease renewed by Victoria councillors for $1 a year

Sep 07 2012

The Canadian Pacific Lawn Bowling Club will have to open its gates to the public even more in order to renew its bargain-basement lease on prime downtown real estate.

Some Victoria councillors were astounded to learn the private lawn-bowling club, with fewer than 150 members, pays the city $1 per year to lease its green space in the heart of downtown.

"I'm shocked that it's a prime piece of Victoria real estate limited to a very small number of people and we're giving it to them for $1 a year," Coun. Shellie Gudgeon said. "I've got to say, I'm gobsmacked."

Gudgeon said she couldn't understand how the city could charge a limited-membership club $1 per year for the Belleville Street property, while charging $50 to $60 an hour for youth organizations to rent sports fields.

"[Fifty dollars an hour], that's prohibitive, but $1 a year for 140 people - I just don't understand at all."

Coun. Ben Isitt agreed, and suggested that, as a compromise, the city raise the lease to $500 per year for three years while the council examined whether or not lawn bowling was an appropriate use of the space.

(Isitt later made a motion to increase the lease rate to $1,000 per year, but the motion failed.)

Neither Gudgeon nor Isitt were on council three years ago when the lease was inked after a heated community debate.

Coun. Geoff Young was. "I don't think it's worth getting into this issue for $499 a year," he said.

In 2008, the club's membership had dwindled to less than 100 and its facility was threatened as the city considered turning its property and the adjacent Cridge Park into a cultural precinct.

The community responded by forming a Cridge Park Rescue Group determined to save what was then a neglected piece of downtown green space. The lawn bowlers joined in the lobby and boosted the club's membership efforts.

Saving the green space became a municipal election issue that year and the following January, a council headed by Mayor Dean Fortin voted to remove the park and the lawn bowling club from consideration for development.

Young noted that, unlike sports fields, the lawn bowling club uses volunteers to maintain its facilities.

Even a $500 lease would not come close to market value, he said, noting the same is true of rents on many sports facilities.

The council of the day went through an extensive public consultation process about the two green spaces, Fortin said. "Once bitten, twice shy," he said.

Some city-owned tennis courts might be pushed to have as many users as does the lawn-bowling club, he added.

Gudgeon agreed, but said the difference was that the tennis courts were open to all members of the public.

Kate Friars, director of parks and recreation, said the club "has tried very vigorously" to be as open as possible.

"They have been somewhat successful at increasing their membership," she said, adding that the club has opened up to croquet and bocce and is making sure the clubhouse is open to as many social events as possible.

Councillors agreed to renew the club's lease for three years, provided public access is improved to Friars' satisfaction.

bcleverley@timescolonist.com

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