The Ray Friel Centre in the Township of Cumberland, Ont., won an award of excellence from the Canadian Parks and Recreation Association soon after it opened in 1992.
Despite the success, the township decided to contract out operation of the sports complex a year later — and began experiencing problems. The contract changed hands several times after a string of bankruptcies. At one point, Cumberland was left on the hook for payroll and utility bills left unpaid by the private contractor. Eventually, the contract landed in the hands of Serco, a massive multinational corporation headquartered in the United Kingdom.
Membership rates rise
By 2001, when Cumberland was amalgamated into the City of Ottawa, local residents began questioning why annual membership rates at Ray Friel Centre were $505, while transferable memberships at larger Ottawa-run facilities ranged from just $344 to $460.
Mounting concerns about the facility’s maintenance and cleanliness were flagged in Ottawa city staff reports, resulting in Serco nearly losing the contract in 2005. Community members reported scummy pool edges and lifted tiles, while broken gym machines sat unrepaired for long periods of time.
In addition to the maintenance issues, an investigation in early 2007 by the City of Ottawa highlighted serious financial problems at Ray Friel. They found that Serco had underestimated operating costs by $1.3 million annually and had significantly overstated projected revenues, drawing $1 million from operating reserves in order to report a profit. In April of that year, the City of Ottawa terminated the contract with Serco based on poor performance and the company’s failure to meet expected targets. The City was stuck with $12 million of debt and declining usage and public support of the facility.
The City cleans up
Things started to look up when the facility returned to public operation. Membership rates were brought on par with fees paid by other Ottawa residents and were made transferrable. Parents reported smaller class sizes and increased lifeguard presence on pool decks. Long-term users saw a distinct improvement in the cleanliness and maintenance of the facility.
Employees benefit too
Meanwhile, employees at the facility became union members and saw pay increases of 30 per cent (from $11 to $14 an hour). Smaller class sizes and regular shifts improved their working conditions while career advancement options were also opened up as employees were now able to pursue opportunities at other City of Ottawa facilities.