The good news for curling is new rinks are opening. The bad news is even more are closing.
Chilliwack, B.C., Berwick, N.S., Chelsea and Riviere-du-Loup, Que., have opened, or are about to open, new facilities for their local curling clubs this year.
Regina’s Tartan Club, Toronto’s Scarboro curling club, Winnipeg’s West Kildonan, and the Churchill Curling Club in Innisfil, Ont., have shuttered in the last two years.
Winnipeg’s Rossmere Curling Club announced in September operations are suspended for 2018-19 due to an expensive equipment failure. Toronto’s Weston club has also suspended curling operations for the season.
Reasons for closures are mostly financial, stemming from a combination of dropping memberships to aging icemaking equipment and buildings to high utility and insurance bills.
For curling facilities attached to golf clubs — a sport also struggling to attract memberships — curling can get sacrificed, as was the case with Scarboro.
According to the Toronto Star, golfing shareholders voted in favour of a public transit expansion that demolished the curling club.
Laura Walker, a former Canadian junior champion who won a world championship bronze medal this year in mixed doubles, threw her first stone at Scarboro at age six.
Her parents Cy and Jane Crocker were longtime members.
"Where the impact is the saddest is that these people are forced to go to new clubs and they’re kind of spread out all across the city," Walker said. "It breaks up these really long-time camaraderies that have been around for years.
"My mom is playing quite a bit less this year. My dad isn’t even playing this year. This is the probably the first year in 30 years that he’s not playing three, four or five nights a week.
"It forces some people out of the sport and forces others to play a little bit less. For club curlers, they go for the people, their friends and that sort of thing."
Danny Lamoureux, Curling Canada’s director of championship services and curling club development, acknowledges the country is losing "too many" facilities.
Curling Canada is resurrecting the Curling Assistance Program (CAP) that operated between 1999 and 2016 in a different format.
"We’d been doing some lobbying and advocacy work with the federal government trying to tap into the infrastructure monies that the government has introduced to stimulate the economy," Lamoureux explained.
"Most of those grants are based on one-third, one-third, one-third. The feds will contribute a third if the province, territory or municipality gives a third and the person looking for a grant contributes a third."
CAP will provide loans towards capital projects at less than prime with a reasonable payback schedule, he explained.
Curling Canada plans to provide $125,000 in loans for each of the next four years for a total of $500,000, he said.
The national governing body of the sport offers an advocacy tool kit to use when approaching municipal, provincial and federal governments for assistance.
"The CAP program is really something that we do to help those clubs if they are going out to create business cases for themselves, if they want to do larger renovations and things, we’d like to help them out," Curling Canada chief executive officer Katherine Henderson said.
"And then some cases when they just need something smaller, we’ll just lend them the money directly."
Lamoureux said Curling Canada has in-house expertise to help a struggling club improve its business model and operations.
"There’s all kinds of ways we can help," Lamoureux said. "What makes me feel sad is when they pull the plug without ever asking for help."
Talking to people and asking for help saved Sudbury’s Copper Cliff Curling Club, which was on the verge of closing in 2017. Board chair Sandra Lahti says the club now runs in the black.
A new board didn’t go asking for new money, but worked with the club’s bank and utility company to restructure contracts. The club also reached out to Curling Canada and the Northern Ontario Curling Association (NOCA) for operations assistance.
"We were about as close to shutting down as you could get," Lahti said. "I spent a lot of time personally on the phone with everybody and anybody who would listen from MPPs to town council to utilities to different agencies and people who would help out.
"Everyone was more than willing to work with us, but we didn’t really go and seek out anybody to be the godsend, so to speak, financially."
Discussions with the club’s utility company yielded savings on the power bill, Lahti said. A meter was installed for a month, at no charge to the club, to assist in location of faulty or high-usage equipment.
To replace members who departed thinking the club would be no more, Lahti said membership was maintained by offering free learn-to-curl sessions and social nights mixing curling and cards.
Early registration via a new website helped the club’s financial picture. The club makes heavy use of its Facebook page for marketing.
Local lumber and carpet companies supplied materials at discounted rates in exchange for advertising in the building, so the lounge could be spruced up and rented out for weddings, she said.
Even a small change such as switching out the debit machine at the bar for one with a lower fee has made a difference to the club’s bottom line.
The club has even approached the film industry about using the building in summer as a movie set, Lahti said.
"Just don’t be afraid to try to something different," she said.
The largest event of the Grand Slam curling season is on tap this week in Thunder Bay, Ont.
The Tour Challenge boasts a 60-team field — 30 men’s teams and 30 women’s teams split into two tiers — at the Tournament Centre.
Top teams from the World Curling Tour’s order of merit standings are in the top tier while the second tier features lower-ranked rinks and some regional teams.
Round-robin play continues through Friday and the finals are set for Sunday.