The Orillia Recreation Centre (ORC) is just weeks away from letting members of the community come through the front doors.
Ray Merkley, the city's general manager of community services, says the long-anticipated $55.7 million facilty at 255 West St. S. is about 98% complete and it’s just the finishing touches that are left to be completed.
“We are looking at having our user groups in first and we are looking at the last week of September,” Merkley said.
That means groups like the Orillia Channel Cats swimming club, Orillia Lakers Youth Basketball Club, and Suns Volleyball Club will get to check out their new home first. Programming for the general public will begin soonafter.
Merkley says city officials have been working closely with the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit to make sure the ORC is as safe as possible when the community is welcomed in later this month.
Merkley and his staff are still awaiting the final sign-off on their aquatics centre which should occur later this week.
The health unit is also helping city officials set COVID-19 protocols. It is expected gathering limits of 50 people will be permitted in each divided space at the new ORC. The gathering limits exclude the natatorium and pool area, however, physical distancing will be required.
“We have to have an essential screener for everyone who comes into the building and we have to keep lists of everyone who’s in the building so that potential contact tracing is covered,” Merkley explained.
Despite the ORC finally being completed, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some areas of the building and programming will have to be restricted.
“We are not trying to encourage people to linger and sit around which is really what, in a true recreation centre, you want,” Merkley said.
“You want people to come in and spend time, but we really don’t want to encourage that until we get through COVID.”
Despite the excitement surrounding the opening of the ORC after a long process which can be traced back decades, Merkley feels some disappointment that there will be no grand opening scenario where the whole community can come together to celebrate.
“We are going to try to think of some creative ways to make sure the community sees what’s inside. We might line up some times where people can sign up to do small group tours,” Merkley said.
Merkley also said there could be features and amenities added on to the already impressive 132,000-square-foot ORC that contains three pools, a double gymnasium, multi-level fitness centre, walking/jogging track and programming rooms.
“There were original plans for a phase two that could include an arena and a dry pad for indoor soccer, but that is not planned for right now,” he said.
“Things like water polo, synchronized swimming, pickleball, activities that we haven’t really been able to expand upon, I think those are going to be the opportunities for growth over the next little while.”
Mayor Steve Clarke expressed his excitement for the ORC being slated to open to the community later this month.
“It’s been a long and winding road to get here. The people of the City of Orillia have been extremely patient for a very long time,” he said.
“We believe and anybody that we’ve toured through this facility believes that it will truly be something to celebrate.”
Clarke says some of the city’s biggest and most meaningful celebrations will likely be hosted at the ORC, noting the gym floor seats 1,400 people, with another 500 who can be seated in the bleachers. The gym is also equipped with two large video boards which can be combined into one for larger-scale events.
“Graduations for maybe college, university or the OPP...the Comic Con Conference would be a phenomenal thing to do here,” Clarke shared of his vision.
“The staff and the design team have put in a lot of time and effort into contemplating more than just recreation and sports tourism, but other events as well.”
Clarke said local sports organizations are looking forward to calling the ORC home.
“Like everyone else in Orillia, they have been very patient, they have been dealt a hard hand when they’ve had to find facilities outside of the city, so I am very excited for them,” he said.
Clarke predicts when people walk through the front doors of the ORC they will be impressed.
“It has that sense of community the minute you walk in the front door. You walk to the left you see the competitive pool, the leisure pool and a giant spa that seats 40 people," he said. "You look to the right and you’ll be a part of what’s going on in the gymnasium, not to mention the vibrancy that’s going on in the main hallway,” he said.
On top of that the mayor says he is already seeing a "renaissance" in the surrounding area, spawned by the new recreation centre.