Richard Rolke reflects on the leadership residents showed during the 1930s

Given its aging infrastructure, it’s easy to overlook how groundbreaking Civic Arena was when it opened in the 1930s.

Residents burst with pride over the facility.

“Early in 1937, work began on what was to be one of Vernon’s most ambitious projects,” wrote  student Stuart Fleming in the 1938 Vernon High School annual (he went on to become an MP, mayor and Morning Star columnist).

“After many months of tireless effort, there stood a building which was the pride of Vernon.”

Fleming points out how the Civic immediately had a dramatic impact on sports in the community.

“Because of the added facilities offered by the arena, the members of the VHS hockey team practically lived on ice last winter,” he said.

“Now that the summer sport of lacrosse has taken the place of hockey in the arena, many of the local boys, and especially those in high school, are showing a great interest in the game. Because of this interest made possible mainly because of the added advantages which the arena offers, the not too distant future will probably see lacrosse become a recognized sport in the school.”

Fleming spares no details on the arena’s state-of-the-art design.

“The bed of this (ice) surface contains approximately seven miles of pipes which lie on a nine-inch depth of coke screening,” he wrote.

“The roof is of such construction that no posts or pillars are necessary for its support. The lowest beam is 20 feet above the playing surface and thus allows an unobstructed view from any seat in the building. The eight tiers of seats which encircle the arena can accommodate 3,200 persons.”

Much of the current debate about abandoning Civic as an ice surface focuses on the cost and how a projected $13 million price tag could be the final straw for overburdened taxpayers during what continues to be challenging financial times.

However, consider that when the residents of Vernon (population about 5,000) agreed to build Civic, the Great Depression had been underway since 1929. Money was tight and jobs were in short supply.

The price tag for the arena was a staggering $50,000 (that translates into about $800,000 in today’s dollars).

It must of cost some residents and businesses dearly, but they embraced the Civic with open arms, particularly during the grand unveiling.

“Opening of the rink on Thursday was marked by huge attendances from various Okanagan points. A special train ran from Kelowna for the affair. Total attendance for the day, including both afternoon and evening, exceeded 3,000,” states a newspaper article from the era.

“The Vancouver Lions and the Spokane Clippers, professional hockey teams, played a game in the evening, the Lions winning 4-1. Miss Helen Cantwell and Harry Heddy, of Calgary, gave an exhibition of skating.”

The residents of Vernon in the 1930s were visionaries. They stuck their necks out during hard times, but in doing so, they created a legacy that has spanned almost eight decades.

And of course this scenario has frequently been repeated.

Residents endorsed plans for the recreation complex in the 1960s and Wesbild Centre and the Vernon Performing Arts Centre in 1999. These facilities, like Civic, have added to the life-blood of Greater Vernon socially and economically.

There’s no question the current round of taxpayers  face significant pressure with a $70 million master water plan and the prospect of a new museum and art gallery on the horizon. But  what kind of community would  we live in today if previous generations had not taken a chance?


Depending on what happens during November’s referendum for a new ice sheet, it will be interesting to see how future generations look back on us. Will we be thought of as visionaries or as a group who refused to make a difference?