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Preliminary talks to revitalize OTJ area could begin soon

St. Paul Education administration has been directed to begin preliminary talks with the Town of St. Paul about revitalizing an area that was historically used for outdoor recreation.
A historic photo shows the skating area along St. Paul's main street with the St. Paul Cathedral in the background.

ST. PAUL - St. Paul Education is looking to start preliminary discussions with the Town of St. Paul to revitalize an area historically known as a community gathering and recreation place.

The 'OTJ' was an outdoor recreation area located on main street, near Racette Jr. High School. Historic photos from the 1960s show residents of the town skating on outdoor rinks in the area. The last outdoor rink was used up until the later part of the century. 

The boards that made up the last outdoor rink were eventually taken down, and much of the area was absorbed into the school yard, but a brick building that was once used as change-rooms for hockey players and skaters, remains on site. Over the years, the building was used by the church for various things, and more recently the building housed an outreach school facility. 

But, the building now sits empty.

During discussions about Infrastructure Maintenance and Renewal (IMR) funds and the division's capital plan at the Jan. 12 St. Paul Education board meeting, it was noted that the building does require some work to its roof.

Superintendent Glen Brodziak asked if the board had any appetite to engage the Town in discussions about the area. He noted that he personally remembered using the outdoor rink to play hockey as a youth.

"Actually, I played league hockey games there," recalled Brodziak.

He asked if the board would be interested in looking at some sort of partnership with the Town regarding the area.

Board Chair Heather Starosielski agreed that it would be nice to see the area utilized. 

Trustee Sylvie Smyl also voiced her support about engaging the Town in discussions, noting the nearby area where the basketball courts are in the Racette schoolyard is used a lot in the summer and fall months, and acts as a community gathering place for many. Revitalizing the area could see that extend into the winter months.

Brodziak affirmed the division would not be taking education dollars out of the classroom, but a potential recreation area could be used for curriculum learning. 

The entire school site area was once owned by the Catholic church, and eventually acquired by the school division. Brodziak noted that the school division isn't interested in subdividing the property and would keep ownership of the area.

"The property that Racette sits on was until not too long ago owned by the Catholic Diocese and leased to the school division," according to secretary-treasurer Jean Champagne.

During Wednesday's meeting, Trustee Darcy Younghans voiced his support for the idea, noting it could be a benefit to the whole community.

The first step would be to engage with the Town of St. Paul, said Starosielski, adding, she would appreciate administration reaching out to the municipality to start the conversation.

A brief history

Lakeland Today reached out to long-time resident Paul E. Boisvert who offered plenty of historical information about the once-bustling recreation area.

Boisvert began teaching at the nearby school in 1957. In the early 1960s, the recreation area was developed by the Catholic parish. Along with being a teacher, Boisvert was also involved in the parish council.

"There really wasn't much in the way for recreation," explains Boisvert, adding, there was no swimming pool in town, and there weren't many formally organized opportunities for youth to take part in.

But, connections were made and the parish received a grant to proceed with creating a recreation area. At one point, the area included three skating rinks - two that were used for hockey and one used for figure skating. There were also trampolines built into the ground, among other recreation pieces in the area.

While it never came to fruition, Boisvert says when Racette School was originally built, it was constructed with the idea of adding a swimming pool onto the east side of the building. Although he is unsure of where the drawings ended up, he does recall seeing the proposed plans years ago.

Boisvert estimates the first rink at the OTJ was built in 1960 of 1961. Minor hockey teams would play games on the outdoor rinks, and the brick building that still exists would require a small addition to make more space for additional change-rooms. 

A committee was established to raise funds to support the recreation area. While there were some men who were paid to flood the rink and shovel snow off the ice, Boisvert believes they were paid very minimally and much of the work was done by volunteers. A number of long-time families in the community would become involved in the facility. 

The committee would hold Bingos to fundraise for the recreation area, which were hosted in the school gymnasium. Prizes such as groceries and other household items would often be up for grabs. 

"That's the way I remember it," says Boisvert. 

Of course, history can often be anecdotal, and things such as what 'OTJ' actually stands for are even debated. According to Boisvert, the term comes from Québec, and he believes the original name stood for 'Oeuvres des Terrains de jeux,' which roughly translates to 'efforts to maintain playgrounds.' But, the name written on the gaming license when Bingos were being organized by the committee read as 'L'organisation des terrains de jeux' which translates to organization for playgrounds.

Other variations of the name also exist in local history. 

Janice Huser

About the Author: Janice Huser

Janice Huser has been with the St. Paul Journal since 2006. She is a graduate of the SAIT print media journalism program, is originally from St. Paul and has a passion for photography.
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