Why We Need the New Downtown Arena

'I Heart' delves into what this proposed arena district could mean for our city, and why so many are against it

BY EMIL TIEDEMANN

I DON'T have to tell you that one of the most talked-about topics in Edmonton over the last six months has been the proposal of a new Downtown arena complex that promises to "revitalize" the area. It goes without saying.

Every new development in the arena debate makes headline news, as reporters scramble to get the next big lead or, God forbid, a sound bite from the man responsible for the whole ordeal, Daryl Katz (pictured below left). The billionaire businessman behind the Rexall drug store chain remained tight-lipped about the details of the arena situation only until earlier this week, when his company The Katz Group took the next step* forward in greenlighting Edmonton's most profound project to date.

Edmontonians have been particularly vocal about this proposal, as every Tom, Dick & Mary extend their two cents on whether or not the City should go through with the $400-450 million arena, at the cost of the taxpayers. The funding, by far, has been the issue sparking up heated debates amongst locals.

But I think we need to look at the big picture here, and what this arena complex could mean for Edmonton - and it's Downtown specifically - in the long run. There's too many pessimistic folks stuck bickering about the negative aspects of this radical concept, cynics fixed on eluding change for the better.

But, before you send me your nasty emails, I recognize their concerns over inadequate parking, increased traffic, and of course, that looming budget. Obviously, I'm not suggesting we jump head-first into such a game-changing idea, but what I am suggesting is that all the killjoys - and there's plenty of them - to stop looking for the reasons not to build this arena, but rather for reasons to go forward with it.



FOR the sake of my argument, let's back up to last weekend, and the last hundred or so weekends for that matter. I head Downtown quite frequently these days, almost every weekend, and plenty of times in between. I also used to work and go to school downtown, so I have a good grasp of the milieu of the district, night or day.

Aside from the standard business hours of Monday through Friday, the downtown feels like there's a real chance that you may just see a tumbleweed drifting down most streets and park areas, with the exception of the so-so nightlife of Jasper Avenue, from 107th Street down to the Gallery Walk neighbourhood. Even the "heart" of the city center, Sir Winston Churchill Square, is virtually vacant unless scheduled events - such as the Street Performers Festival and A Taste of Edmonton - are in progress.

Anyways, back to the other weekend(s). It was Saturday afternoon and the weather was prime for taking pictures, and pretty much everything else for that matter. Strolling the avenues and streets in between Jasper Ave and the Grant MacEwan campus was discouraging and slightly depressing, to be honest.

So much uninhabited space, unused infrastructure, ignored charm in such a large portion of a region that is supposed to be the hub of a metro. This absence of activity is not only off-putting, but triggers reluctance in new ventures to set up shop in the area, which could also help explain the closure of some area businesses, including countless eateries and watering holes.

I spent a brief time in Toronto about five years ago and I headed to their downtown every day I was there. There were people everywhere; in the streets, in the shops, sipping on wine or chugging beers in the pubs. Busy hot dog vendors were on every corner, Chinatown poured out into the sidewalks, trainee musicians performed in the streets, gray-haired men played chess in the parks, City Hall brimmed with crowds, and outside diners shared the concrete walkways with tourists and their expendable cash.

That's what I want for my city. For our city!



BELIEVE it or not, but the idea of a new hockey arena has been tossed around for years now, since 2005; back when the Oilers were good, and when only the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders had arenas that were older than our own.

The 37-partner Edmonton Investors Group (EIG), which included my current boss Gary Gregg, had entertained the idea of a new arena that autumn. "One day we will have the oldest building in the League, and eventually you have to do something about it," said Cal Nichols, Chair of the EIG. 

"I'm not sure anybody wants to hear it," added EIG partner Bruce Saville, "and I don't know what number to pick out of the air, but let's say 10 years from now we're going to have to be in a new arena."

Nichols and Saville weren't the only ones suggesting that a new arena may very well be the only option for the team and the City. 

"We think Northlands is looking at their building to see if it can be renovated or changed," said Mayor Stephen Mandel in December 2006, well before Katz had purchased the Oilers from the now defunct EIG (1998-2008) for $200 million and proposed a $1.5 billion arena district in the Downtown area.

"If it can't be," Mandel continued, "[and] my guess is it would be difficult, then we need to start looking at a new stadium for Edmonton. That particular one is old. If we do [build a new structure], we need to be creative and not burden the taxpayers...do something that will be sustained in the long term, but really make a statement about what we can do.

"I think it's exciting and I think the citizens of Edmonton are up for that. I think there's a view today that we can do, whereas in the past there was a feeling that this is Edmonton, we can't do. There's a very positive attitude...it's a great city now."

At that point there were only suggestions of a $1 billion project that would include office buildings, a hotel, and of course, the arena. No one person had taken up the theory comprehensively, but just the possibility had struck a chord in excited citizens and drooling corporations alike.

"Big ideas like this, you don't get too many shots at them," claimed Oilers CEO Patrick LaForge, in '06. "You need to get a lot of people around the City to talk about something like this. It's not about a building, it's about a city. That's what makes it a challenging debate."

Nichols agreed with LaForge: "We're playing in the big league, and we have to provide what customers expect of a big-league team. This is bigger than the Oilers. It's about the entire community and its needs; we have to do, not what's right for the Oilers or Northlands or the Downtown, but for the City."

"I think the time has come to make a bold step," vowed Mandel, just two months later, in February 2007. But talk of the new arena had simmered for the rest of that year, only to veer its head in March of '08. That's when an 11-month, $250,000 "feasibility study" had been released, suggesting that we split the $400-450 million bill between Northlands, the Oilers, and taxpayers. I could've told you that, for far less than $250,000!



"REXALL Place has been a reliable workhorse," said the Edmonton Journal's Paula Simons upon the release of the feasibility study, "but by current standards it's aging and cramped, without space to build the kind of luxury seats and boxes that generate big revenues." 

She has a point!

Rexall Place was built in Edmonton's north side back in 1974 and housed the Oilers dynasty of the '80s that included Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, and many other hockey superstars. But it's currently the smallest and the second oldest arena in the 30-team National Hockey League, with no available VIP amenities for corporate customers. 

In the last 15 years, nearly every other NHL team has moved into a new, bigger & better arena, with wider concourses, more seating, and improved food & beverage services.

More than I care to remember, I've sat in Rexall's confined plastic seats, stood in awkward and stretched line-ups for bad, overpriced highballs, and parked in the streets of surrounding neighbourhoods, 10 minutes from the bleak doorways. I know first-hand that the aesthetically-unpleasing coliseum could stand to be replaced.

Yes, it has a great history, but it's getting a little old, and I'm not just referring to its age. Besides, I'm not saying that we need to demolish the building, just erect an updated alternative that would double as a way to revitalize the Downtown area, alongside the brand new Art Gallery of Alberta, the extended Grant MacEwan University, the revived 104th Street, etc.

The 36-year-old stadium was built by the Northlands community group with a $3.7 million grant from the province, a $10 million loan from the federal government, and about $2 million in federal lottery money. The doors officially opened to the Northlands Coliseum on November 10, 1974, housing the WHA Oilers

Since then, it's gone through three name changes, starting with the Edmonton Coliseum in 1994, then Skyreach Centre in 1998, and finally Rexall Place in the middle of the 2003-04 NHL season.

But it's not just the structure itself. When I have tickets for a Rexall event, I don't arrive early and I don't stay once the show has ended. I go straight to my car and leave the area. Why? Well, it's not exactly the most appealing neighbourhood in Edmonton, and there are slim pickings when it comes to surrounding restaurants, bars, and coffee shops...at least within walking distance.

The Downtown area does not suffer from those problems, and in fact, further restaurants and shops are part of the entertainment complex's blueprints.



IN March 2008, a committee claimed that an arena in Downtown Edmonton is both desirable and feasible, and that its $450 million price tag should come from both provincial and public cash. The team added that it could be done without raising taxes or taking predetermined funds from other infrastructure projects.

At this juncture Katz had pledged up to $100 million of his own cash to go towards the arena, although the committee had not yet spoken directly with the Rexall founder. Local architect Gene Dub, who designed Edmonton's City Hall, even took it upon himself to draft up some conceptual drawings of what the new arena might look like (pictured bottom left).

But the actual location of a new complex was not yet finalized, not that anything else was at that point. Downtown, yes, but where Downtown? Dub had set his designs around the current Canada Post head offices, just across the street from City Hall. And although the Northlands grounds and the City Centre Airport had also been thrown out there, the most logical choice was the land where the Baccaret Casino currently resides, at 101 St. & 104 Ave.

"There will always be options for our business," LaForge said late last year. "We've heard about those, whether it's on the edge of the City, or in other [communities] around the edge of the City. They are probably more economical, but nothing will have as much impact on the City [as a downtown arena]."

Not surprisingly, the proposal has its critics, who mostly direct their objections on how to pay for the complex. "I don't think people are willing to pay $315 million or more for the revitalization of some land in Downtown Edmonton," said Alberta director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation Scott Hennig, near the end of 2009.

Hennig claimed that such an investment wouldn't generate new wealth, but rather would simply shift investment and spending within Edmonton. He continued, "When failure is not an option because it's your money, the results invariably tend to be much better."

And although everyone seemed focused on how much cash would be required and from where it would come, some of those on the defensive pointed out the fact that without at least an upgraded - or overhauled - venue, Edmonton could possibly lose its beloved NHL franchise to a more suitable city.

Nichols: "If we in this city don't do something, who in this city is going to want to own that team and keep it here? That's the big issue," he continued last December. "Whoever owns it, it has to work [financially]."



THE Oilers moving would obviously be the worst-case scenario, but it's not the only reason to build this arena. In fact, there's an abundance of excuses to start putting shovels into the ground. But, before I tell you why, I think you need to know what exactly the proposal is.

The Katz Group launched its own website earlier this year (www.revitalizedowntown.ca), dedicated to this project alone. The website promises not just a state-of-the-art arena on the site, but also a pair of office towers (that could reach up to 60 storeys, double anything right now in Edmonton), a new casino (to replace the to-be-demolished Baccaret), a couple of hotels, some residential housing, student residences, a community rink, retail and entertainment space, and the year-round Winter Garden, made up of programmable space that would bridge 104 Avenue.

"The Winter Garden will be an iconic, open-air, climate-controlled landmark that celebrates Edmonton as a great northern city," proclaimed Robert Black, VP of Sports & Entertainment for the Katz Group, back in February. "A magnet that brings people together."

Okay, so now that you have an idea of what we're dealing with here, let's look into more reasons why we should green light this concept.

Such a vast venture would certainly create plenty of jobs, both temporary (construction) and permanent (venue, casino, hotel staffs), to the tune of an estimated 30,000 "person years" of employment and a projected $1.25 billion in wages during the construction phase alone!

Then there's the increased tourism, economic growth and development, the ability to attract more corporate head offices, the ability to attract and retain our best and brightest citizens, civic pride, the encouragement of LRT expansion, supplying an even greater concert venue for world-class acts, and increased density that would decrease our environmental footprint and make our streets safer.

This would also mean that Rexall Place, which some experts claim has another 25 years left in it, could be used to service other concert performances, trade shows, fairs, conventions, and more availability for both the Oil Kings and the Rush.

It would also perfectly compliment the upcoming Aurora condo project that spans two city blocks along 105th and 106th Avenues. The $325 million undertaking would include 3,000 units stacked within five townhouse buildings and six towers that would rise up to 28 storeys.

It would essentially transform our city. Plus, we could stick it to Calgary!



MANY of you are still doubting my argument, I'm sure, spouting out why-not-to reasons at every opportunity. A popular example of this opposition would be the issue of parking...more specifically, lack of it.

First of all, what about Rexall? It has nowhere near the parking space to accommodate those in the 16,839 seats inside. I've never parked in the low-capacity lot just outside Rexall's doors, and I rarely pay the $10+ to sardine myself within those makeshift lots around the adjacent Coliseum Inn & Diesel Ultra Lounge. Instead, I park in the residential stalls with a two-hour time limit, which I always exceed.

But the Katz Group seems to have all the answers (that may be a slight overstatement). The project would include 3,000 heated underground parking stalls, and there's an additional 12,000 existing stalls within a 10-minute walk (9,000 in parking structures).

Almost all of these stalls would be available for arena patrons during a hockey game or concert, which always take place on weekends or during evening hours on weekdays. Plus, the region is the most accessible in the city via public transit, and will get even easier, as the plan ties directly into a new LRT station for the district. And many attendees would be coming from their Downtown homes anyways, so wouldn't even require a stall.

Okay, you say, what about traffic congestion?

Again, it's not like Rexall doesn't deal with this problem, so this isn't new to us, and the proposed LRT station would help alleviate some of the supposed gridlock. But, because many locals would either be walking from their Downtown condos, taking the bus or LRT, or parking elsewhere in the area, experts predict that traffic wouldn't be as bad as you might think, and that the area would be able to handle such increases anyways.

But the big question remains how to pay for the complex. There's been all kinds of suggestions and ideas to come up with the funds, coming from the City, the Katz Group, and everyday citizens alike.

Back in February, Mayor Mandel announced one solution to make up for the project in the form of a ticket tax. "I think the citizens of Edmonton...would be more comfortable if those who use [the arena] help pay for it," Mandel said of the notion, which would slap an additional $5 onto every ticket price, generating about $10 million annually. 

Actually, such a tax already exists and has ever since a 2001 bylaw that imposed a $2 surcharge on tickets $7-28 at Rexall, plus an additional 7% tax on tickets that cost more than $28.

At around the same time, the Katz Group - who had already hired the Anschutz Entertainment Group to advise them on the project - revealed their own plan that would have the City borrow the cash to pay for the $450 million arena, and thus would own it.

"We have a chance to do something really special here in our city," said Robert Black on February 9. "We need to come together on this. It really is a once in a generation opportunity. This development will generate tax revenues for the City that the City can use to pay for the cost of financing the construction of the arena."

Of course, this path meant that Katz had backed out of his initial plan to invest $100 million of his own cash into the arena itself. Instead, his millions would go towards the surrounding entertainment district.

Katz's "self-funding" payment plan included the likely possibility that there would be provincial and federal funding as well, such as in the construction of a new LRT station. Also, the Katz Group all but guaranteed that they'd bring in private development to flatter the district, as opposed to relying on the "build it and they will come" model that has not worked in other North American cities.

There were several other promising notions introduced as well, like City Council's recommendation to have a 70/30 public-private split on the arena's cost. A committee claimed that the City could pay off a loan with arena revenues and a Community Revitalization Levy (CRL) that would increase the property tax base of the district.



I KNOW that everything isn't just black & white when it comes to building this district, and that there's endless things to take into consideration, and even that Katz isn't exactly the most approachable or even trustworthy Edmontonian we've seen. But, he's got a vision that can alter the course of our hometown for the better.

It's not as though he's a travelling salesman going from town to town selling monorail franchises, like in that episode of The Simpsons. In fact, Katz was born and raised in Edmonton, he's got a planet of a house here in the City, and he's encouraging our town to grow into its own potential. And yeah, he'd like to make a buck or two at the same time, but is there something so wrong with this picture that I'm just not seeing?!

Well, a lot is wrong if you ask any number of locals who are opposed to the district. Take City Councillor Don Iveson for example. "My answer is no," Iveson responded. The question? Should Edmonton borrow the $400-450 million to build this arena, as the Katz Group advised?

Iveson took it to his personal blog to devulge his distaste over Katz's plans just one day after its reveal, saying "no" because "our municipal borrowing power is limited by law...because what's left within our 'credit limit' (may) be needed for the most part to fund our portion of the next phases of LRT...because the Coliseum (as I knew it growing up) has a generation of functional life left in it as far as I can tell...because the deal seems to be off the table for the arena and is now proposed to go toward the surrounding development...because the province just cut the Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI) grants for infrastructure from $260M to $160M for 2010...and mostly because it's not our City's place to give private industry access to government borrowing power."

And Iveson was by no means alone with his opinion. Scrolling down the article's comments board, there were plenty who agreed with the Ward 5 Councillor, some moaning that the money could go towards more important things, such as health care, education, or even pot holes. Others jump on the bandwagon without any real background of the issue at hand.

But, to be honest, I'm tired of hearing that excuse. Yes, our tax dollars could go towards better transit, sidewalks and roads, to reduce crime and homelessness even further, etc., etc., etc. But I truly believe this district is important, for the team, for the downtown, and for the entire City of Edmonton.

As I've already stated, the district could help generate cash for our city, which in turn could go towards the improved transit, sidewalks and roads, and all that other stuff, too. And why bother having better infrastructure when there's nowhere to go? We need leisure and entertainment facilities in our lives.

I mean, just look at ourselves. We get our paycheques and we pay our rent or mortgage, the bills, groceries, and other necessities. But, we also spend our hard-earned dollars on new CDs, magazines and electronics, eating out, going to the movies and the theatre, gambling, and so on. Sure, we could spend that cash more prudently, but we don't, and for good reason. Again, we need leisure activities and entertainment in our overworked daily lives.

Who wants to live in or visit a city that has great roadways and lots of convenient transit, but nothing to do? (And yes, I know, there's plenty of other things to do in Edmonton, I'm just trying to prove a point, geez!). We can have our cake and eat it too, and I believe the arena district is that catalyst.

"This is about coming together as a community and seizing a once in a generation opportunity to do something extraordinary," Katz said in a recent video post on his website. "This is about realizing Edmonton's potential of becoming an even greater northern city. That is my vision for this project and for Edmonton. But, this isn't about my vision or any one vision for that matter. It needs to be about our vision as Edmontonians."

Let's take a chance, Edmonton.

*On Monday, April 19 the Katz Group officially submitted a zoning application for the complex, and announced that they wanted to have started construction by 2012, and completed by mid-2014 (pictured above right). City officials said, though, that it could take up to a year to review the 10-page application, which cost about $70,000 to file. The "mixed-use district" is expected to cost $1.5 billion and take up 16 acres of land near downtown's Grant MacEwan University.


PHOTO #5 BY CHRIS SCHWARZ (EDMONTON JOURNAL)
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