Let's play two, Durrell says of stadium debate



At times during Jim Durrell's stint as mayor of Ottawa, some might have confused his role with that of a sports promoter or a minister of sport.

Durrell was passionately involved with the Ottawa Rough Riders and Ottawa Senators, and worked to bring the Lynx Triple-A baseball club to Ottawa. He even helped Brian Kilrea recruit players for the Ottawa 67's, once travelling to Hamilton to sell the merits of the franchise to a talented prospect.

So, when it comes to the current heated debate over the future of sports stadiums in the city, it should come as little surprise that Durrell is still fully engaged.

And if his tenure as mayor was marked by a fair share of controversy, so, too, are his opinions on how the city should proceed on the stadium front. He believes the city should accept a proposal to revitalize Lansdowne Park and work with Senators owner Eugene Melnyk to build a new soccer stadium in Kanata. On top of that, Durrell says any suggestions to sell the baseball park, Ottawa Stadium, to developers are "very short-sighted."

Durrell, currently Ottawa Convention Centre board chairman and president and owner of a car dealership in Kanata, argues that the stadium debate should not be reduced to an argument about the merits of one sport versus another.

"It's not about the Canadian Football League or baseball or soccer, it's the bigger issue of building a G8 city," said Durrell, who was mayor from 1985 to '91 before resigning to become full-time president of the NHL Senators.

"There are cornerstones involved in building great cities. One is arts and culture, one is sports. Is our city going to die without a baseball stadium? Of course not. But, once you tear something down, you never get it back.

"I remember when there used to be a snow dump on the site. Because of the land swap with the National Capital Commission (the $16.9-million stadium project was part of a land exchange with the NCC, involving Colonel By Drive), we got lots of property taxes back.

"That's a strong commercial strip."

In the beginning, Triple-A baseball appeared to be a home run for the city as crowds flocked in droves to watch the International League franchise. Then, crowd support dropped off dramatically, and eventually the Lynx disappeared completely, replaced last season by the Ottawa Rapidz in the independent Can-Am league, but that franchise also struck out, in part because of ownership issues.

On Monday, the Can-Am league decided against keeping a franchise alive in Ottawa for 2009. (Another ownerless team in Atlantic City was also shut down.)

The Ottawa move prompted Orléans Councillor Bob Monette to say that the city should sell the 10,000-seat Ottawa Stadium to developers, recouping perhaps $20 million, which could help finance the re-development of Lansdowne Park. That proposal includes a renovated Frank Clair Stadium to house a CFL franchise.

Durrell doesn't think much of Monette's idea, saying "that would be a very short-sighted move by the city that is desperate for cash, and that's no way to run a city, by selling off pieces."

He believes a minor-league team will be back and the stadium can be used to support concerts and children's baseball programs.

While councillors are scheduled to receive a staff report recommending whether the city should support either the Lansdowne Park proposal, Melnyk's stadium plan -- or neither -- Durrell has a unique spin. He firmly believes both plans could be successful because of revenue resulting from tourism and property taxes.

"To me, it's not a football-versus-soccer issue," he said. "It's more about a 'what the city could have' issue. The soccer stadium proposal would be a huge success. Just look at the growth in that end (Kanata) of the city. If a private businessman wants to invest in the city, I think that's great ... but not at the expense of taking away a part of the city's history. The Lansdowne Live idea is outstanding. This is a bigger issue than about sports. It's about longer term visions of building a city."

At the same time, he recognizes the debate is a difficult one and he understands the economic issues the councillors are dealing with.

"The times are odd, unprecedented, really, since the depression. But, when you get unprecedented times that result in unchartered waters, you need reasonably strong leadership. I appreciate that the city council has a lot of challenges in front of it."

In some ways, Durrell will be considered a voice of Ottawa's past. On the topic of stadiums, however, he wants the citizens of Ottawa to think about the long-term future.


Team Leaders