VANCOUVER - Let me say this about the ongoing Edmonton arena soap opera, the latest chapter of which began to unfold at city council Wednesday in the Alberta capital ...
No, let me first don the asbestos underwear, double-check to make sure my life insurance is paid up, and clear space in my email inbox.
There, all done.
Now: what if, instead of thinking of new and creative ways to raise and spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to further enrich the already wealthy drug store billionaire Daryl Katz, Edmonton took a second look at the existing arena -- the one with his company name on it -- and said: “You know, this place is still pretty good. Not the best, not what a new one would be, not as good as Toronto’s or Montreal’s or Vancouver’s, not in a great location ... but good enough.”
It’s radical thinking, I know.
Everyone is all wound up about the prospect of a shiny, brand-spanking new arena/retail complex that would breathe new life into a moribund downtown, and if that’s truly what moving out of Rexall Place would do, it’s understandable why council might buy it.
(Although MTS Centre in Winnipeg is lovely, and in a perfect location, but they tell me you can still fire a cannon down Portage Avenue lots of non-game nights without fear of hitting a human.) Not to be a total contrarian here -- I haven’t covered many games in Edmonton since the Oilers’ 2006 run to the Stanley Cup final -- but is the former Northlands Coliseum such a hellhole?
Is it totally beneath a mid-sized Canadian market?
It’s been renovated and retro-fitted, jazzed up with fancy electronic signage and concourse-level luxury boxes, a spectacular home-team dressing room complex and rink-level lounges that allow the big spenders to pat the players on the shoulders or yell insults at them as they enter and exit their boudoir.
It has aged gracefully, without anything like the wear-and-tear and general air of decay that has afflicted its Long Island doppelganger or even the much younger Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
What, exactly, tops the list of things that are wrong with it?
The artificial ice plant is “tired,” so what used to be the best ice surface in the National Hockey League is now only average? Well, replace the ice plant. Dig up the concrete. Probably not a huge-ticket item.
Rexall Place doesn’t have enough luxury boxes to produce the kind of revenue NHL owners have come to expect from their sports palaces built with someone else’s money? Gee, given what we have learned in the last decade (more specifically, the last week) about NHL owners, cry us a river.
The fairgrounds area around the arena is kind of down-market and sketchy? Northlands, the exhibition association, is still insisting on a cut of some of the revenues generated by the building it operates? The nerve of those greedy buggers.
The concourses are overcrowded and don’t allow for enough high-end food and beverage concessions? The seats aren’t comfy enough? Granted, the demographics have changed and are changing all the time -- regular folks can’t afford the prices tickets cost now -- but are Edmontonians, even wealthy ones, that demanding?
Or is this just one more gimme-gimme stampede in the making (Calgary will be next in line looking for public money), another railroad job (the planned Edmonton downtown arena is on what used to be CN Rail land) by another team owner, following a tried-and-true game plan that has served the pro sports monopolies beautifully well on this continent for generations?
Fear and envy. An owner’s best weapons.
There is a long, detailed, highly analytical story on this topic by Patrick Hruby on a site called Sports on Earth that explains the economic fallout of our North American culture of sports welfare (http://www.sportsonearth.com/article/40595178/) better than a couple hundred words in a sports column ever could. Read it and weep, Edmontonians, because one way or another, you’re the meat in the sandwich.
However the government contribution is worded, or camouflaged, it doesn’t come from the Arena Fairy. It’s tax money, and not a user tax, either. It comes out of the pockets of hockey fans and people who give not one whit about the NHL, alike.
Having been through something similar with the $563-million (as far as we know) renovation of a 27-year-old B.C. Place Stadium, for which the province offered considerably less opportunity for public consultation, it’s encouraging that at least Edmonton’s council has made this a knock-down, drag-out fight, in trying to drive something resembling a hard bargain with Katz.
But Katz’s $100-million contribution to the $475-million (and rising) project appears to be largely out of future revenues, and there remains a “missing” $100-million component to the project that is supposed to come from “other orders of government” that, to date, no other government -- i.e., provincial -- has shown any great willingness to pony up.
Wednesday, the Katz Group, if not the man himself, returned cap in hand to council, two months after the city voted to walk away from the arena deal over a request from the Oiler owner for another $210 million.
That came not long after Katz clumsily tried to frighten the city into thinking he might move the team to Seattle, or ... well, somewhere else. But Edmontonians had been there, done that, with Peter Pocklington a lifetime ago, and the implied threat backfired.
The arena deal the city had agreed upon wasn’t all one-sided. Katz would sign a 35-year lease, pay to be the rink’s operator, and back and forth the money, under various guises, would flow from one side to the other.
The catch is that the price tag reportedly will be more like $700 million, or even higher, by the time the surrounding development and bells and whistles and infrastructure are completed -- and at some point, even as well-intentioned as the mayor and councillors may be, it seems they are going to sign a deal that inevitably will add a considerable tax burden to the populace, and probably result in some really valuable programs and services being trimmed, in return for ... what?
A better self-image, a sense of big-leagueness, a more vibrant feel to at least a few blocks surrounding the arena, on game nights? Sure. Like Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal. Better than losing the team.
Fear and envy. Quell one, satisfy the other.
Jettison an old arena, build a new one on credit. It’s a disposable world. Someone will pay. Someone always does.
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