Arena Shenanigans

The downtown arena is still good for the city, but the behind the scenes dealings stink

Based on the rah-rah I’ve been reading in some sectors of the local media about the fabulous impact the arena will have on our town, we should all be dancing in the usually deserted streets of downtown. If the unbridled enthusiasm about this miracle building is to be believed, I think it should be named the Panacea Arena (although I suspect the name will be something more prosaic, like the Tim Hortons Arena, or perhaps Canadian Tire Place). It’ll be good for what ails us, the boosters tell us. Throw up a shiny new building for our fallen hockey gods to play in, and businesses and housing and hotels will spring up around it like dandelions in the spring.

Maybe. Maybe not.

I’m still a fan of the idea of a downtown arena. I’m in favour of anything that contributes to the overall betterment of Edmonton: the new art gallery, the proposed provincial museum, improved LRT, the new Epcor Tower, Target stores (what is taking those people?), that pretzel-like overpass at 23rd Avenue that allows me to completely bypass the monstrosity that is South Edmonton Common, etc.

As much as I am in favour of the idea of a new arena, I was shocked to pick up my morning paper last Thursday and find a deal had of been reached. It’s a deal with holes big enough to drive a Zamboni through, but it’s still a deal.

Where the hell did that come from, I wondered. Did I miss the news that council was going to be discussing the arena deal? No, I didn’t. The meeting, in which council members voted 8-5 in favour of the rough outline of a deal, was unannounced, not on anyone’s agenda or radar, and held in secret. According to Gary Lamphier’s column in the Edmonton Journal, it even caught city councillor Linda Sloan by surprise. Sloan went so far as to use the word “manipulation”, saying that councillors were “puppets” with the strings being pulled by Mayor Stephen Mandel, NHL’s Machiavellian commissioner Gary Bettman, and reclusive billionaire/Oiler owner Daryl Katz. Sloan’s language was unusually strong for civic politics (once an opposition MLA, always an opposition MLA), but hard to argue with. Nobody, it appears, was expecting a council vote, or at least it was unexpected by potential opponents. The way this whole thing went down — unannounced, late at night, behind closed doors — I suspect Mandel let a few select supporters in on the deal ahead of time. (Kudos to councillors Sloan, Don Iveson, Kerry Diotte, Ed Gibbons and Tony Caterina for showing some back bone and voting against the deal.) This is a huge decision — as big as any decision this or any other city council will have to deal with — and to have it rammed through in secret is shockingly undemocratic, and stinks of old-school, smoke-filled-room politics. Mayor Mandel, who has always displayed an impatience with the glacial pace of civic decision making, is certainly the mastermind behind these closed-door shenanigans.

So why the rush? Sloan says it was necessary to get the agreement in place before Ed Stelmach’s time as premier comes to an end. The thinking is that Stelmach will have the power (until September when his short-lived era ends) to throw in some or all of the $100 million that is missing from the $450 million cost of the building. This is remarkably cynical, and highly unlikely. Even if lame-duck Stelmach somehow found a way to give millions to the city for the arena, it would become a major issue in the PC party leadership race. I have no doubt that the leadership candidates would immediately distance themselves from any arena cash promise, and reverse any such agreement. Unless there’s something going on behind the scenes — and I wouldn’t doubt that, based on what has already happened — I can’t see the province or the feds kicking in the missing $100 million. (And speaking of one hundred million dollars, whatever happened to the Katz promise to spend $100 million on surrounding properties? Is that part of the deal? And better yet, why not tell Katz to forget about spending $100 million on whatever surrounding the arena, and put it INTO the building, raising his total to $200 million?)

So we have a late-night, closed door, unscheduled meeting where city councilors vote to commit to building an arena for a local billionaire based on a funding formula that is basically a jigsaw puzzle missing a few key pieces.

This is no way to run a city.

the end

I would be remiss if I did not mention two major cultural milestones that occurred this week — the final edition of the Oprah Winfrey show, and the final edition of SEE Magazine, which you are reading right now. Yes, they are of exactly the same importance.

This is our last edition, and I’ll leave it to our long-time columnists, Fish Griwkowsky and Scott Lingley, to weigh in with their thoughts. We’ve been lucky to have people of their quality writing for SEE. And we were lucky to have a guy like Jeff Holubitsky as our publisher. Jeff is a pro, and a great boss. He was committed to producing a quality editorial product, and I think he succeeded.

Thanks, Jeff, and thank you all for reading.



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