The proof’s in the pudding: Columbus arena not such a success, after all

Columbus, Ohio, now there’s a prime example of how downtown revitalization works when wise investors (read: authorities claiming they act on behalf of their employers, read: taxpayers) put money that isn’t theirs into building a professional sports arena, plus an array of entertainment facilities around it.

That’s what supporters of taxpayer involvement in building a new downtown arena for the Edmonton Oilers would have us believe. They have been dismissing case studies collected from all over this continent. Case studies proving the concept just won’t work, they said, were so much old drivel.

Guess what? The Columbus dream of riches seems to be headed to the poor house even now.

Here’s what officials in that fine city managed to come up with: the Franklin County Convention Facilities Authority (read: taxpayers) would buy the arena from Nationwide Realty Investors (read: a private concern), using casino revenues. In exchange, the Blue Jackets would stay put until 2039. Here’s the financing model: the Authority would use state and other loans. It would get part of tax revenues from a casino being built in Columbus.

Meanwhile, thus a WCMH-TV report, Nationwide would invest $52 million in the Blue Jackets and take a 30 per cent interest in the team. That amount won’t even match this season’s salary cap, by the way.

Not a done deal yet, the mayor and county commissioners need to have their say.

A bit of difference, of course

In Alberta, it would be difficult to go for casino money to finance the Oilers’ new arena downtown. The Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission seems to be willing to give casino licences mostly to non-profit groups so they can finance their worthwhile activities. The AGLC must approve of these activities first, before those groups spend a cent. These groups earn their money from those who are willing to spend it, gambling. So, they don’t have to ask government for support. Relatively fair. Why relatively? Ask the significant others of those who have no issues with feeding the one-armed bandits. But that’s another story.

What caused the turmoil in Columbus? Here’s a verbatim quote from the original report: “The plan was developed amid economic concerns about the district around the arena.”

Of course, what complicates matters is we’re talking about Columbus, Ohio, not Edmonton, Alberta. That’s what we’re bound to hear from the supporters of Oilers owner’s proposition that taxpayers contribute towards building a new and gorgeous arena for his club downtown. For the record: the Blue Jackets have made the playoffs once in their 11 years of existence, and attendance at their games has been declining throughout. In all fairness, the Oilers have not been much better through the last 11 years, the one trip to the Stanley Cup finals notwithstanding, and still, their arena has been sold out throughout.

Bluntly: one set of customers discriminates, the other, not so much.

Also for the record: that same group of supporters of taxpayer support for the poor old Daryl Katz has been singing praises for the Columbus project the last few years. Columbus, they said, was a blueprint, a shining example of how to make such projects work.

And now, their dreams are shattered to smithereens.

But does all this mean putting a new arena downtown makes economic sense? No, it does not. The arena will be crowded 41 nights a season, plus four pre-season games, and who knows how many playoffs games, if any. Will THAT change the structure of downtown? No, it won’t.

If you wish a summary: it’s a risky proposition, at best.

Who knows what to do with downtown areas? Nobody

As mentioned on a number of earlier occasions, the emigration from downtown areas has become a fact of life in North America. Numerous studies have tried to figure out the reasons for the trend. Without knowing ALL of the reasons, we can hardly hope to turn the trend around. Alas, as it is, we don’t seem to know at least half of the reasons. So, how can anybody even begin to pretend they know how to slow it down, stop it, and turn it around? An old word describes them best: snake-oil salesmen.

All of this still hasn’t touched upon the immorality of suggesting taxpayers should be paying for a professional sports club’s digs. It’s a private entity if there ever was one, and one that its owner plans to keep private.

Quite a few people have invested their emotions in the Oilers’ fates. Some have gone so far as to let their emotions wreak havoc on their intellectual abilities. So far as they are concerned, there’s nothing else to live for in Edmonton than to see their beloved Oilers win (or lose) their share of games. If the new arena downtown goes ahead, with or without taxpayer support, most of the supporters won’t be able to afford single tickets, and never mind parking and – possibly – a bite to eat and a sip to drink during the game. You can bet your last dollar on that.

But, again, this is just one of the many practical angles.

The overwhelming angle is simple: as even the Columbus case has shown, no, downtown revitalization using professional sports arenas and entertainment areas just does NOT work.

Why should Edmonton’s taxpayers pay to see yet another proof, this one closer to home?

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